Hi, hello, welcome back my friends! It's been a while since I've set aside quiet time to write a blog post. Five months if you're counting. You could concur my life has been a tad chaotic lately between moving, planning a wedding, my work, launching The Equestrian's Table, projects with The Blonde & The Bay, and the biggest of all aspects, managing Leah's new chapter as she enters semi-retirement life. Truth be told, I really haven't known what to say here after dropping the retirement bomb last October. I've encountered more obstacles, struggles, uncharted emotional territory combined with learning lessons then I ever dreamt possible since making our decision.
There's a slight chance I've sprouted a few grey hairs, too.
Today's post does not negate any transparency I've offered on Instagram about this adventure with L. I think it's safe to note that we have shared almost every single intimate detail of our move through extensive, descriptive captions. However, Instagram does abide by a character count per post. Sometimes, there just isn't enough space to fully communicate my raw emotions.
That's why I blog.
I'm going to dive right into my thoughts. Leah's semi-retirement has thrown many curveballs my direction. I was definitely nowhere near mentally equip to balance not only her emotions and anxieties, but my newfound (surprising) feelings of emptiness, failure, disappointment and frustration. I took Leah's overall docile, calm spirited nature for granted completely blind to the fact that I had just flipped her routine - and world - upside-down. Together, our transition has been every bit of an adjustment, but even then, that's putting things lightly. Retiring your competition horse when a strict training regime has been the foundation of their life is freaking hard. I am not here to sugarcoat nor to inflate our experiences so they appear glamorous or stress free. I'm here to tell you the truth, always.
December was trying on all accounts. Leah's insecurities manifested themselves through fear in the most basic, unassuming forms. In the beginning, she embraced her paddock whilst staying a bit leery of the back corners plus her newly installed run-in shed. Slowly, behavioral changes creeped through her confidence. Leah's security blanket came in the shape of the corner by the entrance to her paddock. She refused to wander away from this spot other than for a drink of water or to eat her breakfast and dinner. The stall virtually sat untouched; dragons lived in the brush behind her paddock or so she was mindfully convinced. Groundwork matured into our daily focus, paying special attention to areas in which she felt most uneasy. We didn't ride much during the month of December - mostly because I'm a firm advocate that saddle time comes last when striving to strengthen your relationship with your horse. Given the state of her mentality, our riding fell by the wayside and transformed into the least of our concerns.
It wouldn't have been fair to ask otherwise.
Come the end of December, Leah's general consensus of ranch living outlined a mediocre picture. Any and everything gave her a fright, she refused to enter her stall without me or Barrett by her side, and she wouldn't retreat from the stupid corner. Some days were more relaxed than others, but her lack in security outweighed the good. Groundwork wasn't easing tensions like I had hoped, either. I practiced my empathy but self-motivational speeches only last so long before total grievance and confusion consumes you from the inside out. When she noticed the neighbor's cattle for the first time...? Her switch flipped.
Leah's first encounter with the cows went about as well as most of you predicted, and by well, I mean horrendous. Gawking turned into passaging (where was this passage in the arena during our training days ???), prancing turned into pacing, and pacing turned into weaving so severely that she completely tore up the ground around the entrance of her paddock... to the point where she uncovered roots located deep within the soil. Foaming sweat gathered around her chest, and I watched in an anxiety induced horror as my heart horse allowed fear to engulf her ability to rationalize. I hadn't ever dealt with a situation of this nature, meaning I was not afraid to ask for guidance. Thank God for Barrett - he immediately swooped in, putting Leah's attention on simple maneuvers he asked from the ground. Nearly two hours later, he was able to help activate her coping skills. She eventually settled.
"What the hell did I get myself into...?" was the only thought bouncing inside my brain.
Something had to change, and my gut awareness told me that L's paddock on the end just wasn't the right fit in combination with her diet. I convinced Barrett that moving her to the middle would solve a handful of issues based upon my own assumptions like "maybe she'll feel safer with the boys on either side." I could have been blatantly incorrect but the switch was worth a shot. Sure enough, my motherly intuition did not steer me awry! After we installed hot-fencing along Blue and Smoke's adjoining fence to mitigate any issues with kicking or fighting - since kicking is Leah's habit of choice AND she essentially destroyed her neighboring fence with Tecate - Barrett and I swapped Tecate and Leah's residence. Instant success. I noticed an immediate alteration in her attitude, she navigated the entire paddock without any hesitation and happily entered her stall without any coaxing. Her breakfast and dinner menu quickly followed. I weened her off performance calories and onto senior feed, cutting her alfalfa consumption in half while boosting coastal hay. My decision to wait when making any adjustments to her diet stemmed from not wanting to introduce too many new factors all at once.
