Life

Riding High, Crashing Hard

Surfing the waves of life with horses

A month ago I wrote about my struggle setting goals, and how for the first time in a long time I was forcing myself to. I was riding the peak of a high, having taken both my “seasoned veteran” and “hard-ass youngin” to a local jumper show. The seasoned veteran proven to me why he has been my go-to man for the past four years, and the hard-ass finally stepped up to the plate to demonstrate the progress that is so immeasurable on most days.

I left the show thinking good thoughts. This was my time. I would finally have MY year.

Visions of galloping fences, half passes and rosettes filled my head. Crossing through the finish flags with a smile plastered on my face and a fist pump in the air. Beers drank at the trailer in celebration, and vetrolin baths in the warm summer Kentucky air. After two extremely frustrating years full of injuries, empty bank accounts and failures, it felt like it was finally my time. My hard work and dedication might finally pay off.

And with that, I set my goals. For Mak, the veteran, it was simple: get more mileage at training level. If all went well I hoped to end the summer with a preliminary combined test. If all went exceedingly well, maybe even an event at preliminary level in late fall or early spring.

Mak rocking and rolling. Photo by Claire Seals.

For hard-ass Nixon, I finally felt as though we were on the correct path. He had cantered around the jumper show at 2’6 with a calm, steady pace. He was finally brave without being brazen, and I wanted nothing more than to finally move back up to beginner novice at a recognized event. My goal was to finally canter a cross country course, as his M.O. was always to run off, and trotting had become our safety net.

Nixon finally stepping up. Photo by Claire Seals.

After this show I finally felt as though both of these things were possible…

And then, in true equestrian fashion, it all came crumbling down.

I hit “post” on that blog, ran to the barn with a smile on my face and loaded two of my horses up for a hack with friends. We ventured into the freezing tundra for a walk hack, covered from head to toe and shivering the entire way. There’s no time to be a fair weather rider when you have goals to accomplish, and thus, off we went.

Hacking with Leah. Why, oh why, do we ride when it’s this cold?

And after a truly frigid ride we loaded Nixon and Kennedy back onto the trailer for the measly four mile journey home. We we got home and began to unload, I found the pin to the butt bar on my 2 horse straight load severely bent, prohibiting Nixon from exiting. In an attempt to release him from his entrapment the following ten minutes became some of the scariest of my life.

I won’t go into the gory details, or the calmness that came over me as I stood trapped between my 17.1hh horse and the metal wall, because none of that matters. What matters is that Nixon effectively kicked the butt bar clean of the welding that attached it to the wall to release himself, destroying both the trailer and his second metatarsal (hind splint bone).

And with that, my goals were destroyed as well.

The following few days were encompassed by waves of emotions. At the height of the wave was the farm manager resting deep within my soul. The inner-farm manager went through the motions of emergency triage—sedation and banamine were administered, bandages were applied, and veterinarians called. Radiographs were taken and rehabilitation strategies set. As a farm manager, I knew this horse was in no better hands and that it would do nobody any good to sink into a severe depression, or worse—panic.

I had dealt with worse. I knew as a farm manager this was just a bump on an otherwise long road, and I knew how quickly 2-3 months could pass. I had done it before and I could (and would) do it again. But those horses in previous years were not my own and it’s easy to deal with someone else’s crushed dreams while attending to their horse’s fractures and tears.

And as the horse owner, or the equestrian, the low of the wave hits hard. When it is your own dreams that are crashing, and your own goals smashed alongside the frail bones of your horses leg, the pain is exponentially worse. You question every decision you’ve ever made and panic over any outcome predicted. I watched myself go through the paces of good horsemanship as the farm manager…only to crash as I climbed into my truck and dissolved into tears as horse owner.

After two weeks of rehab, and two weeks of the emotional rollercoaster, I have learned a few things. These things have kept me going during this path, and will continue to motivate me as I journey through this winding path through the next 6-8 weeks.

As I continue to repeat them to myself, I’ve begun to realize just how applicable they are to not only my horses, but in life in general.

You cannot control the actions of others, but you can control your reaction to them.
I could not have prevented Nixon from fracturing his leg, but I could control how I handled it…and I knew I handled it well. I stayed calm, assessed the injury and I went through the motions. I had to find reassurance in knowing that he was in no better hands at that specific moment, and that the veterinarians agreed. In that, I found comfort.

Years of emergency situations managing hundreds of horses had prepared me for this moment. In retrospect, I might no longer be a commercial farm manager, but those years prepared me for this exact moment. I find comfort in knowing my horses exist within the level of care I have garnered through my past.

Nixon on his Theraplate during rehabilitation.

You might be devastated and at a low point, but it could always be lower.

I whisper this to myself each time I pull Nixon from his stall for a hand graze. Sure, he fractured a bone and effectively halted our spring (and possibly summer) season, but he is alive. The outcome of the situation could have been devastatingly worse had it not been handled calmly and effectively, and I could be walking to an empty stall instead of a stall with a happy, albeit stoned (yay, reserpine!) face.

My life has taught me just how low low can get, and this is not my lowest. Yes, my horse is broken. Yes, my plans are shot. But we are, in all terms of relativity, OK.

The goals you set might not be accomplished in the timeframe desired, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t set them.

I saw the cruel irony in the fact my horse injured himself right as I finally stepped up to the goal setting mound, with a massive swing and a miss. But that doesn’t mean I should hide behind my fear of failure for the rest of my life. I have learned in my 30 years of life that this crazy world known as horse ownership is full of these setbacks, both major and minor.

We have all showed up to the barn to find our horse 3-legged with an abscess; a pulled shoe the day of the show; a lacerated hock the day before a lesson. I have heard devastating stories of horses getting loose while grazing at Rolex and slipping on pavement, or breaking from their stalls at Pony Finals to eat an entire bin of grain.

Life, specifically the life of a horse owner, is not an uphill battle. It is not linear. It is peaks and valleys. It is a wave. It is knowing when to surf that high, even while acknowledging the crash that may follow. And the battle is not in how high you can get up that brink; it’s about finding your surfboard and how hard you paddle back out to try again.

I am there. I am stranded on the beach watching my fellow surfers peaking over the massive waves of their own highs. I am currently searching for my surfboard. It definitely got a chunk taken out on the coral, and I might be a little battered and bruised, but I’m ready to paddle back out.

I am ready to pick myself, and my horse back up, and I am ready to set those goals again. We will be back. We are at an all time low but I can see the highs ahead. Surf on.


About the Author

Carleigh Fedorka is a Ph.D. student at the University of Kentucky’s Gluck Equine Research Center. A Pennsylvania native, she moved to Kentucky after graduating from St. Lawrence University and has worked closely in all aspects of the thoroughbred industry. She spends her free time eventing as well as training, selling and rehoming OTTBs. Read more about her horse life at her blog, A Yankee in Paris.

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