At the beginning of March, I put together a fun article for The Chronicle of the Horse illustrating a day in my life as a working student in the barn of a top dressage rider in Wellington, Florida. Never one to miss an opportunity for self-deprecating humor, I surprised many people by portraying what might be described as a “positive attitude” despite the long hours, hard labor, and endless heaps of manure that consumed my days in Florida. While I consider myself a mostly well-informed citizen, the intensity of life in the heat of the Wellington season left me naïve to the brewing global disaster that was about to disrupt everything in our little bubble.
On Tuesday of the following week, I was asked to write a second piece about maintaining a positive mindset while working with horses. An ironic assignment for a naturally grumpy person with a history of unfortunate events that were not necessarily healthily handled, I began writing on Wednesday, March 11. The same day, the World Health Organization officially declared COVID-19 a pandemic. On Thursday I found myself searching an empty shelf for toilet paper, on Friday the FEI World Cup Final in Las Vegas was called off, on Saturday all of the remaining shows in Florida were canceled, and on Sunday we reserved a truck with one week’s notice to get our horses and clients home to Virginia one month earlier than we initially planned.
As equestrians, we are accustomed to the countless opportunities for misfortune and catastrophe that horses so generously provide. While the world faces much bigger challenges at the moment, I had personally overcome a tumultuous three years of hard work and bad luck to finally find myself in the position to chase big goals only to have my dreams dashed by nothing less than a global health crisis.
But these are equestrian goals after all, and most individuals foolish enough to possess hopes and dreams atop the back of a horse are accustomed to failing, sometimes spectacularly, at the hands of mere minor misfortunes. Sometimes those failures are even dwarfed by devastating heartbreak that seems unavoidable when you love these deceivingly fragile animals long enough.
My first heartbreak came when I spent my last semester of college working for a local Grand Prix trainer in Colorado who generously gave me the opportunity to try to qualify for the North American Youth Championships on a sales horse. One week before our first competition the horse suffered a seizure. He had to be retired, and I couldn’t help but feel like the universe had squashed my one chance to fulfill a childhood dream. After a nice wallow in some good old-fashioned self-pity, I emerged to the embrace of an amazing barn community whose offerings of wise words and catch rides taught me the importance of a positive support network.
Perhaps I should have hung up my spurs and entered the real world then, but my first tragedy made me even more determined to achieve some semblance of success in the sport. After I graduated with my useful honors degree, I continued to further disappoint my lovely family by returning to Maryland to work full time for an international Canadian rider. My first year as a working student was filled with both unbelievable fun with amazing people and a rude awakening that my bad luck was not uncommon in the equestrian world.
After missing my last chance to compete in FEI Young Riders, I was given the extraordinary opportunity to try the U25 Grand Prix at a schooling show in Florida on a sales horse. Thanks to a generous equine partner and a brilliant trainer, the test wasn’t all that bad, until the last diagonal when I started confidently swinging my legs for my one-tempis and noticed at X I had yet to get a single change. The judge gave me a 1 for my beautiful single change and circled “15” to emphasize that, in fact, in the Grand Prix you have to perform 15 changes every stride for a proper mark.
I was so disappointed in myself for blowing it that I forgot to be appreciative of the opportunity I’d received. I am extremely grateful that my trainer made a point to horrify the poor amateur ladies surrounding us by loudly and publicly dressing me down about my attitude in the middle of the showgrounds. The experience taught me to appreciate every opportunity I’m given, no matter how small, and find a lesson in every mistake, no matter how big.
My first boss eventually moved back to her home country, and as Canadian winters did not appeal to me, I stayed behind. I decided this time of uncertainty would be the perfect moment to make a prudent financial decision and purchase my very first horse of my own. So with the tiniest of tiny budgets we bought the most beautiful-perfect-amazing baby horse, a 2-year-old Dutch Warmblood gelding, whom we called Lu. He was everything the little girl in me dreamed about, and I fell in love.
