I love my job. I really do. I get to spend my career following my passion. But like most things, it comes at a cost. So many professionals have died lately, and more are opening up about their battles with depression. I feel the need to pull back the rug a little and try to show that cost.
Most recently, Teresa Butta died on New Year’s Eve. We were acquaintances—we moved in the same circles, rode with the same instructor, attended the same clinics and shows, and were about the same age. We had big dreams.
I can’t look at her death and look at my health breakdown two years ago, followed by necessary business and life changes, and not think, “There, but for the grace of God, go I.”
The horse business is tough—everyone says that. But those words don’t even touch the surface.
Working in any highly competitive performance-based industry, be it athletics, the arts, academia, some corporate settings, is tough, because you are always, always trying to be the best. Not your best, but THE best, in order to survive. Any performance-based industry has a “what have you done lately?” mentality. Recent show results are much more important than awards won 20 years ago.
Dressage riders are hard-wired with a type-A, perfectionistic, it’s-never-good-enough mindset—professionals even more so. Even when we win, our score sheets detail areas to improve. The impossible standard of a “10” leaves every single one of us with a healthy dose of imposter syndrome.
In the horse industry, we get the double-whammy of working in the service industry. Unless a trainer is quite fortunate with sponsors or family money, the lights are paid by other people’s horses, other people’s dreams, other people’s goals. Supporting client’s dreams and goals, often while we watch ours be sidelined by time, injury or finances, is emotionally quite heavy.
So heavy in fact that in the CBS article dated June 2016, entitled “These Jobs Have The Highest Rate Of Suicide” agriculture/farming workers (which all of us who manage a farm are part of) ranked #1, and service industry workers ranked #19.
The finances in this job add to the pressure—this industry runs on insanely small profit margins. The overhead is crazy high. Board generally breaks even, and owning a competition horse isn’t cheap. Even when the long-term goal is sales, the carrying costs, promotion costs, and training time aren’t paid until the horse sells.
Most horse trainers are one colic surgery, one expensive truck repair, one lost training client away from sleepless nights and robbing Peter to pay Paul. When clients drive up in late-model expensive cars and complain about the cost of a lesson, not getting bitter is an active choice, one that’s really hard to make at the end of a cold, wet, physically-tiring 12-hour day.
We all walked into this career knowing we weren’t going to get rich, but we expected it to be fun. Being close to burnout all the time isn’t fun, not even a little.
Most often we are head trainers, or work alone, and the saying “It’s lonely at the top” is real. When trainers do get the rare luxury of gathering with other pros, our competitive, perfectionistic nature makes it hard to let our guard down. Talking about how many horses are in your program, how long your days are, how many days you’ve worked without a day off is a status symbol. Rarely do we ask each other if we are having fun, or what we do outside of the barn. We are so used to keeping up the veneer of success for our clients that we can’t even let it down in front of our peers. It’s really a wonder that more of us don’t crack.
In our late 20s and early 30s, these stressors are much easier to swallow. Big-tour horses still fill our dreams. But as trainers near middle age, you look at your meager 401k and see USDF and USEF gearing so much funding and programs to the “young professional,” that dreams of CDI gallops no longer have enough shine to pull you through the hard times.
As trainers approach midlife, our priorities are often forced to shift. The sacrifices we made in our 20s and 30s to make ends meet no longer seem worth it. Because at the end of the day, no one asks how much we sacrificed or how hard we worked, only if we achieved our goal.
I have watched so many of my peers change their goals and find other lines of work to have a more stable income source. They shift to part-time, or leave the industry altogether. All to achieve some form of stability and hopefully a work-life balance. But when we’ve been our own boss most of our working career, in a field that most of the world doesn’t even know about, this transition time is really, really hard.
I am saying all of this because knowledge builds empathy, and empathy builds connection. And connection is a big key to handling stress.
Right now, with Teresa’s passing on our minds, my peers are discussing how to help each other. But I think this discussion needs to be opened to the dressage community and friends of the dressage community. We are all looking for concrete ways, big and small, to prevent the stresses of the job from creating stress fractures.
Angelia “Ange” Bean kindly let the Chronicle reprint this excellent post from her blog equichic.blogspot.com, where it first appeared on Jan. 15. Bean trains riders and horses out of Straight Forward Dressage in Elverson, Pennsylvania. She is a USDF L graduate with distinction, as well as a USDF bronze, silver and gold medalist.