There are a lot of ways to learn life lessons, but I learned mine from a horse. When I think about how I mastered patience, a trait that serves me well as I work with teenagers, I remember bawling my eyes out on my defiant Arabian when I was 13 and he “just wouldn’t put his head down!” Dressage eluded me, to say the least.
Horses taught me the harsh realities of life. As a kid, I held the naïve philosophy that to achieve one’s dreams all you had to do was work hard and stay positive. But then you grow up in a barn, and meet men who haul hay and clean stalls for 18 hours a day, seven days a week, and are thousands of miles from their families with no healthcare or days off, and realize that for most hard work isn’t the simple answer to life’s problems.
Horses will teach you that there are two sides to luck. Just when someone thinks they have mastered the formula, and that his hard work and diligence have somehow subdued chance, his top horse will trip in the field and snap its leg, and there he will sit on the other side of luck.
But even knowing these truths, I have found 2015 to be difficult to handle. In a way, I have spent this year revisiting the lesson that I learned long ago on a horse: you can’t control everything. 2015 has been the year of things I can’t control.
Lizzie did her first CCI* last fall as a 6-year-old, and had come up the levels quickly but happily. She didn’t love racing, but she loved eventing, so it was easy and fun enough. I spent lots of time and money this winter training in Aiken and driving back and forth to D.C. every week. We had a fifth-place run at Pine Top to start the year, then she got fourth at Carolina’s preliminary a couple of weeks later.
We jumped double clear around a 1.15-meter course at a big jumper show, a first for us. We returned to Carolina for the CIC* and she was positively storming around the course until she tripped coming out of the water complex and, while she saved herself, I fell off.
And then the year kind of went to hell. The spring was a mix of issues: the event after Carolina she slipped in the wet grass in showjumping and slid into a jump, and I couldn’t get her near it again. The following event I downgraded to training level, where she was third after dressage, show jumped clear, then I got a technical elimination on cross-country when I jumped a preliminary table instead of the training table.
I then checked out for a few months, as I had to focus on a business expansion and commercial property renovation. I returned at the end of the summer to do three training level unrecognized events, where she jumped all double clear. I then had to scratch Loudoun preliminary when she threw a shoe, and the next preliminary at Marlborough she was great but the score looked awful due to a gnarly water complex.
I lost going to Morven because of two funerals, and so I wrapped up my season at Loch Moy where she stopped for the first time since April and we got eliminated in showjumping.
So there went 2015, a collection of mishaps and bad luck that left me frustrated, her record demolished, and both of us staring at each other and thinking, “What happened?”
In training we were both on point, she was routinely sailing around courses in showjumping and cross-country like a beast, but at competitions something just kept going wrong. I couldn’t control it. I couldn’t train harder or smarter, I couldn’t pinpoint one consistent problem that lead to our collection of disappointments. She was in the program that we always succeeded in, and outside of the actual shows she was better than ever, but that’s the luck of it. Or rather, the lack of luck.
In my personal life things weren’t much better. My husband and I decided to start trying for a family, and at first the lack of success seemed normal. To be expected, they all say. But with my riding going off the rails, I focused on starting a family. We removed chance from the equation and with some help from science were positive I would conceive soon.
I didn’t. Many of my close friends got pregnant, many without really trying, and I just kept having good rides at home and terrible ones at shows, and smiling in public and crying in bed. I couldn’t plan my way out of it. Hard work and knowledge didn’t get me anywhere.
I am a really optimistic person. I don’t get overwhelmed easily, and adjust plans as I go from plan A to plan B to plan Z. I am the team cheerleader, and the one always offering perspective. And from that side of my brain, I can say that there are far worse fates than failing at preliminary and pregnancy.
But that didn’t change the way it felt. I haven’t been this intimate with frustration and unreasonable jealousy since I was a teenager on a defiant Arabian. Life is fickle, and when you are on the bad side of luck you don’t get to pick who you are there with, so frustration and jealousy and I have spent months just staring at each other.
I have tried not to beat myself up, and I have tried to focus on everything that is going right in life. But there is something unsettling to the core about the moments in life that remind us that the majority of this whole thing is out of our control. Life seems so much neater when the equation is hard work + positive attitude = success. But that is elementary math, and life’s real equation has exponential multipliers on luck and chance, and is contained entirely inside circumstances outside of our control.
For now, I have decided to simply shift focus. My riding will turn to doing third level dressage on Lizzie this winter and putting steering and gears on my coming 4-year old Stella. I won’t be going south to train this year. With months ahead at home, I am volunteering to teach GED classes in the local jail. Since I can’t feel the perspective I need, I am just going to ask it to join my party with frustration and jealousy, and try to spend my time staring at it until I can feel what I see.
I have two chapters done of a novel I am working on, and I will try and finish that in the coming months.
For my personal life, we will do the things that are only options because starting a family hasn’t happened yet. So, we are taking a long vacation over winter break to Asia (a long-standing dream of ours) to ride elephants and laugh in temples created 12 centuries ago, and in general to remember that this is all so much bigger than us.
My 20s felt like the constant discovery of sunrises and new horizons, while starting my 30s has felt like sunsets and shrinking opportunities. Realities have begun to weigh more than possibilities.
I know how silly it all sounds. I also know how real it all feels. Crying in frustration and tugging on the reins and kicking harder didn’t help me get a horse to go on the bit when I was 13, and fighting with life isn’t going to help me now. Because one thing horses have taught me is that there is nothing to fight about. We’re in this together, and we’re lucky to be here, and it isn’t much more complicated than that.
Remember luck has sides. When you are on the wrong side of luck, remember that you truly aren’t alone. And when you are on luck’s good side, remember that most are not, and through no fault of their own. Life’s equation is complex, and there is a lot of comfort in empathy. When we get the most out of life is when we should be asking what we can give. Or rather, what we can share.
So 2015, you win. Consider this lesson revisited. I can’t control everything, and the best moments in life, and in horses, come from when we stop trying to.
One of the Chronicle’s bloggers, Kristin Carpenter juggles the management of her own company, Linder Educational Coaching, organizing the Area II Young Rider Advancement Program out of Morningside Training Farm in The Plains, Va., and eventing at the FEI levels. She grew up in Louisiana and bought “Trance,” a green off-the-track Thoroughbred, as a teenager. Together, they ended up competing at the North American Young Riders Championships and the Bromont CCI**. She’s now bringing another OTTB, Lizzie, up through the ranks.