I eventually landed in the barn of Olivia LaGoy-Weltz, who was finishing up a European tour and preparing to be the reserve rider for the U.S. team at the 2018 FEI World Equestrian Games. I headed south to Wellington for the season with her team, and Lu stayed in Maryland.
My first season with Olivia engulfed me in the intensity and attention to detail that is necessary to succeed at the top levels. It also introduced me to just how important positivity is to that success, and how easily it can be jeopardized by simple bad luck. Even when perfectly laid plans are completely disrupted by a minor setback, you must still wake up with the motivation to maintain a positive mindset to keep working, to keep climbing, no matter how steep the slope to the top becomes.
On Feb. 5, 2019, I got an early morning call on my day off that Lu had been found recumbent and unable to get up. Despite a valiant effort by all involved, my sweet baby horse passed away, and I was 1,000 miles away with a broken heart and a dream dashed.
I wanted to quit horses, but then at night check while I was cleaning stalls and still wearing sunglasses in the dark to disguise my swollen eyes, a soft fuzzy nose nuzzled my shoulder. The nose belonged to a particularly famous big brown horse who was having a pretty slow season himself. But he didn’t care. He also didn’t much care for the grumpiness of his caretaker. He just wanted a butt scratch.
I stuck it out for the rest of the season. I found my motivation in helping others enjoy the horses they had and succeed in the show ring. I didn’t sit in the saddle for months.
In a twist of fate, the tragedy of losing Lu eventually led me to Waki, my partner for this past Wellington season, and the vast network of selfless people who made it possible for a working student living off ramen and barn snacks to lease a real-deal Grand Prix horse. My passion for the sport was reignited, my heart was healed by late-night stall cuddles, and I was inspired by working with someone as masterful as Olivia, although I do not believe she was as equally inspired by my less skillful displays in the arena.
My secret goal was to redeem myself in the show ring and maybe, just maybe, demonstrate that I was capable of performing more than a few one-tempis in public. Before that goal was achieved, the pandemic burst the Wellington bubble, and all of the remaining shows were canceled. My time with my new partner was cut short, and we both went back to our separate summer homes.
I choked on the familiar flavor of disappointment. But a few years and a couple more tragedies wiser I could swallow it with context. This time an entire world was going through terrible struggles. I had witnessed friends overcome much bigger obstacles for far larger goals only to have them stolen away by this disaster. People everywhere faced graver threats than the inconvenience of not being able to wear that silly looking shadbelly that had been accumulating dust in my closet for years.
In the end, it wasn’t putting my horse on the truck to go home without riding down centerline that brought me to tears. It was the last Florida sunset I shared with my partner grazing after another long day that started the waterworks. In Lu’s last moments I was not concerned that I would never ride him; what broke my heart was knowing I would never again be greeted by an outrageously girly whinny and big black pricked ears. When losing him drove me towards quitting this sport, it wasn’t the feeling of a piaffe that brought me back, but the tickle of whiskers on my cheek that grounded me.
The goals we chase as equestrians easily elude us at the hands of inconveniences far more banal than a global health emergency. When plans inevitably fail, it’s easy to be consumed by negativity and self-pity. That negativity can blind us to the things that truly matter.
We may compete against each other, but we are all bound together as a community by a single driving force so powerful that it leads perfectly reasonable people to do completely unreasonable things: The love of the horse.
Caroline Cochran was born in Germany and grew up as an Army brat in a family of perfectly normal people who had the good common sense to avoid pursuits as expensive and ridiculous as horses. After university, Caroline decided to put her honors degree to good use and fulfill childhood dreams by shoveling poo in elite dressage barns in exchange for an education she could never afford. She joined the team of top U.S. dressage rider Olivia LaGoy-Weltz as a working student in 2018. In 2019, Caroline was given the amazing opportunity to lease a real-life Grand Prix horse for the 2020 winter season in Florida.