“You look cute in that,” the person I love said when he first saw me in barn clothes.

There was hay in my hair. The ratty t-shirt and jeans I wore to feed and clean stalls probably had mud, poop, and horse slobber on them. At that point in my life, I was always covered in mud and poop and horse slobber. He thought it was hot that I could drive the bobcat, and he didn’t mind the calluses on my palms.

Since then, my person and I have had lots of messy ups and downs as we tried to figure out what it meant to be healthy adults. Through it all, he knew horses were part of what kept me whole.

While leasing a horse one winter, I called him in tears. I think it was about money because, as a broke millennial, it’s usually about money. His voice came through the phone cool and calm, “Go ride your horse, Gretchen. Worry about it later.”

He and I have a running joke where I will describe what I learned in my dressage lesson to help him fall asleep. Lately, he has listened to me prattle on about the status of my new mare. He is not a horse person but understands that joy translates across passions. I am lucky.

There is a fable among equestrians of the jealous significant other. The one who turns to you and says, “pick me or the horse.” Deep in their envy, this person doesn’t like the money spent or the time put in. They don’t like the smell or the mess. They don’t understand how you could love something other than them, especially something so big, smelly, and oddly fragile.

No matter how cringy, whispers of the lover who is weirdly jealous of their partner’s horse have floated in the rafters of every barn I have ever been in. I once dated someone who often told me that I “need to pursue something more practical.” I often wonder if horses would be an important part of my life if he were still in it. Would I have stood my ground or made myself small and fit into his life? He wasn’t a bad guy, but I am glad he left when he did.

It’s true that you can’t choose who you fall in love with. If we could, we would make fewer bad attachments (you’d hope, anyway). The heart with its valves and ventricles is a mysterious thing.

Relationships with horse people are also tangled by the reality that horses are expensive and that financial independence for both spouses has only been accessible in the last few decades. With the cost of healthcare, housing, and childcare continuing to rise, it is understandable that sometimes our horse lives have to be put aside because things fall apart, and priorities get moved around.

Another facet is that the horse world is still pretty conservative. Not having a spouse or, at the very least, a partner is often taboo. There’s an underlying sense of “No partner? What’s wrong with them?”

Still, I’ll offer my unsolicited advice: If your person says, “it’s me or the horse,” pick the horse.

Because picking the horse is picking yourself. It’s picking your happiness. Your wholeness.

Pick the horse does not mean abandoning all responsibility and then maxing out a credit card at the nearest tack shop. It doesn’t mean that those we love are obligated to help us with barn chores, hold our horses at the show or help pay for a hobby that isn’t theirs. No, “pick the horse” means to consider the person who is giving you this rather toxic ultimatum. If that person doesn’t take you for who you are, helmet hair and all, the horse is merely a symptom of their discontent.

We all deserve to be loved for who we are and to pursue the things that make us happy—horses included. Despite what our fear may tell us, many people will happily put up with your horse life. They may even enjoy it.

Ratty t-shirts and all.