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October 17, 2013

Giving Back Is Easier Than You Think

Winning the Grooms' Class meant even more because I was doing it for a larger cause. Photo courtesy of ProEquineGrooms.com

Ever since attending the USDF/USEF Young Rider Graduate Program, I have been intrigued by the advice given to be prepared to “give back." We've been told that your sponsors will want to know, your supporters will want to know, your fans will want to know—how do you “Give Back?” What does that even mean?

What I was encouraged to figure out was that if you expect others to support you in your “paying dues,” how will you support the industry and “pay it forward?” If someone else is handing you the ticket you need, who is receiving their necessary ticket from you?

It’s a pretty loaded question. Until you’ve got a name for yourself, a business, or have the support or well being to pay for everything to do with your own horse(s), it seems you’re always giving away whatever you can in an attempt to gain what you want. Working students frequently pledge out hours, days, weeks, years of their life in exchange for their education to start at the bottom and build themselves up as developing professionals.

But stair-climbing your way to equine stardom is a lot more hard work than talent—how and where are we supposed to find the time to Give Back to the community? When your hours are spent grooming, mucking, training—definitely NOT sleeping, laying on the beach, or shopping—it’s a heavy load of pressure to also add community service, additional unpaid hours, and additional time spent perfecting your personal and business skills, to the list of things the industry expects of you to be Great.

What I’ve recently found, however, is that it’s WAY easier than you think.

I recently was invited by Liv Gude, founder of ProEquineGrooms, to participate in the inaugural dressage grooms’ class held at the Del Mar Invitational (Calif.) on Sept. 13-15. My resounding answer was HELL YES. Then I started reeling, backpedaling, and second-guessing when I began to calculate what it would take to be able to participate.

Traveling from Moorpark to Del Mar meant a three or four-hour drive. Couple that with the class being on a Friday meant a rearranged day off (always sacred), plus added work for the rest of my colleagues who have to get through the same amount of work at home with one less person in a day. Not an easy thing to ask for.

Thank God I work with an amazing team of saints and have wonderful bosses who not only agreed, but supported my endeavors by offering up a spiffy horse, and the farm’s truck and trailer (and fuel!) for my little field trip. Thank you, Team Acres.

Still, I faltered. Is this really worth it? Even if I win, the prize money doesn’t even cover the diesel to get down and back! Then my head swarmed with the horrific scenes of my nightmares… crooked braids, missing bridle keepers, green foam on white breeches, stray pieces of shavings in an otherwise impeccable tail… Things That Haunt Grooms.

Rest assured, I was convinced I’d be plagued with such horrors even if we decided to go. In that case, maybe not so worth it…

Except then I realized that this couldn’t just be about me. Sure, people go to shows to win classes all the time, but it just didn’t feel right. The bright idea hit me in the middle of an ordinary day while I was hand walking a horse. Inspiration really hits you where you least expect it.

Suddenly all those lectures I’d sat through began to resonate. From my USDF Convention scholarship to the Young Rider Graduate Program —every conference, clinic, piece of advice, and word of wisdom fit into place. Like a glitter-winged angel landing on my shoulder, it occurred to me that this was my chance to Give Back.

Rewind a few weeks to a very busy, blustery day at the barn. The weather was hot, the schedule was full, and the barn was boisterous. In the middle of some big projects, turning out horses for lessons, and various other appointments to distract my attention in a dozen directions, we played host to a group of riding students from Ride On Therapeutic Horsemanship for a tour of our facility and a meet and greet with my boss, Jan Ebeling.

To this day, I’ve never met more gracious, humble people. Add to that their general love for all things horses, and my day was made from the moment they walked past the first horse’s stall with an outstretched treat. These students held the horse in the highest regard, always stroking their noses with such delicateness, as if conveying to the horses how precious they are.

How many times had I interacted with that particular horse, but not ever been so captivated, so overcome with joy to just be in the barn touching a horse that I was smiling without hesitation?

After a tour, a quick discussion with Jan, and a brief glimpse of a few of our horses in their daily lessons, all of the students piled in front of Rafalca’s stall. She stretched her neck out to scope out which pockets still held a loose piece of sugar. It was a humbling moment to be among these wonderful people who had more to teach me about the love of the horse than I even knew was possible. I was in a barn, holding a horse, and I was happy—suddenly, that was enough. You really do have to take the time to enjoy the small things!

