I’m known for my attention to detail and my ability to care for horses well. It’s a craft I’ve perfected for years, both on the road and at home. I’ve won awards for this at some of the biggest shows in the country, and I even taught a show grooming class at Centenary College in Hackettstown, New Jersey, last fall.
But you know what I’m terrible at? Taking care of myself.
You’re probably asking yourself, “Now why would she not take care of herself?!” My everyday job is extremely physical. I’m riding, grooming, walking, bathing, cleaning, organizing, etc., all day long. It requires traveling to different places, staying in different hotels/houses every week, living out of a suitcase, and trying to eat healthily and avoid fast food (which is easy for me because it makes me sick). My first priority is making sure other humans, horses and dogs are comfortable and well taken care of every day. I will always take extra time for them, but I’ve never given myself the same attention. When I graduated college, I owned a horse and did most of the work for her plus the other 30 or 40 we had at the barn, which left very little time for myself. I missed that crucial point in life where you learn to care for yourself.
By the time I get to my needs at the end of the day, they never seem important enough. It’s seemed like a waste of time. It also requires a lot of energy that I do not possess following a busy show day or a full day of travel and show set-up. Most of the time, I only have enough energy remaining to shower, eat dinner, and then pass out in bed (or on the couch, my second bed).
My mentality of, “I’ll be fine, I can survive one night without dinner because I’m too exhausted,” or, “I don’t need to stop and drink water; I’ve got five more horses to ride,” used to work when I was younger, and I could bounce back from things a little more easily. I could go the entire day without drinking anything but coffee and Diet Coke. Yes, I’ll admit I’m a struggling caffeine addict. Wouldn’t you be too if you worked 16-plus-hour days sometimes? In addition, my hay and grass allergies weren’t that bad back then. I’ve also never had to stretch after riding because my muscles never became super tight and painful. I could just eat dinner and be fine for the day, not consuming breakfast or lunch at all. I never just let myself relax in a quiet place because if I relaxed, it might mean I would miss something on one of the horses the next day.
Now if I do those things, I pay for it. I wake up starving and hangry if I don’t eat dinner every night. If I touch or am around certain types of alfalfa/timothy hay or straw and don’t wash my hands or shower immediately after, I cannot breathe, or I break out in hives (even with my allergy medication) and feel like I’m in a fog. If I only drink coffee all day, I feel cranky, and my muscles ache from lack of water. If I don’t eat throughout the day, I feel sick at the end when I try to eat. If I don’t relax in a quiet place and unwind, I become anxious and cranky.
It took me until 2018 to realize all of this and how it was negatively affecting my life. My knee injury, which is ligament-related, was painful and flaring up again. My whole body felt like it was on fire every day, and Advil wasn’t solving it. I was a bit miserable on a daily basis. My boyfriend, Lee, who also lives on the road and does in-gate/drag/water truck around the country, suggested that I needed to start caring for myself better. Lee always makes the effort to do a little self-care every day, whether it’s buying extra water to drink, bringing his lunch, making time to relax, or paying extra attention to caring for his allergies. It’s something I admire about him but struggle with for myself.
At first, I fought him (I can be very stubborn sometimes). Who did he think he was, trying to tell me how to care for myself? I had been traveling on the road for longer than he had and had survived up to that point quite well! For example, the thought of trying to give up the Diet Coke I thought I needed meant that I needed to change my entire life routine. I wasn’t sure I had the energy for this.
Lee encouraged me to start by kicking my nasty Diet Coke addiction and replacing it with water. Prior to this, I could drink two or three Diet Cokes a day when I was super busy at a horse show in addition to a huge coffee in the morning. Two years prior, I had tried to stop drinking Diet Coke and failed miserably. This time, the two-day migraine that ensued after I finally did quit Diet Coke was enough to guarantee I wouldn’t slip and begin drinking it again. I had to retrain all of my friends and my guys that I couldn’t have it anymore. Now Lee is just happy he can hand me a bottle of Aquafina without me making a face, and he knows I will finish it.
