When my phone buzzed, and I saw that the barn was calling me—unexpectedly, first thing in the morning—I knew my day was about to take a bad turn. Sure enough, the wonderful woman I board with was calling to tell me that my horse, Ned, had come in from his nighttime turnout with a swollen and weepy eye. “I would call the vet if it were my horse,” she said.
I had just gotten home from a visit with my dad the night before. I hadn’t seen Ned in a week, and I was still in my pajamas. I remembered that I was supposed to meet the farrier at 1 p.m., and that meant I would be spending more or less the whole day at the barn. The lawn would not be mowed. The garden would not be weeded. The laundry would not be washed. But, horse people are who we are, so I poured some coffee and packed a lunch.
A few hundred dollars later, I watched the vet’s truck disappear down the driveway. I was starting to feel really sorry for myself, and my empty bank account, when my stomach growled, and I remembered the lunch I left on my tack trunk.
That’s when it hit me. I tried to remember how long have I been eating lunches on that tack trunk.
I got it for my 10th birthday, a few months after getting my first pony. Don’t be impressed by the extravagance of growing up with a pony. Ever the savvy, practical woman, my mother figured out that boarding a pony at a local barn and sending me there after school was cheaper than daycare. (That says more about the cost of daycare than it does about horses, by the way.) Every day, after school, I took the bus to the barn and rode my pony. My mom would pick me up on her way home from work. In the summer, she packed me a lunch, dropped me off in the morning, and picked me up at night.
Back when I spent countless hours as a wandering barn rat, the trunk was my home base. More days than not, I settled there to eat my lunch. There were a few early horse show morning Pop-Tarts too. If I ran out of barn chores to do, I would sit on my trunk and read. If I exhausted myself before the end of the day, my mom would find me there, asleep, wrapped in a cooler. I spent at least as much time on my tack trunk as I spent in my childhood bedroom. It followed me through college, into graduate school, and beyond. It has traveled across the Atlantic with me twice: when I moved to Switzerland and then when I came back.
And I still have the blasted thing.
It’s a huge, blue and green monster. My first coach joked that, if I died, they could bury me in it. It was just a little bit wrong (i.e., not like the other kids’ trunks) in a half dozen ways. The blue was too light (royal instead of navy), and the monogram was framed with quotation marks. It looked like “KC” was my nickname instead of my initials. I appreciated my tack trunk, but I was always a little embarrassed by it.
Even now, it is always the biggest trunk in the tack room. I don’t know how many times I have apologized to a barn owner for its size as we puzzled over where to put it. It is currently stuffed with Ned’s entire winter wardrobe: two turnout sheets, two medium-weight turnouts and two heavy-weight turnouts. But wait! There’s more! It also holds a set of standing wraps, clipping supplies, a collection of ointments, salves and goos, a practical guide to veterinary emergencies and a hole punch. It’s a beast.
So how long have I been eating lunches on this tack trunk? Thirty-eight years. There is something deeply comforting about that. I am 48 years old and, even though my knees won’t let me mount from the ground anymore, I’m still here. I love that riding is more than a sport you do in high school or college. This is a sport for a lifetime.
Someday I want to be the “old lady” who shows up to hunt or show with a shuffle in her gait and breeches that are 20 years out of fashion. Those women always seem to have the best stories and the most mischief in their eyes. Plus, they’re tough as nails. While their contemporaries are retiring to “active adult communities,” old horsewomen are still mucking stalls and driving tractors. That, my friend, is a life goal.
The very best thing about this sport is how it continues to make me feel. No matter how gray my hair gets or how many lines march across my face, when I walk into the barn and see my horse, I am the same starry-eyed barn rat I was the first time I ate a peanut butter and jelly sandwich on my tack trunk.
Life gives you lots of reasons to feel old: your body, your bills, your job. Feeling old isn’t just about the passage of time or carrying too much responsibility. What makes me feel old is realizing that those opportunities I passed over in my 20s are never coming around again. Horses reconnect me to a life that is still full of possibilities.
Maybe your goal is to move up a level or master a lead change. Maybe you’re just trying to solve a mystery, like how your horse removed his own blanket or poked himself in the eyeball overnight. With horses, there is always a new adventure waiting for you. That’s the magic! It doesn’t actually matter what the next adventure is, as long as there is one. Horses keep me eager to discover what the nest day will bring, even when early morning calls to the vet age my exterior.
So, get yourself a good tack trunk. If you are lucky, you will be using it for a long, long time.
And if you get a really big one, they can even bury you in it.
Katherine Cook grew up riding in the 3’ hunters in New England before moving to Switzerland in her late teens. Sweet Briar College brought her to Virginia, where she was an active member of the riding program and member of multiple IHSA teams. After many years of equestrian adventures competing in the hunters, equitation, jumpers, and eventing, she is now content to enjoy some trails with her off-track Thoroughbred Ned. She lives in Gordonsville, Virginia, with too many cats, an Australian Shepherd, and a Jack Russell-beagle mix who knows no shame.