Trading places and switching grain was the judgement call I could not have been happier to make. This brought much needed peace to our valley. F I N A L L Y, Leah is content as a clam inside her paddock, and I'm eternally grateful she deems her stall as a safe zone now that the boys are easily visible. Prior to our move, L preferred the solidarity of her corner stall without a neighbor at the barn. Now, she yearns for company on either side... Yet another loop she's tossed into my lap, but hey, at least we found a solution that works best for her overall comfortability.
I have since added an Equi-Essential Slow Feed Hay Ball into her daily happenings. This might sound a little comical, but I never thought a simple invention would take a weight off my shoulders. Instead of turning her focal point to our neighbor's cattle, she now enjoys the challenge the hay ball provides. It keeps her mind stimulated solving the boredom woes with its near magical powers. Plus, she'll stand at the hay ball anywhere from two to three hours at a time! The addition of her new favorite thing has been a game changer for semi-retirement life. If you're interested in owning a slow feed hay ball for your own horse, check out Riding Warehouse (@ridingwarehouse)! I cannot say enough wonderful sentiments about this company. Check out my post on Instagram where I answer some frequently asked questions regarding the toy.
With Leah's basic ranch survival smoothed over - minus the one slight mishap when she kicked the middle gate so hard, it broke both clasps, cut her left leg open, introduced group turnout with Blue and Smoke, AND resulted in a week off of work with daily cold-hosing... remember? - I've turned my sights onto creating a more systematic riding schedule. Err, I've tried nonetheless. Riding is another facet that has triggered countless spontaneous breakdowns in the form of discouragement fueled tears. Sure, I expected some typical spookiness at the deer and more namely, the cows. She is a horse, and every horse has a spook. What I didn't forecast was her inability to justify simple ranch-hold items such as hoses, flags, hose storage boxes, the pool, picnic tables, people walking through leaves or the sound of said leaves hitting the metal roof. I have lost count how many sessions we've devoted to desensitizing the "scary corner" of our makeshift arena both under saddle, on the lunge-line, or with Blue nearby as a confidence boost. Each workout proving that "one step forward, 20 steps back" is a very relevant statement.
Our entire property is sugar sand, meaning the footing is deep and soft. Sugar sand provides little to no support for much more than just a walk. Not wanting to risk potential injury, we decided to stick to a twenty meter circle located on one end of our "arena." It's been nice for lunging and bopping over cavaletti at a rhythmic trot, but just a few days ago, I couldn't maneuver Leah around the circle without major, unsettling spooks and unwillingness to move forward off my leg. It was my switch's turn to flip. Sobbing uncontrollably, I allowed my anger to overrule my reasoning, and I lost my temper with Leah. This isn't something I'm proud to share, but it's real and happens to everyone. Plain and simple. Once again, Barrett intervened. Lately, we've relied heavily on his neutral presence to coach us off a ledge under saddle. We are beyond thankful to have him in our corner, and Leah responds well to his laid back state of mind - which apparently is an enigma to me, ha.
I was able to remount, and we did finish our ride on a good note. However, I have drawn the conclusion that wrestling with the demons adjacent to the arena are simply not worth the headache anymore. Leah and I have nothing left to prove at this point in our partnership. If riding elsewhere on the ranch makes her feel more protected, then we'll carry out the necessary adjustments. After this specific ride, my mental health was in desperate need of a positive experience.
A horse mama's instinct continues to justify my gut perceptions. Just the other evening, Barrett and I chose a quiet spot on the ranch to put our theory to the test. I prayed, I hoped, I wished for one ride that ended in smiles versus anguish. We meandered to a small valley just past the deer feeder that served as the perfect location for a little walk/trot exercise. Sure enough, I felt as if I had my horse back. Her body felt loose and her mind seemed clear. We trotted around Barrett and Blue in a stretchy state of mind accompanied by lots of good-girl pats. My world felt more at ease, our plan proved to be a welcome success. Riding in this change of scenery will now dictate our trajectory when balancing a semi-retirement "training" program. I've struggled to create an agenda that suits L's newly established needs, but like everything in life, this too shall fall into place. Settling on exercise three to four times a week seems to be moving in our favor as it's been my objective to keep Leah properly conditioned since the beginning of our new endeavors. I am now more motivated to continue light training.