I missed the caffeine rush I got from Diet Coke, but you know what? I felt better drinking water. My muscles didn’t cramp every night. The muscle pain ended. I stopped skipping dinner and made a point to make sure I always ate before bed, even if it was just a peanut butter and jelly sandwich or something from the gas station down the road from the hotel. I currently make a point to eat lunch when I can, and I always try to bring something to work with me for breakfast, even if I don’t eat it immediately.
After all of this, Lee suggested I start stretching my tight muscles. I was struggling with lengthening my leg around the horses that I rode on a daily basis. Over the summer, I bought a foam roller and started rolling my tight hamstrings and IT band, which affects my knee injury. I immediately felt relief. My daily knee pain is minimal now, and I can stretch down into my heels when I ride. If I miss a day, I do not feel as good and can tell I’ve forgotten. In September, I bought better sneakers that have more support and an arch to help with my knee pain. With these new shoes, my feet no longer throb at the end of the day.
I stopped exposing myself to any hay or straw without washing my hands or showering after to avoid hives. Obviously this is exceptionally hard in a barn where hay is very prevalent, so I have to pay extra attention to this. It also requires that my co-workers help me—I’ll let them hay, and I’ll complete another chore as a trade-off so they don’t have to do that one. I make sure that at the end of the day I take some time for myself, even if it’s just for a walk in the afternoon or quiet time before bed. Like my best friend Kassie says, “If you can’t find 10 minutes for yourself in a 24-hour day, you’re doing something wrong, and you need to change that!”
My overall attitude has improved because I’ve made all these changes to care for myself in addition to all the humans, horses and dogs in my life. Now I have more energy to help others. I give credit to Lee for helping me make changes to improve myself physically—if he had not pushed me, I know I wouldn’t be helping myself.
Attending indoors this fall presented a new challenge for me: caring for myself on a weird time schedule. Sometimes we were at the barn at 4 a.m. and left 12 hours later, and sometimes we were there from 4 a.m. until 11 p.m. or midnight to turn around and do the same thing all over again the next day. I made extra effort to hold to my new life changes, staying up late to foam roll even for five minutes or going out of my way to buy a case of bottled water for myself for the week. I showered after night check every night to get the hay off of me, even if I had already showered after work. Good news, I only slipped once: The first night at the Pennsylvania National I didn’t eat dinner and just showered and went to bed. I regretted my choice in the morning. All of these life changes made the long days at indoors more bearable. I felt physically better, therefore I was better equipped to do my job.
One of my favorite moments from indoors 2019 was Lafitte De Muze and my boss, Amanda Steege, winning the $50,000 Hunter Classic at the National Horse Show in Lexington, Kentucky. In addition, I won The Groom’s Award. I felt like everything really came together; Amanda was on top of her game, and Lafitte was really feeling his best, both mentally and physically. Achieving this with an animal that cannot directly communicate with you in English is very difficult. All of us on his team had worked together to help him succeed. And that’s what it’s all about, isn’t it?
Because I’ve been dealing with my own pain, now I’m more aware of how a horse feels physically and how I can help them to feel better. Both the horses and I do similar activities all day: We walk; we run; we work physically. I always think that if my feet hurt, theirs probably do too. If my knees hurt, theirs probably do as well. If my whole body hurts, chances are theirs might too. Footing changes everywhere we go, whether it be dirt, asphalt, concrete, or deep or hard footing. And that’s only one example of a factor that changes with location. You have to pay attention to all these little details in order to have things work out in your favor. These horses are athletes and always need to be treated as such.
Keep in mind all the life changes I’ve made have been over the course of a year, and it has been quite a process. It’s difficult to change your daily habits; you have to start with one small thing and build on it from there. I feel like many horse people on the road also struggle with some of these things as well. It’s hard to care for yourself when you spend so much time caring for your horses or have a family to attend to. But know this: You can change it! Yes, it is challenging to incorporate these things into your everyday life, but I promise you, it is worth it.
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.