Somewhere around Day 60 of lockdown I stopped sulking, but not a moment prior. It was two months into quarantine before I pulled my tack trunk out of the trailer and admitted we were going nowhere any time soon.
Horse shows were canceled; I was too fearful to haul-in for lessons; Arizona’s biblical heat was on the way, and it all left me confused. Am I tapering down or up? Should I just give everyone time off, including me, and then build back to something for the fall shows? I am classified as high-risk for COVID. One blog suggested we shouldn’t be riding and creating a risk of ending in the emergency room and catching the virus after a fall or, worse, taking up a spot that would be needed by another patient. I had never thought of getting on my horse and popping over a couple jumps as a question of ethics.
The whole thing was overwhelming. I ramped up and bought more jumps for home practice and then never used them. My ring at home was pitifully half set up and sporadically drug—my sulking and anxiety about getting sick beat out my drive to be tidy. Sure, I kept riding, but I was adrift.
Now that Arizona is emerging from quarantine, I am thinking about the good in the bad. There is nothing good to be said about COVID; the global loss is overwhelming and unimaginable. But, what about the once-in-a-lifetime event of quarantine? Is it possible that there is something positive to be found in all this downtime?
My turning point, mentally and practically, was when I resumed my haul-in lessons on Saturday morning. If I didn’t see it before, I see it with certainty now. Those couple of hours with my horse community mean a lot to my mental health. Arizona never shut down riding lessons, and I acknowledge this is a luxury that wasn’t available to a large part of the country. What kept me away for a couple of months was falling into a high-risk category, not state-mandated shutdowns. I didn’t want to get sick or get my 75-year-old parents sick. The barn stepped up precautions and rules, and I loaded up with rubber gloves and precious wipes in my center console, and off we went.
The return to a weekly lesson helped ground our work at home in a schedule. I clean tack and wash pads on Friday nights like I am off to a show the next day. I may not be prepping for a show, but I am prepping for something: Saturday morning jump school with friends. Silver lining No. 1 is an appreciation for my equestrian community.
Liberated from my busy work travel schedule I am riding more often in the early morning hours, and a lot has “clicked” as a result. My mares, Landis and Sammy, are strong, straight and adjustable. Having a junior who rides my horses when I’m stuck on Zoom calls is a huge help. Between Spencer setting them up for success and me not totally undoing it, I think we are getting somewhere.
Everyone has a weakness; mine is my left rein. I might as well hold both reins in my right hand with my left hand on my thigh like a western pleasure class. Seventy-five days of quarantine means I’m out of excuses to not fix my biggest gap in flatwork. I can’t explain why I have refused to use that left hand until now; it seems perfectly capable. We all want to believe that we can cut corners and find that right bend on course, but if it’s not there on the flat it’s not going to be there when I am full of show nerves and racing to the timers. Silver lining No. 2 is that it’s a time to address a weakness.
My husband asked why I wore my brand new breeches on Saturday, as I had intended to only wear them for shows. I shrugged my shoulders. Who knows when I am going back to showing? Who knows if I will even fit into them when I do? I try to turn my horses out beautifully for Saturdays. Everyone’s whiskers are trimmed. The gray mare, Landis, is going to start lessoning in boots I bought for shows. Realizing it was just my friend Olivia and me in the 3’6″ lesson, I texted her the night prior to coordinate matching outfits. I may show up in a hunt coat next week. Carpe diem! Silver lining No. 3 is if there are no special occasions, every day is a special occasion.
I unexpectedly went from four horses to five during quarantine. A year ago, I gave away a failed hunter project to a better-suited trail home in Temecula, California. I got a text about 30 days into shelter-in-place that the family patriarch had been furloughed, and they could no longer afford to feed the horse. Would I like him back? A week later, Rival rolled up in a semi. You may be wondering how this new monthly financial obligation fits into a silver lining blog about COVID. I am not entirely sure, but in an attempt to battle his obesity I have taken to walking him like a dog around the neighborhood at sunset, and it’s somehow turned into my favorite part of the day. Also, when did I start to have time to walk a horse? Silver lining No. 4 is the empowerment of helping a (four-legged) friend in need.
There are others. Moments that make me sigh with gratitude. Watching the cowboy do groundwork with my 2-year old is nothing short of mesmerizing. I have witnessed more bright orange Arizona sunsets and pale pink and blue sunrises from my yard and fewer through the window of a plane. I have experienced the intoxicating smell of the orange blossoms instead of the unpleasant smell of an Uber in San Jose, California. Meetings take place in the barn with a fake Zoom background to hide the tack hanging behind me instead of in sterile conference rooms.
All that said, I am ready to go back to normal. I am craving the intelligence and side-splitting humor of my co-workers and the energy I feel when I walk onto my company’s HQ with an interesting day ahead. I miss the feeling of hauling into the show well prepared for a great week or two. But this reset, this quarantine, has given me an opportunity to hold my community a little tighter, to work on my biggest weakness, and to save a friend.
Allison Hughes lives in Scottsdale, Arizona, where she describes herself as a “helicopter mom” to five horses and four dogs. She travels each week as a vice president of sales for a software company and generally blogs from 30,000 feet on Southwest Airlines. Allison has been recognized by Halo Horses Equestrian Boutique as a “Featured Amateur” and by the Street To Stable Equestrian Lifestyle blog in their “The Balancing Act” series. Allison began riding at 6 years old in Rancho Palos Verdes, California, and now competes in hunters, jumpers and equitation in Arizona and Southern California. Allison is often joined in the barn or at the shows by her husband, Bobby Hughes, a former professional baseball player turned home builder.