The sweat was dripping off my brow in the hot August air, and my little arm muscles were trembling. I had just filled up two 5-gallon water buckets at the spigot, and my naive 12-year-old self underestimated the amount of strength required to lug them the 5,000 steps to the trailer. I made it a quarter of the way with both buckets before the water sloshed onto my shoes, completely soaking them and forcing me to put the buckets down. I was panting, my feet were wet, I was hungry, and I was hot. But my friend’s horse was thirsty after competing, and I needed to get the buckets back so he could drink.
That was the only thing motivating me to keep going: the horse I was in charge of needed something, and it was my job to provide it for him. With a grunt, I lifted both buckets and made it several more feet before dropping them again, water cascading over the sides. I remember a man coming over and asking me if I needed help, taking one of the now-half-filled buckets from me. One bucket was easier than two, and my horse drank happily from both buckets, his ears flopping to the sides as he took big swallows.
I’ve spent the past 17 years bouncing from horse show to horse show, up and down the East Coast. Call it an addiction, call me crazy, call me obsessed; I won’t fight you on any of those things because I have thoroughly enjoyed the traveling life. I love how every day is different. I love meeting new people. I love exploring new places, and I love being the consistency in a horse’s moving life. I love how they look for me and take a deep inhale when they realize I’m there and will be until we go home.
The horse show life isn’t for everyone, and it isn’t something that everyone wants to do for their entire lives. It’s hard. There’s not much consistency. You stay in random places with furniture and things that aren’t yours. You constantly unpack and pack up your life; most of your belongings are probably in a storage locker. You have to find new grocery stores, new gas stations and new laundromats to fulfill your basic needs. It’s hard to eat healthy on the road. You play by someone else’s rules. You’re exhausted 99 percent of the time. It’s lonely. The horses need you, no matter how tired you are, what day it is, or if it’s raining outside. Despite the downsides, I can tell you that if I hadn’t spent part of my life on the road I wouldn’t have learned any of the following important life lessons:
1. The best-laid plans NEVER go as planned! I go to extra lengths to ensure my day will go as planned; I clearly communicate the plan to everyone. But sometimes all of that effort is to no avail: Someone is late, something breaks, horses lose shoes, someone runs out of shavings or shampoo, people are hours late to try horses, horses get sick. I could go on and on. Plans always alter slightly or may do a complete 360-degree turnaround. When I was leaving my first real job, one of the ladies at the barn said to me: “There is one constant in life and that is change. You cannot avoid this, no matter how hard you try.” Change forces you to think fast and adapt. Welcome to life in general, especially during 2020!
2. Actions speak louder than words. If you are observant, watch how many people tell you 100 times that they will do something and then never follow through. If you keep your word and follow through on a task, then you are ahead of everyone who just “talks the talk.” I will believe someone who follows their words with actions, and I’m wary of others who swear they will accomplish a task “one day” and then do not complete it.
3. You have to take care of you, too. As I’ve said in a past blog, I’m the worst at caring for myself. As a horse person, it’s so hard to carve out time in your day for yourself. Once you’ve expended energy caring for your horses, partner, dogs, kids, clients, employees, the last thing you have energy for is yourself. But I’ve learned that it’s impossible to help others if I’m depleted physically, mentally and emotionally. For the past 2 ½ years, I’ve tried to develop better habits and routines that will benefit me and help me feel my best. Even just five minutes a day to meditate or stretch counts!
4. Humility. Have you had the perfect trip, and someone on the fence spooked your horse and you lost the class? Horses remind us on a daily basis that they’re a living, breathing, thinking 1,500-pound animal, and they ground us when we get too full of ourselves. They teach us humility. (That reminder could come in the form of pulling their shoe off as they turn around in the grooming stall when you want to tack them up to go horse show. Just saying.)
5. Be responsible. Horses rely on their grooms, trainers, riders and owners to provide for and meet their needs. I always joke and say I care for 15 kids every day. We have to get up every morning and feed them, clean their stalls, turn them out, exercise them, etc. We are responsible for their welfare and well being daily.
6. Time management. The morning of a horse show, I ask myself this question: What is the order that tasks need to be completed in today? In my head, I make a mental checklist and organize things by priority according to the ring schedule and what has to be completed. I also write out the list on my phone so I don’t skip things. I try not to waste time throughout the day, and I accomplish other tasks (such as handwalking, Theraplating, using a Bemer blanket on the horses, making grain, etc.) when I’m not at the ring. Learning to prioritize your day and your to-do list will help your day be more efficient, and you won’t be there until 9 p.m. every night!
