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December 19, 2013

Living The Glamourous Horse Life

Trying to balance parenting and life as a professional trainer means finding a playground anywhere.

As I lowered myself into the barn dumpster, a recent blog about how glamorous the horse world looks to outsiders crossed my mind.

Then my business partner Elizabeth shrieked, “FISH HEADS!” A vision flashed in my mind of the property manager heading toward one of the ponds with a fishing pole a few days earlier. Then I felt a decaying carcass squish underneath my turquoise rubber Hunter Boot. I suspect Hunters are more geared to "outsiders" than working horsewomen. I have to replace mine almost every year. They look darling, even in the dumpster—they just don't hold up to all of this glamour. And fish heads.

From outside the dumpster I heard my 2 ½-year-old daughter cheerily announce, “Mama, gotta make a stinky in the grass!” When I am not dumpster diving, teaching lessons, riding or doing barn work, I am potty-training Holston. But sometimes it seems more like yard training. Or stall training. Or ring training. We are rarely close to a potty, which makes it a little tough.

She trots away to play with Levi, her favorite barn dog, enjoying the fact that the going-blind hound can now easily sniff her out.

Back in the dumpster Elizabeth and I slice open garbage bags and watch the contents spill out, hoping to catch a glimpse of the small, blue radio that one of our customers kindly brought to the barn several months earlier. We are like forensic archeologists as we examine each bag’s contents; a pillow of bay fur indicates we need to dig deeper—Elizabeth is sure she threw the broken radio away before we started body clipping.

Finally, we spot the silver antenna among hoof trimmings and baling twine, and we squeak with happiness. Elizabeth had no idea the radio was worth $500—and under warranty—when she tossed it in the garbage after it stopped working. When the customer asked about the radio a week later, Elizabeth called, panic-stricken, and our date with the dumpster became the first priority. As we bound out of the pile of trash, we are giddy with relief even though the mission has taken the better part of the morning and prevented us from doing any actual horse training. 

Growing up with two horse trainer parents, I knew the horse business could be brutal, but when I gave up my career as a tile and stone purchasing agent 15 months ago, I hadn’t envisioned days like this.

In my former life, I traveled to Europe on buying trips. I said “Ciao” and gave air kisses on both cheeks. I wore pencil skirts and 3” Kate Spade pumps and every two weeks, like clockwork, a large deposit landed in my checking account.  It was actually glamorous.

But in the evenings when I stepped out of my high heels, I would eye my barely broken-in riding boots gathering dust in the corner of the closet and hope that my horse, Cowboy, would remember me when I finally got back to the barn. Then the nanny would give me instructions on how to care for my own child for the next two hours—the tiny slice of day Holston would spend with me until she went to bed. 

When I told my husband, Brian, that Elizabeth had asked me to join her already successful hunter/jumper training business, I think he envisioned days filled with play dates, museum visits and tumbling classes with the occasional interruption for me to go teach a riding lesson or two. Or maybe that’s what I told him in order to get him on board. 

The reality is; I’m neither career woman nor stay-at-home mom. Holston and I take the occasional mid-week zoo trip and we try to make it to Gymboree at least once a week. But most days she is digging in the dirt while I set jumps for Elizabeth, or laying in the sun with Levi while I ride. She knows how to scoop feed and throw hay and she always reminds me to give Cowboy his supplements at night. In other words, she remembers the important stuff—surely it won’t be long before she grasps that tiny detail about when to go to the potty. 

Jennifer Barker St. John grew up as the daughter of two hunter/jumper trainers and rode as a junior and on the Clemson University (S.C.) NCAA team, winning the individual championship in 1998. During her career outside the horse world, she showed her Rhinestone Cowboy to multiple amateur-owner hunter championships.

Now, St. John runs Congaree Show Stables in Eastover, S.C., alongside her friend Elizabeth Grove. They concentrate on students (or as, they call them, “minions”) from 7 to 17 years old who do well on the South Carolina Hunter Jumper Association circuit. “Among our greatest accomplishments: teaching them to wrap correctly and properly muck a stall,” St. John, who serves as the president of the SCHJA, said. She balances training and riding with raising her “sweet, polite, usually well dressed but always sort of dirty” toddler daughter Holston.