What a long strange trip it’s been, 2022. In all things with horses, we plan, and God laughs, so it’s never really a shocker to me when whatever the plan was in January stops being the plan about 837 times before the year’s end. Add in a pandemic coming to a… well, “end” isn’t quite right, but at least a new phase—plus an economic boom, an economic bust, life, death, losing a work wife and gaining a husband, and it’s been a year for the books.
It’s all left me in a place of opportunity, a place to make some changes in how I do things. As I’ve gotten older, I’m just a little less scared by the changes, the departures, the surprises. I now see them more as exciting moments for growth rather than calamities. It doesn’t make them easy, but I’m getting better at it.
The ups and downs in my own string of horses forced my hand towards one business change. My Eddie’s curious path, followed by his steep decline, followed by a horrible journey into the diagnosis of equine degenerative myeloencephalopathy—a diagnosis I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemies—was no fun, none at all. But his loss meant that I learned something. I got tougher and smarter. I’ll be better able to deal with the next one (there will, no doubt, be a next one), and I’m able to be a source of strength for others going through it. And it all opened the door to a now 5-year-old American-bred Dutch Warmblood gelding named Nightwatch (Hennessey—Fantazia, Pandorra, bred by Marina Parris-Woodhead), who we’re calling “Velcro.”
Velcro is incredible, one of the better-moving youngsters I’ve ever owned. Between him and my 4-year-old, American-bred Dutch Warmblood Ojalá (Vitalis—Fienna, Sir Sinclair, bred by Belinda Nairn, barn name “Lala”), I have some very exciting babies in my life. And in the spirit of “sometimes horses surprise you,” I’ve ridden Velcro once, for a brief moment, only to very promptly get bucked off.
Certainly getting bucked off was a surprise. He’d been foot-perfect for my own in-house rider, and then he’d been foot perfect for the trainer buddy of mine who’ll be riding him through the winter (as the cost of sending a giant 5-year-old to Florida is staggering, so it’s cheaper and kinder to leave him in Virginia). I got on probably too casually, put my leg on a little too hard, and caught the poor lamb in the worst 10 seconds of his life (probably more like 4 or 5 seconds but c’mon, let me have a little street cred, please).
I’ve been dealing with some fear stuff after Eddie, whose disease manifested in some pretty spectacular—and terrifying, unpredictable, out-of-nowhere—airs above the ground. So I was surprised that the Velcro incident did NOT scare me.
I didn’t hop back on because I hit the ground pretty hard (a piece of my helmet shot off), but I know I’ll be able to get on when it’s time. I’ve earned my Baby Horse Merit Badge, and I know that sometimes the good ones do dumb things. I also have an unexpected superpower: I have a Neurologic-Condition Detecting Butt. Eddie was not my first, nor has he been the last, to give me a very specific feeling I now know to recognize as a sign that something is wrong with the horse. Velcro did not give me that vibe. I am not afraid.
But here’s that business change, because I’m also facing an ugly surprise: I ain’t as brave as I once was. Every rider I know, as they get older, has gotten less courageous, and spoken openly about it. But I didn’t think it would happen to me, particularly because I was pretty ballsy, erring on the side of stupid, as a younger person.
But here I am, being a bit of a wimp about the very, very young horses. Maddie, my now 6-year-old, is just starting to occasionally feel some 5-year-old warmblood feelings, and I’m not remotely concerned. That stuff, where I have tools to deal with it because the horse is educated enough to have tools, doesn’t give me pause. But the very young do, and I was beating myself up about it in my car a few days after. Then I listened to a podcast in which eventer Boyd Martin said this: He’d never once been scared to run any of the world’s biggest, baddest cross-country courses, but baby warmbloods freaked him out. He’d outsourced the riding of his youngsters to someone else.
I’ve had other dressage people tell me this, but Olympic medalist and serious badass Boyd Martin? If he said he didn’t want to do the kiddos anymore, it was OK for me to not want to do the kiddos anymore.
And this brings me back to the point with which I began: the plan, how often it changes, and finding zen within it. My long-time barn manager, Rachel, is moving on to a job outside of the equine industry. Rachel has been my right hand for years, someone I’d trust with my life, and while I’m so happy for her on her next venture, an exciting one, I’m also sad to be losing this incredible person from my team.
But between that and needing to add a new assistant trainer to the squad, an opportunity has presented itself. What do I want my business to look like? What sorts of clients and horses do I want to take, and what sort of team do I want to have behind me as we do it? Horses are getting more and more expensive, and I can’t afford them when they’re educated. So I added someone who is not only an excellent teacher—necessary, in my program—but also a cool and confident young horse rider. Ali Redston will, in addition to developing her own horses, and helping me keep the train on the tracks, be the one to take the string of Sprieser babies to their first shows, and give them their first experiences with a confidence I no longer have.
Replacing Rachel with another equally competent grown-up barn manager is also a priority, because I LOVE the young women who work for me, but I would like one old person on the team, if only to appreciate my 1980s and ’90s music choices. But there’s opportunities here too. Do I want someone who also teaches? Do I want someone who’s got some veterinary chops and some grooming skills, or do I want someone who’s more of an officework-logistics person? Ideally all of those things, I suppose, but that’s a tall order. So what to sacrifice? Could that person do the work of the barn manager job and one working student position, shaking loose more room in the budget so I could pay everyone more, but they’d also do more work?
In my last blog I wrote about the dual frustrations of wanting people with a work ethic, but also finding the funds to pay them fairly for their work in an economic time, and in an agricultural industry, where running in the black is so, so hard.
What I bring into 2023 is an opportunity to step back and re-evaluate, and to possibly craft a new business model, one that I can think about, take my time interviewing candidates, and build the right position for the right person. It would be a fresh start, one I can take my time putting into place, instead of desperation-hiring because someone did a Midnight Runner and is leaving me hanging.
So while it wasn’t how I wanted to start the year, I’m embracing the opportunity for a reset. I’m getting to build positions around people instead of trying to find people to fill positions (though I will need a few more people, so if you’re competent and fun and like snacks and the occasional fart joke, drop me a line). My horses and my clients will certainly reap the benefits, but I think catering to my own skills—and the reality that I simply can’t do it all anymore—will help me find peace this year, too.
Lauren Sprieser is a USDF gold, silver and bronze medalist with distinction 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 string of young horses with hopes of one day representing the United States in team competition. Follow her on Facebook and Instagram.