A few years ago, in the midst of a spat with disaster-fatigue-induced depression, I had the word “grit” tattooed on my left wrist. I adore it, I adore the meaning behind it, and I look at it often for comfort.
I don’t think it would surprise anyone to hear that I’ve needed a little grit lately, because I think we all have. This is one of those times where a whole lot of awfulness is beyond our control, and we’re just going to have to bear it a while. And I know I’m not alone when I say that I’m just freaking tired of it. It’s exhausting. And since I’m not a molecular scientist, and since I already wear my mask and don’t go anywhere, and since I’m already registered to vote, there’s no action I can personally take to make any of this take less long. So I’m at my limit.
Resilience is a little bit nature and a lotta bit nurture, and I’ve been thinking about it a lot, in these times. As a trainer of horses, I’ve found that the young horses that push back, that fight, whose default position is NOT compliance, end up being the best adults because they’ve had to learn to be uncomfortable, to go against what their natures want them to do. They are so much more tolerant of adversity as adults because they grew up with it.
(Before anyone reads too much into this, I don’t mean “uncomfortable” or “adversity” like whipping and spurring. I mean like, “My friends are out eating grass, but I’m not, and, because I’m a 5-year-old rockstar athlete with the warmblood emotional stability of a toddler, I’ve decided that bucking and launching and carrying on is a good response to being asked to canter one more time to the left, which means that my rider is now going to ask for five more canters to the left because sometimes life ain’t fair.”)
In addition to parenting horses, I do a bit of parenting to humans. I am a part-time auxiliary backup parent to my partner’s two kids, 10 and 12, whom we have every other weekend, and whom I’ve seen a lot more of in the last few months because during a normal year I’m on the road teaching clinics or going to shows on most weekends. They are cool kids, and they’re so lucky to have FOUR parental figures in their lives, all of us very clear on rules (poor dears), and I’m sure that’s one of the reasons that they’re cool. But back in the spring, when things were just starting to creep back open again, for better or worse, and they started going back to day camp, they both rattled off all of the things they were doing to stay safe and healthy. I was terribly impressed. These are kids who are resilient and capable of processing the world around them with remarkable poise. They’re gritty.
Maybe they learned it from their families. Maybe they learned it from their teachers. Maybe they were hard-wired from the beginning, or maybe a combination of all of the above. Whatever it is, these kids have seen some challenges in their young lives already, and it’s made them into level-headed tweenagers, which I think bodes well for them as adults.
At the farm, I’m looking for a new employee. The reality of working student-type positions is that they’re largely filled by late teens to mid-20s people, largely women, and that means a lot of brains that aren’t finished developing. My team has stunning humans on it and has had many over the last 13 years, as well as some stunningly underdeveloped people who don’t last very long. As I begin the hiring process anew, I’m musing, as I always do, about what the silver bullet is; I wish I could determine the lowest common denominator that tells me whether an applicant will work or not. I’ve had rich kids who were predictably spoiled and useless, and I’ve had rich kids that were phenomenal and diligent, just as I’ve had poor kids who worked their butts off for every second of an opportunity, and I’ve had poor kids who had a chip on their shoulder the size of Montana.
I think grit is it. I think adversity is it. The kids who’ve had to deal with some stuff growing up—illness, injury, death, dashed dreams—are just a little tougher, just a little thicker skinned. They are better equipped to deal with life’s inevitable ups and downs. And the ones who still come to work smiling every day after whatever it was that bruised them up early on? Those are the ones I want.
When the vaccines roll out and COVID-19 gets beaten back into its cave, we’ll all be a little more equipped to deal with life. Until then, I make a list, whenever I feel like the water might be creeping over my head, of all the things that are making me crazy. It’s long.
Then I flip the page over, and I make a list of all the things that are good. It’s much shorter. But it’s there, the small-but-plucky collection of good things that I cling to: Elvis’ piaffe, which is now producible under saddle and without a ground person for backup. Puck’s canter pirouettes, which are becoming a thing. My amazing clients, who get it when we have to make hard choices. My incredible staff, who shows up smiling every day. A partner who loves me, even when I’m awful. A jalapeño pepper plant that is producing like WILD. My dogs. A recipe for lamb burgers that is truly divine.
And in the moments when I have the perspective to see it, I remember all of the disasters I’ve endured before this, and remember how I’ve popped out the other side not only alive but actually better. I hope we can all remember, years down the road, how in these times we had to stick together, be kind, knuckle down and endure. It’ll make the small stuff down the road seem all the smaller.
Lauren Sprieser is a USDF gold, silver and bronze medalist making horses and riders to FEI from her farm in Marshall, Virginia. She’s currently developing The Elvis Syndicate’s Guernsey Elvis and her own Ellington, Gretzky RV and Ojalá with hopes of one day representing the United States in team competition. Read more about her at SprieserSporthorse.com, or follow Lauren Sprieser on Facebook and Instagram.