Subconscious expectations were bound into place prior to the kickstart of our semi-retirement journey. That's on me, I own this mistake. I held Leah to a particular standard because she's a seasoned FEI competition horse. Nothing should ruffle her feathers at home because we rarely dealt with shenanigans during show weekends or in-barn training. Wrong, so wrong. There were many moments I forgot to remember that everything, everything was entirely new to her universe. I believed the changeover in her career would be seamless on both of our spectrums... That we'd be cantering alongside the creek in no time, or galavanting bareback around the ranch.
I'm not looking for your sympathy, but someone's got to talk about the very raw side of stepping away from a huge chunk of your life. Retiring your heart horse from competition is mentally, emotionally, and sometimes physically exhausting. No one could have prepared me for the rollercoaster Leah and I have buckled into together. I have experienced pits of emptiness and epic portions of failure; I have played the social media comparison game in thinking that I'm now insignificant because my young horse isn't standing in a paddock next-door to Leah. Inquiring minds are always a part of social media. I knew people would question my future plans and goals, but I didn't know in what capacity their curiosity extended or how it would impact my mental health. I have tried my hardest to answer every question with grace despite my emotions behind the scenes. I've welcomed fear back into my vernacular feeling more spiritually disconnected from Leah than all our years combined. Creating goals and working towards achieving them has been the centerfold of my riding career since age three. Sorting through the notion that I'm not currently training to reach definitive milestones has left me feeling unproductive and unworthy many times over. I've wondered countless times when my next centerline will come, even though the break from showing is a needed sabbatical. The going rate of sale horses within the USA is comparable to adding salt into an open wound; discouraging on so many levels. My family and my fiancé have sometimes been on the receiving end of my lows of which they do not deserve. Stress, anxiety, worry and doubt made me awfully resentful of what truly is a blessing before my nose.
And you know what? That's exactly what my new level of relationship with Leah is: a blessing. Our mentality as equestrians carries considerable influence over our perspective. Allowing myself to downward spiral was an exercise in futility. Yeah, not training daily has been a bit of a modification for my personality but I've swung my once negative attitude into finding the positives such as setting targets like keeping my core engaged while sitting the trot or seeking the cadence in our gait to gait transitions. Oh, and the minor detail that I am able to kiss Leah on the nose whenever I please from the comforts of my own home. I will never take this part of our relationship for granted again. With the encouragement of my friends, family, trainers, and all of our Instagram supporters, I now realize that caring for a semi-retired citizen is just as creditable alongside those who are actively showing on the A-circuit. Giving Leah the opportunity to fully enjoy her golden years is one of the most rewarding facets of horse ownership... Who knows where she would be if it weren't for me or my family.
I don't have to know all the answers, and neither do you should you find yourself in a similar scenario. Semi-retirement is a day by day, trial by error process that cannot be rushed regardless how hard we try to force the situation. I have no inkling as to what my future with horses entails - I know that I want to continue pursuing dressage, ride a Grand Prix, earn my USDF Gold Medal, take up cutting and swing a rope with Barrett. I don't have a set timeline for any of these goals because that would establish unnecessary pressures. I want to build my career even grander, do big things with The Blonde & The Bay, and create a healthy marriage with my soon-to-be husband. Leah's condition and happiness is always at the forefront of my daily life; she carries enough energy in that my hands are full! Coming-nineteen going on nine.
Here's what I'm trying to say: patience plays a ginormous role when making moves in your riding career. Whether you're moving up a dressage level or height of jump, studying the ways of a new horse OR deciding to pull your current mount from competition. Rome wasn't built in a day, as cliche as that might sound, it's true. The slower you go, the faster you get there. Don't be like me and lose sight of this sentiment when going through a big change. You will cry, you will mourn, you will feel helpless, anxious, upset, resentful, angry, annoyed, frustrated... But in the same breath, you will feel fulfilled during the little moments, like seeing your horse rest happily in her run-in shed or having a breakthrough ride without mare-interpretative-dance moves. Those little moments will build into bigger successes. We will always struggle with various areas of equestrianism, that's life. But, I can confidently say that things will improve and you'll look back only to reminisce like "remember when she wouldn't think about exploring the back end of her paddock? Look at her now."
Happy, healthy, strong, fit, comfortable, content, and mildly accepting of the cows. Look at you now, Leah.