Friday, May. 24, 2024

Hanging Up The Irons

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We’ve all seen the posts on Facebook or in the COTH forums. The person who is at the end of their proverbial rope—one disaster after another, multiple insults to multiple injuries. They just can’t do it anymore. Riding has become too much of a heartbreak, too much of a stressor in their life when it always used to be their escape. They come questioning but really asking permission: Is it OK for them to hang up their irons?

I used to read those posts and reply that, yes, of course it was OK. Horses will always be there when they decide to return, and sometimes a break is exactly what you need to rediscover the joy. But deep down, I couldn’t relate. Horses, while something I’ve also taken a break from, have been the driving force in my life in many ways since I reconnected with them in 2018. My days and thoughts and routines have revolved around them, and my bank account has been aligned accordingly. 

But then in mid-April, my husband and I lost our jobs. It was sudden and with no severance, both of us caught up in what feels like wave after wave of budget-related lay-offs. Then a few weeks later at Azul’s latest recheck, I received the worst possible news: Her right hind suspensory injury had not held up to the limited tack walking we introduced into her routine. In fact, the ultrasound images of her ligament looked almost as bad as they had back in December, which pointed to an acute reinjury. My choices: Try again with treatment and rehab, which the vet gave a very low probability of success, or take her in for surgery, which would mask but not treat the injury. 

The author Sophie Coffey takes one last picture with her young mare Azul before saying goodbye. Photos Courtesy Of Sophie Coffey

It was a pretty terrible one-two punch. To rub salt into the wound, a few days after her diagnosis, I started a grooming job for a very nice local professional who needed some help at the Lexington Spring Encore show at the Virginia Horse Center. I had agreed to the gig shortly after losing my job and way before Azul’s terrible update. Going to a horse show was the last thing I wanted to do, but I also felt that maybe it would be a good way to distract myself. Most importantly, I wasn’t about to leave anyone in the lurch. 

At that show, I felt many things, and I want to list them all and ask for no judgment. I realize that some feelings were petty and unfair, but I also think that all feelings are valid, and it’s OK to feel them AND recognize that it’s maybe not your best moment—that those feelings don’t define you. 

So I felt sad about once again being behind-the-scenes in an environment where I so, so wanted to be in the mix. I felt disappointment watching it all happen and feeling like I would never be able to be a part of it. In my worst moments, I told myself that the only way I could ever be at the show would be to have someone else pay me to be there and see it from the sidelines. When I cried in my car, it was because Azul was my shot, and I told myself that now my shot was gone—there wouldn’t be another one. I just couldn’t take it emotionally or financially again. 

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But on the other hand, in the moments when those feelings fell away, I realized that I no longer had a burning desire to be in the show ring anyway. I really enjoyed my time back in the barn with the horses, getting them ready and grooming them and making them shine and keeping things organized. I loved pulling out all of my horsemanship tips and tricks and all of the knowledge I had accumulated over the years—all at the ready when I needed it. The horses I worked with were lovely, as were the people, and while it’s not a job I’m ever going to dive back into full-time, it was amazing that when placed in a tight spot, my horse experience was the piece that immediately put money back into my pocket. 

The view from the top of the hill at the Virginia Horse Center in Lexington, Va., where the author spent a week grooming.

When I got home from the show, I decided that surgery for Azul was not the best option. It would have masked the pain, but not treated the injury in any way. While a good option for an older horse, the vet didn’t think it was a great one for Azul, and I agreed. She would eventually regrow the nerve, and if she had been in work for all of those years in between, it was possible that the injury would be so much worse when that happened that she might not even be comfortable in the pasture. 

So I reached out to her breeder and asked if he would be interested in taking her. Very, very fortunately, he loves and cares for Azul as much as I do, and said she would always have a place on his farm. And a little more than a week before writing this blog, Azul got on a trailer and returned to Florida. I received pictures recently of her in a gorgeous field, eating grass next to her brother who she used to play with as a foal. Back in the place where she called home for the majority of her young life, and there to live it out. 

I feel profound sadness about Azul—the life she could have had, the life I could have had with her—but if I’m honest, the more overwhelming feeling I have is relief. I ugly cried back in December about her injury. I knew someplace deep in my heart that even if she recovered, it shifted things for me in a way that would never be the same. With the terrible recheck, I then faced the financial burden of caring for Azul for the entirety of her life, but not getting to enjoy her in any way other than spending time with her, maybe walking her around. 

While I was gainfully employed, that prospect felt disappointing but not undoable. However, once both my husband and I lost our jobs, I felt like I was staring down the barrel of a shotgun. With the generosity of her breeder, I dodged that bullet. Is it the most noble thought? No, but it’s true. Will we be employed again? For sure, but I can no longer take that for granted. 

The situation caused a fundamental change in my perspective on horse ownership. The thought of ever owning a horse again puts a knot in my stomach. It now feels like more risk than reward, more stress than joy, and a path to disappointment rather than fulfillment. I never want to be back on that razor’s edge of what to do if the unthinkable happens either to me or to the horse. I’ve been on that ride, and for now, I want to get off. 

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But then I think about the horse show and the pieces I most enjoyed. It was the care, the horsemanship, and the relationship to ANY horse—I didn’t own a single horse there, but I found myself immediately appreciating their unique personalities. The knowledge and getting to use it, and observing new ways of doing things. Those aspects are all still accessible to me. 

I’m also lucky enough to have wonderful friends with lovely horses to keep me in the tack, and I’m thinking about maybe giving up-down lessons now that I no longer have to worry about showing in the ammy divisions. I’ve thought about exercise or prep riding, too. There aren’t any local programs with those needs (or they already have someone), but it’s another way to stay in the mix and use my hard earned skillset. 

So maybe it’s more that I’ve decided to run up my stirrups than hang up my irons completely. For now, I’m OK with that. 


Sophie Coffey grew up riding by the seat of her pants in Virginia hunt country, and she took a flying leap into the top levels of the sport through sheer will and luck after a cold call landed her a job at Hunterdon, Inc. She continued freelancing as a jack-of-all-trades through her 20s for some of the top names in the industry, getting the best education possible in horsemanship and larger life lessons. After leaving the sport to pursue a career in marketing, she returned in 2018 as an adult amateur. She resides in Richmond, Virginia, with her fully indoctrinated horsey husband and several kitties. Follow her adventures on Instagram @coffeyinthesaddle.

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