7. Not everything has a quick fix. We live in a day and age where people want (and expect) instant gratification or quick fixes to solve problems. But there are some situations that can take longer to correct. It takes 21 days to learn a new habit, and that includes fixing a bad riding habit. In terms of healing a lame horse, it may take over a year for them to recover, depending on what is causing the lameness. Rushing or trying to do a “quick fix” could actually make the recovery longer and more difficult. Sometimes just being patient and taking it one day at a time can fix more things than you realize.
8. You learn who your true friends are. There are people who will support you no matter what you do (your real friends). Then there are people who will dislike you and talk about you no matter what you do (the haters). And there are people who only use you to get what they want (the takers). The only person you are in control of is yourself. Don’t be afraid to be authentically you and don’t smother your personality to “fit in.” Anyone who isn’t polite toward you or doesn’t say “hi,” or “good morning,” isn’t worth your time of day. Keep the people who support you every step of the way, even when you make mistakes.
9. Material things are not as important as quality relationships and appreciation. Blue ribbons are the result of hard work, and so are the neck ribbons, trophies and prize money. It’s impossible to win all the classes all the time, so we must savor and enjoy the wins when they happen! But winning isn’t everything. It makes getting up at 4:30 a.m. every morning worth it, but having people to create memories with is more important than winning every class. If you work for an employer who appreciates your efforts no matter what, you will be willing to keep working hard. If that person is unappreciative of your efforts because they didn’t win the blue, then you will not feel motivated to continue. It’s the process that makes it fun, not necessarily the end result.
I also promise that you do not need the fanciest boots or the newest riding clothes to work with horses. I ride in leather half chaps and a pair of paddock boots all the time. I wish I could afford to buy new tall boots once a year when I ride holes through them, but that’s just not a reality for me. As long as you look neat, clean and professional, you’ll be ready to go.
10. Appreciate quiet nights and moments with the horses. After being in the chaos of a horse show all day long, I have come to love the quiet time and peace when our day is finished. Sometimes I linger in the barn by myself because I enjoy the sound of horses munching their hay. I take my time with night check, looking over each horse thoroughly as I pick stalls, enjoying the sounds of the evening bugs, and looking up at the clear starry skies as I walk back to my car. If I have to work on Mondays, it means that I’m in no particular hurry to get anything done and I can take my time to be thorough. Now I enjoy downtime in between shows more than I used to, and I like to do “normal” human things (like going hiking, hanging out with friends, going to the movies without falling asleep in the chair, etc.) during that time. You have to; otherwise you become too burnt out from the monotony of the days.
11. You never stop learning. Anyone who is a real horseman has an open mind. They understand that you never stop learning new techniques, new ideas and new theories in this industry, no matter how long you’ve been doing horses. There isn’t just one correct way to do everything, and not every training technique, piece of tack, medication or preparation idea works for every type of horse. Sometimes you have to be willing to try something new to get a different result. The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result.
12. Work hard and good things will happen. Focus on learning different things and hone your skills. Patience and consistency are key!
If you are serious about becoming involved in the horse industry (or even if you’re unsure if the horse world is right for you), you should take a job on the road. Find a professional (or private client) who you work well with and where you are a valued member of their team. I’m not saying you should do it for as long as I have (I’ve told you, I’m a little crazy), but I think it opens your eyes to a lot of lessons and life experiences. I was a fairly reserved child and traveling to shows brought me out of my shell. While sometimes I wish I could stay in one place longer and explore a bit more, I don’t regret any of the lessons I’ve learned on the road. I have seen so many cool places and met so many amazing people. It’s helped develop my character and determine what’s important to me as a person, and it has strengthened my interest and passion for horse care in the equine industry.
Nicole Mandracchia grew up riding in New Jersey and was a working student while in school. She graduated from Centenary University (New Jersey) and has groomed and barn managed for top show barns Top Brass Farm (New Jersey), North Run (Vermont), Findlay’s Ridge (New York) and Ashmeadow (New Jersey). Read more about her in “Groom Spotlight: Nicole Mandricchia Proves The Harder You Work, The Luckier You Get.” After more than a decade working back in the barn, she eventually hopes to establish herself as a trainer. Read all of Nicole’s COTH blogs.