Horses Have Been Training Us For This All Along

Apr 9, 2020 - 3:00 PM

I am standing barefoot in my kitchen, holding my newborn and watching my toddler cheerfully make a mess while my husband drives away for the day. Like millions worldwide whose lives have been turned upside down, I think, “How has this become my life?”

I’m not sad or angry right now, just stunned. I was supposed to be on maternity leave with only the newborn while the toddler was in daycare. The plan was to get back into shape and ride my horse, while my company and team conducted business as usual. Instead, barns are closed to boarders everywhere, and the consulting firm I work for has gone on overdrive helping organizations pivot in this time of crisis.

Cleo Haynal house
The plan didn’t include staying home with a newborn and a toddler, but thanks to horses I’ve learned to adjust the plan. Photo Courtesy Of Cleo Haynal

Meanwhile, I’m benched. I have nowhere to go; my hands are full with a newborn who doesn’t sleep and a toddler who doesn’t understand why he can’t see his friends or go to the playground.

Can I cut my leave short to help my coworkers while also keeping my children safe and cared for? How do I make sure my horse is happy and gets fit again? While redrafting plans millions of times and turning the puzzle pieces in my head I feel a sense of familiarity and realize a lifelong passion for equestrian sports has taught me how to deal with this.

We’re a bunch of control freaks in a sport that is impossible to control. While I have spent a big part of my life in places that are considered type-A magnets (“elite” university, Silicon Valley, management consulting, etc.), nothing compares to the hyper-organization that I’ve seen some barn managers or trainers put into their care, feed and training plans. I cannot count the hours I have spent with fellow riders discussing our training regimens, fitness plans, or how to get past our horse’s newfound dislike of jumping the liverpool.

And no matter how much we plan, train and obsess, our partner’s mood and health are out of our control. It’s a sport where patience is key, and it forces all of us planners and perfectionists to regularly take a step back and realize we need to stop pushing, take a breath, and make a new plan.

Who hasn’t felt they were at the top of their game just to pull a lame horse out of the paddock the night before a show (“but he’s NEVER kicked the fence before!”)? We’ve learned that we can’t sulk or let ourselves be beaten down. What we can do is care for the horse, put his or her wellness first, and make a new plan.

We’ve learned to look at the silver lining. An unwanted setback may bring a new opportunity. One friend had to go back to months of flatwork only to find that her horse came out of it stronger, healthier and ready to tackle hunter derbies. Another found that having to retrain from the ground up helped even out that tricky left lead canter that was never really getting the marks to move up to preliminary. When I see another year of competition likely slipping away, and my thought is, “Argh, we’re going to be stuck at the same level again,” I force myself to shift to the basics I can now focus on without excuses and make a new list of goals: Maybe this year will be about improving trot extensions and consistently landing on the correct lead.

Cleo Haynal horse Erin Gilmore
I’ve likely lost another year of competition with my horse, but I can make new goals. Erin Gilmore Photography Photo

We’ve learned to stick together and be creative. The cost, logistics and availability of horses force us to find creative solutions. “We’ll find a way,” I tell myself; I just need to keep playing with the puzzle pieces. Like many of us who have riding ambitions greater than our wallets, or grew up in urban environments, or had to work long hours to afford riding and then lacked the time to actually ride, I’ve learned that the key to the goal may not be the obvious one. Sometimes it means studying on the bus to the stables before running across fields to make it to a lesson on time, or it means partnering with another grad school student to afford board for a “free” horse. Or it’s trading lessons for work or having to pump breastmilk in the car on the way home from the barn as my partner puts our child to bed. When I think about how I’ve been able to keep riding through many moves, career changes and other setbacks what stands out is the kindness and generosity of others and the willingness to adjust the plan.

This is what we can do for each other now. We can check on our barnmates’ horses if we can make it to the barn and they can’t. Sending them pictures of their horses is bound to make them smile in quarantine. We can check on each other and be kind and tolerant if the plans aren’t panning out. We can be creative to keep going. Maybe it’s more squats or new ways to work on core and balance at home.

Our planned timeline is rarely the actual timeline. And this is maybe the most important lesson now. As my horse turns 8, I realize that my plan was to be jumping and competing at a higher level by now. Instead, he has become the horse that can take me to shows but also carry my beginner husband on trails and give pony rides to my 2-year-old. Similarly, many of us entered the quarantine with grand plans of home improvements, learning a new language, or keeping the exact same school schedule for our kids without our work productivity changing. That may not be what comes out of this, but maybe we’ll have learned to bake bread or awoken our child’s passion for flowers. The timeline we made in January may not be the right timeline for this year, and that’s OK.

My trainer ended a recent email with the phrase, “The comeback will be stronger than the setback.” In life, as with horses, things don’t always (ever?) happen on our timeline, but they will happen if we put our minds to it, work hard and have some luck. For now, some of us will have to continue focusing on keeping our elbows in and hands soft while we push strollers around the block and cheer on our friends who are riding, but we will be back.


Cleo Haynal is a passionate amateur jumper rider and aspiring eventer who lives in Alexandria, Virginia. A native of Switzerland, she has fallen for the American Thoroughbred and owns a big-hearted OTTB. She is a partner at McChrystal Group, a leadership advisory firm, a Navy spouse and mother of two boys.

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