I have started and deleted this blog post several times now. As it stands now, I only hope that I can adequately convey what I am currently feeling, and how my horse relates to it all. Life. Death. Loss. Finding yourself again.
I have been asked in the past why Soon and I are only in our first season of competition, when I have owned him now for four years. I shrug or laugh it off, and say that showing simply was not a priority. It did not matter to me at the time. Also, the thought of getting up at 0400 regularly and doing all the work involved with showing (because I cannot afford help, so you know I would be doing it all myself) made me tired just thinking of it.
Truthfully, showing has not mattered. I took a two-year break from horses when I gave up my professional riding career. When I finally came back, and later decided to buy a new horse, showing was relegated to something I might do, maybe. I was simply still burned out it. There was no desire, no drive. I love learning and training; I designed my horse’s training program as if he were showing, but the competitive fire had gone out.
Sometimes I feel guilty about this. Especially lately, with all the training we have done this summer with so many truly legendary horsemen. Soon and I have made so much progress that I often sit there and wonder how much further along we would be if I had put that kind of time, effort, and investment into training all along. That competitive fire started to smolder again, and that absurd competitor’s guilt set in, where I wonder if I was holding my horse back.
…Which is ridiculous, because the only thing my horse cares about being held back from is his dinner.
But recent events put things back in perspective. It is October 5. A few days after the mass shooting in Las Vegas. As of right now, the death toll stands at 59, with 520+ injured.
I remember that there are more important things than showing. More important things than progress, and training, and what division you show in, or what height you jump. I know this, because for six months of my life in 2015, I dealt in death every day. Death was my job.
I deployed in January 2015 to the Port Mortuary at Dover Air Force Base, Del., to serve as Summary Court Martial Officer embedded with the Army’s Joint Personnel Effects Depot. There, I processed the personal effects of our fallen service members and returned them to their families. I inventoried every piece of their belongings (right down to the bubble gum wrappers), read every shred of paper, studied every photo and letter. Mostly it was boxes full of clothing and video games…occasionally, it was suicide notes, or blood-soaked gear/clothing you knew they were wearing when they died. You just never knew what you were going to find until that initial inventory.
I was charged with accounting for all personal effects, and knowing the deceased in order not to cause additional harm to the family. I hated to be bored, but in that business…. you do not want to be busy. Because every day that you were busy, a family was going through the worst days of their lives. In some cases, after studying the service member’s personal effects, I knew them more intimately than their immediate family. They were not names or case numbers to me—I had to understand who they were. Understand what was important to them. Know what was meaningful to the family. It was the job.
When I received orders to Dover, I had originally intended on leaving Soon in Maryland, and would travel home to ride on the weekends. I did not want to have to move him more than absolutely necessary, and we had just moved from Nebraska to Maryland five months before. That plan lasted exactly three weeks before I gave in and found a farm in Delaware, just 30 minutes from Dover. My boy was getting “deployed.”
…In case you were wondering: yes, there were cavalry jokes. Because Army.
Shortly after Soon arrived, we were back in our faux showing training schedule (again, I had no intention on showing at the time). Four days on, with a rotation of hacking the property, ground pole days, dressage school days, and the occasional jump school, and one day off. Rinse and repeat.
I needed this routine as much as he did, if not more. It gave me an excuse to get off the base. It was my escape. My center. I was not Captain Colburn when I was with Soon, I was me. I could focus on him for a couple of hours, while the world outside seemed to completely disappear. He was my getaway, my wings.
The military takes resiliency very seriously, and yes, there was every resource available to me to help me (and my colleagues) cope with our duties. That said, nothing was more effective for me than my time with Soon. He was always there and always cheerful, whether we were jumping or doing something a little less exciting. Sometimes it was just impossible to feel motivated to train at the end of the day. On some tougher days I would ditch whatever training plan I had laid out, and just went hacking. There was a lot of hacking. So many ear pictures.
One particularly bad day came after we received helicopter crash victims, and I had to assist with inventory of the personal effects and gear the deceased were wearing at the time of the crash. The smell of sea water and decay is a unique combination that you never really forget. Gear was shredded, dummy rifles made of steel rebar were twisted like pretzels. Seeing the flight helmets crushed like Styrofoam cups gave a shocking illustration of the violence of the crash. Your stomach turned when you realized that human beings were wearing those helmets.
That night, I drove to the barn and rather than tacking Soon up, I just stood in his stall and cried into his neck.
The point of all this is: sometimes riding, training, progress… none of that really matters. Sometimes what really matters is that you go to the barn, spend time with your horse, and forget, even if just for an hour or two. Sometimes it is OK to not feel motivated. Sometimes it is more important just to feel.
Sometimes, it is just about finding peace.
At the end of my time at Dover, I broke down in my room and cried uncontrollably. But when it was all said and done, I would leap at the chance to do it again. It was the single most important thing I have ever done in my Air Force career.
Even after I left to return to my home station, I carried those individuals with me. I could not bury them. I could not let them go. I saw their names, their faces, their handwritten letters, the photos of their families, the suicide letters, the blood-stained gear that shipped in from theater… I carried that with me for a year or more. It was not until a trip to Arlington National Cemetery in 2016 that I finally got to bury those I had been carrying with me for so long.
Soonie carried me through a lot tough times during those six months. He was there for me in every way possible. We had many a fun gallop session in the field, lots of trail riding adventures, and jump schools. We spent many sunsets hanging out in the field together. We found a warm, welcoming barn family that I am still close with today. I am forever grateful for their support and their care for Soon.
I am unbelievably thankful that I was fortunate enough to have Soon with me in that adventure. Having him there with me meant everything, and he was the single reason why I handled it with any degree of success. I can never thank him enough for that. And that is why, when I am feeling like I am letting him down now as a show horse, I look back on our time at Dover and smile. Because I realize that there is nothing more important than just having him in my life.
As strong as you were, tender you go
I’m watching you breathing for the last time
A song for your heart, but when it is quiet
I know what it means and I’ll carry you home
I’ll carry you home…
(James Blunt, “Carry You Home”)
Lindsey Colburn is an active duty Air Force officer and grew up riding in the hunter and equitation divisions in the northeast during her junior years. Following college, she rode and trained fox hunters professionally in Middleburg, Va., prior to joining the military. Lindsey bought her Thoroughbred gelding, Soon, off the track in 2013, and has spent the last four years training him herself. Currently, the pair is competing in the jumper ring while balancing an active duty military career and obligations. Read all of Lindsey’s COTH blogs.