Stepping Out On Your Own  

May 9, 2018 - 2:59 PM

Actor and motivational speaker J.R. Martinez says: “I’ve learned in my life that it’s important to be able to step outside your comfort zone and be challenged with something you’re not familiar or accustomed to. That challenge will allow you to see what you can do.”

Back in January, I stepped outside of my comfort zone to take on a new and exciting challenge: the launch of my own True North Stables (which I blogged about here).

That decision has already proven to be so incredibly rewarding and one of the best choices I’ve ever made, allowing me to begin to see more of what I am capable of. However, as with any new experience or step outside of your comfort zone, it’s also presented different challenges and learning experiences.

Caitlyn Shiels ringside by Fine Art Horses
Caitlyn Shiels coaching a student at the ring. Photo by Fine Art Horses.

While I’m only four months in, and therefore admittedly still new at this, I already feel that I’ve gleaned a good deal of wisdom and insight—both from those around me and from my own trial and error—on what it takes to launch your own business and really go out on your own.

Lesson No. 1: It’s not always going to be easy.

Today, it often seems that owning your own business or working for yourself is glamorized. Social media is filled with images of the self-employed seemingly working only when they want and from wherever they want, enjoying the luxuries of setting their own hours and not reporting to a boss.

Talk to anyone who actually works for themself however—whether an entrepreneur, small business owner, or all those putting in the hours in the horse industry—and they will tell you that that’s far from the case, especially as you’re starting out.

During my many years as an assistant trainer for top professionals, there was always someone to directly report to, but that also meant that there was always someone else to oversee the details, the care of the horses, the billing, and the organizational logistics. When you step out on your own, suddenly everything falls on you.

No longer am I focused solely on riding horses and training clients. I am also responsible for everything from arranging shipping, the farrier, the vet, the client lesson schedule, the horses’ overall care and well-being, their day-to-day schedules, the ordering of supplies, the entries for horse shows, and much more.

Giving everything the best of your abilities and the time and attention that it deserves is going to mean some extra hours and some long days; looking out for your horses’ well-being is a 24/7 job. At the end of even the longest and most mentally and physically tiring days, though, I am so incredibly thankful that this is what I get to do, and I find such value in the work that I put into it. The hard work makes it even more rewarding to see goals come to fruition and to see all that you are able to accomplish as an individual.

Lesson No. 2: You don’t have to go it alone.

At the same time that it’s exhilarating to see what I can accomplish on my own, it’s even more exciting to recognize that I don’t really have to go it all alone.

In my last post, I mentioned that there should never be a point in your career when you can’t look to your colleagues, and that’s remained one of my greatest pieces of advice: to utilize my peers and their opinions and knowledge.

Caitlyn Shiels and Cavalier II by Jump Media_2
Caitlyn Shiels and her own Cavalier II competing at HITS Ocala (Fla.) this spring. Photo by Jump Media.

When I left my position as an assistant trainer at Canterbury Farms after four great years, I was blown away by the incredible support that I received from everyone, and I’ve been so fortunate to have such a great network behind me. There’s always someone there to bounce an idea off of or to lend a word of encouragement.

This summer, True North Stables is based out of the beautiful Buena Vista Farm in Zion, Illinois. The expansive barns and property are also home to fellow hunter/jumper trainers Meagan Murray-Tenuta and Sara Rhodes. All three of us do roughly the same thing, offering instruction and training in the hunters, jumpers and equitation, but we also have our own unique programs and different perspectives and opinions.

Just the other day, we were chatting about bits for a horse that’s not even in my program, but we were each able to offer our thoughts on what we would do if the horse were in our program. That sort of conversation and the camaraderie have already been so valuable, and I encourage anyone starting out on their own to make it a point to surround themselves with like-minded, positive people with similar goals. Those people are the ones who will be there for advice or even just to remind you to keep your head up and that every day is a new day. Having that support really makes all the difference in the world.

Lesson No. 3: Remember why you started.

When I was 8 years old, a friend of my dad’s gave us a horse, just donated it to us so that I, a horse-crazy kid, could have one of my own right in the backyard! From the moment I started going out there every day to clean stalls and care for my horse, I learned two things: that horses were a lot of work, and that the privilege of getting to be around them was something I found incredibly rewarding and enjoyable.

I started doing what I’m doing today for one thing: for the love of the horse. Today, I feel so privileged to build my whole life around that passion. I could be going to an office and working on a mindless computer every day; instead, I am spending my days working with absolutely incredible living and breathing animals and building mutual trust and relationships with them; it’s pretty wild when you stop to think about it!

Caitlyn Shiels and Cavalier II courtesy of Caitlyn Shiels
Caitlyn Shiels and Cavalier II at home at True North’s new location at Buena Vista Farm. Photo courtesy of Caitlyn Shiels.

These animals give us so much under saddle, so getting to spend time caring for them outside of the ring in return as well is so rewarding, and I really am just so passionate about what I do on a daily basis. On even the tough or long days, I can remember my love for horses that started all of this, and it makes it that much more rewarding and enjoyable.

I also know that almost every day I’m going to learn something new about each horse, whether I’ve had the horse in my barn for a month or five years. It’s always going to be a new day, and I think that’s one of the most exciting parts for me. That’s what keeps the adrenaline up.

That, and continually stepping outside of my comfort zone and challenging myself with something unfamiliar or outside of what I’m accustomed to. Because, as J.R. Martinez said, only then can I see what I’m truly capable of out on my own.


Born and raised in Sheffield, Massachusetts, Caitlyn Shiels began riding at the age of 8. In 2018, Shiels launched her own True North Stables, based in Illinois and Florida and dedicated to providing individualized training and opportunities that allow horse and rider to excel in the sport.

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