So, flash forward to when my epiphany slammed into my subconscious to make this Grooms Class my way to Give Back, it was without hesitation that I determined my proceeds would go to Ride On.

My next step was now to win.

I think I was more prepared for this trip to Del Mar than I was for any of the shows we went to this season (shh, don’t tell my bosses!). My nerves far surpassed anything I’d experienced grooming in London for the Olympics.

I didn’t eat for the entire day and a half before we left. I bathed my horse three times. I repacked my trunk to go to the show, gave up, and put everything I’d never need in it anyway. I organized the truck and the trailer, and when the truck got stuck in the shop, I reorganized and fell more to the mercy of the Horse Show Gods.

The stars aligned to find an alternative truck, thanks to our friends-in-low-places at Brown Transportation. When disaster struck again (THE MORNING OF OUR DEPARTURE) and we discovered right before loading the horse that the trailer and truck weren’t compatible electrically, they helped us out again by reprogramming our converter!

We were now an hour and a half late getting on the road, the hours until class time were running slim, and the thought of the still-to-be-cleaned tack in the trunk was burning a hole in the accelerator on our borrowed truck. Finally, we were on the road—and I thought I’d prepared so well for this endeavor! The entire trip, I thought so hard about everything I might have forgotten, I don’t think I realized how fast I was going until we were exiting the freeway!

Thanks to Liv Gude (right) for the fun Grooms' Class!
Photo courtesy of ProEquineGrooms.com

When I finally led my horse to the in-gate of the arena, I was glad I hadn’t eaten in a few days. I had to sloppily change the wraps at the last minute because of manure that made its way down my sparkling white polos, I didn’t have enough hands to hold my scrim sheet and my grooming bucket and my horse, and taking a look at the competition made it all very, very real. But there I was, at a show, in a class all my own, as prepared as I could possibly be in that moment—that’s a cool feeling!

I turned my attention to dusting miniscule flecks off my horse’s neck, diverting the green slime threatening to drip on my khakis, and trying to remember all the creative items I stuck in my backpack in case there was a quiz. As the judges went down the line of 10 horses for inspection, I kept wondering if being last would be an advantage or a disadvantage? Was my horse’s tail perfectly trimmed? Will they know that I didn’t comb my hair well enough? Should I have applied another coat of hoof polish?

I’ll never know the answers, but I can tell you that the joy I felt when they announced me as the winner reminded me of the moment I witnessed when Rafalca offered her nose to a student’s yearning hand, and it produced a vivid, unhindered smile from that little boy. I didn’t even mind being smattered with green slime as I was feeding my horse the dozen sugar cubes tucked into my pocket. We loaded the trailer and headed for home, our spit-shined steed on board.

While I felt exceptionally prepared for that class, what I was totally unprepared for, however, was the support I received. With only a month since the conception of my idea to the time that I was hauling my boss and I to Del Mar, I found friends and clients who pledged funds, had tons of people sharing my campaign, and received amazing response from those near and far who wanted to offer their support. A week later when I attended the Ride On Annual Fundraiser, I was stoked to present them with a check for $1,400! I can’t wait to see what next year brings!

Giving back is so much easier than you think. What I didn’t know is that it’s more important than you think. If you’ve ever felt burnt out, it’s most likely because of the sentiment that you’ve worked too many hours for not enough ___ [pay, lessons, training, days off, reward, etc.,] but what happens when you work a dozen hours without expecting anything from the beginning? I can tell you I worked harder than ever, gave at least a dozen hours and sharpened my expertise, all for the ultimate benefit of someone else and it was an experience I’ll never forget.

While no one asked me that day what was in my backpack (maybe next time!) I have the answer for a different question that was asked to me years ago: How will you Give Back?

The Chronicle's blogger, Lauren Keeton, is Jan Ebeling's head groom at The Acres in Moorpark, Calif. Read all about her in her introductory blog "Be Olympic Every Day"; she also appears in a story "A Good Groom Is A Horse's Home Base" in the Sept. 9 Horse Care issue of the Chronicle

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