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Equestrians & the Lost Art of ‘Self Care’

“Why don’t we treat ourselves half as well as we treat our horses?” Self care has become a trendy buzzword referring to the act of consciously tending to one’s own well-being — and Kristen Kovatch believes equestrian culture makes us inherently bad at it.

Flickr/Ian Webb/CC

Self care is not a new concept — we’ve been reminding each other to take care of ourselves since we first invented the paycheck; we’ve just rebranded that action with a trendy new name to give it fresh new appeal for the 2010s. The history of self care as a concept is pretty loaded, but for the sake of this discussion, we’ll define it thus: the act of consciously tending to one’s own well-being and wellness.

This is something that I believe we as equestrians are really, really bad at doing.

The art of horsemanship has trained us that the horse comes first, second and third: we tend to our horse’s needs before our own. Our horses eat before we do. Our horses rest before we do. We clean our barns and bed our stalls and tend to our horses’ creature comforts for hours before we go home to clean and cook and keep our own homes in relative order. All of these are good things: these are the indicators of a good horseman, someone who has devoted their life to ensuring the horses under their care are as happy and healthy as possible. Putting our horses’ needs first is a universal point of pride for equestrians, a badge that we wear proudly.

We balance their diets carefully to make sure they’re getting the best possible nutrition (and not too little or too much); we plan their exercise to make sure we don’t accelerate their workload too slowly or too quickly. We make sure they have plenty of social time in group turnout for mental health.

We are the ones with the power to dictate our horses’ daily workloads and lifestyle, and that’s a responsibility that I believe the vast majority of us do not take lightly: if our horses come in a bit sore, a little tired, slightly off, that indescribable “just not right” that comes from hours and hours of close observation, we adjust accordingly. We soothe their bodies, adjust their exercise, provide therapies to keep them feeling their best, make changes (we may also go completely off the deep end and panic every time the horse is slightly sore or tired from a previous day’s hard workout, but that’s the subject of another article!).

But if we wake up a little tired, a little sore or stiff, joints popping and old injuries making themselves known, how many of us can honestly say that we adjust our own workload a bit, give ourselves some downtime, a little rest? Horses still need to be fed and turned out and stalls mucked, of course, but how many of us continue to go full-throttle beyond basic horsekeeping?

The professional full-time horseman, of course, may not have a lot of choice in the matter when one’s livelihood is on the line. But for those of us who keep horses recreationally to satisfy our own love for the animal and the sport, why don’t we treat ourselves half as well as we treat our horses? Instead, we brag about our sore muscles, our old injuries from falls years ago that we didn’t take the time to rehab properly; we joke about how we would never pass a pre-purchase exam if there were such a thing for humans.

Modern working culture has embraced the concept of “hustle”: work hard and get ahead. Hold down a side job, or three (now called the “side hustle”). If you’re not spending every spare moment working hard to make your dreams come true (whatever those dreams may be) then you’re wasting your life. Someone more dedicated than you will take all of your opportunities for themselves.

Whoa, let’s pump the brakes there for a second. Now, I’m the queen of putting too much on my plate: at the moment, I work full-time as Horse Nation’s managing editor; I teach a few riding and driving lessons in the evenings and weekends; I help out around the farm to work off my board; I operate a small craft coffee roasting company with my sister-in-law. Oh, and I’m riding my personal horse roughly six days a week. By most accounts, this is some serious hustle.

But this morning, when the alarm went off well before the sun came up, I reached over in the darkness and shut it off — and then I rolled back over and closed my eyes. I knew what would happen: I would force myself up out of bed, hurry down to the barn, saddle up my horse, put in a ride and then be totally, completely exhausted for the rest of the day, trying to turn in good work while propping my eyelids open with more coffee, before returning to the barn to be peppy and cheerful for a little kid’s riding lesson as the sun went down.

I went back to sleep. I woke up for real with the sun well over the horizon, put in a much shorter ride on my horse than I had originally planned, and returned home to get to work. And you know what? I feel really good. My body feels rested; my joints don’t feel sore. My mind is alert and active. It didn’t require me scheduling a half-day session at the spa or a meditation or a yoga retreat or all the other fancy “self care” concepts social media loves to show us. It just took a few extra hours of sleep, something my body and mind had been craving for days on end.

I missed a day of training by taking a short walking ride instead. But my horse doesn’t have goals the way I do. My horse doesn’t care how much hustle I can crank into 24 hours. My horse doesn’t glorify overwork. My horse knows that I’m a much better partner when I’m relaxed and rested with my mind and body fully ready to focus on him.

“You can’t burn the candle at both ends,” my sister-in-law observed stoically in the barn driveway this morning. Normally by the time she’s rolling through to do her chores, I’m wrapping up my ride rather than sheepishly pulling into the drive. But she’s right.

Equestrians, we pride ourselves on our horsemanship. It’s time we do the same for ourselves. Your horse will thank you.

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