Your Turn: Leaving to Find My Way Back

Sometimes horses offer all the therapy we need — but other times, our grief and emotions can manifest in our horse life and show us that something is really wrong. Reader Anne Bruins shares her story about a dark period in her life and how she had to leave the barn to find her way back.

Off loaded home from Winnie’s trip back from Maryland. She was in a way pulling me home as well. Photo courtesy of Anne Bruins.

As an equestrian, I’ve spent most of my life with horses. From playing with Breyers to jumping a course or riding a dressage pattern, my life from the age of 10 was ruled by horses. I drew pictures in art class and wrote my papers about horses. A mosaic plate I painted was on display at the National Thoroughbred Racing Museum in Saratoga, New York. I even competed on my 21st birthday and celebrated after being champion of my division. I dreamed of riding in the Olympics.

Some slowly grow out the “horse thing” while I seemed to keep at it — until November 24th, 2013, when I lost the one person who would always talk horses with me, my dad. I guess I should consider myself lucky to have spent 23 years with him, but it doesn’t seem like enough. In my family, I always felt like an outcast, the odd one out, the black sheep: I was the crazy horse girl that my siblings never understood. My dad, however, was always the first one to ask how was my horse when I came home from the barn and never got annoyed when all I talked about was horses.

The day I lost him was the day my world started spiraling down. I wouldn’t go into that hospital room where my dad’s lifeless body laid to say goodbye. I didn’t sleep for two days after leaving the hospital and I barely ate Thanksgiving dinner that following Thursday. I didn’t go to the rest of my college classes that semester and the barn and my horse brought such painful memories that I could barely touch her. I didn’t see her until two months after he had passed.

By then all I felt was numb, devoid of any warm feelings of joy and love my beautiful chestnut mare gave me. She had become mine on October 24, 2011… but from then on, the 24th of every month didn’t make me happy because it marked how much time I’ve had my little red mare but instead brought on sheer agony because it just marked another month my dad wasn’t there. He would never see me win my first blue ribbon, he wouldn’t see me go on to compete as an intercollegiate alumnus, and he would never watch a Triple Crown winner with me.

I had a hard time admitting to myself that he was really gone, so I left. I went back to school to try to find my life and happiness again. But all found was my joy slipping farther away. I had never been into parties in the early years of college — in fact it was a rare occasion I did drink. But I started to find release from my life in parties. I was heading down a dangerous path.

When I went back to college, it was to finish my Equine Science major. I felt shortly after losing my dad that something was missing, no matter how much I convinced myself everything was fine. Horses were my escape when I was younger, so why couldn’t they be now? I threw myself back into barn chores and riding every day. What I didn’t realize was that I was causing so much damage physically and emotionally from burnout that it was pushing me more and more to partying with friends and my boyfriend at the time. So the weekends I did come home from college, my horse sat in a field as I did booze cruises and pub crawls with friends. I thought this was the only way to move on — to push myself until I broke and collapsed from exhaustion.

After I finished my last year of college, I accepted a job down in Maryland with a huge horse farm operation. I kept at the back-breaking work, but this time I didn’t have my friends to catch me. While my horse did make the trip down, I barely had the energy to work with her. When I did force myself to get up in the saddle, it was less than stellar. I was tense and unbalanced and she was hot-headed and antsy. It was like two bucks locking horns in a battle for territory. It was some of the worst riding of my life and all I wanted to do was blame my horse.

It didn’t take long for the burnout to set in. Bottles of wine and beer were the only way that I felt good at this point. When I finally hit the final brick wall, I was in tears in front of my boss and saying I couldn’t do this job anymore and my heart just wasn’t in it. After a few short months, I packed it in and took the five-hour journey back to New York.

When I finally moved back to New York, it really didn’t get much better. I had my friends to go out with and I was spending more weekends in bars than the barn with my horse after she was finally shipped back. I stopped competing and for a few months, riding altogether. I was sometimes behind on my board bill because of how much money I would spend on going out. Not only had I lost my father, but I lost myself too.

My wake-up calls thankfully came before it was too late: my best friend of over twenty years just being the shoulder I needed to cry on after a practically blackout night of drinking and a guy who made me realize how unhealthy my view of myself was. I was the crazy horse girl that threw caution to the wind and could tackle any problem because being an equestrian made me strong — or at least I used to be. I didn’t see that girl anymore when I looked in the mirror. All I saw was dead shell of that girl that had given up her dream of a riding career and I hated that girl.

The scary moments of not remembering the night of drinking were a serious wake-up call that I had a problem. I took what those people showed me and fought hard to get back that spark that was in me when I talked horses. I would make myself go to the barn just to groom my horse — I wasn’t quite ready to jump back in the saddle. I spent time with my trainer and barn mates again and even started doing some horse show photography again. I even eventually took on a part-time stable job at a dressage facility nearby.

Despite an awful ride, I always thank her for holding me up. Photo by Ally Leavenworth.

I started to feel like I was coming back to life. I was dealing with my emotions and feelings in a healthier way and I believed I was worth something again… but I still couldn’t find my way back into the saddle. I was so frustrated with myself and angry that I couldn’t motivate myself to just jump right back in.

My last wake-up call came from a talk with mental skills coach Tonya Johnston on the Horse Radio Network. She made me realize I was causing what was holding me back: I was holding on to the fact I had to be at a certain level of riding to be happy, the world-class Olympian I thought I should be. In fact, it was making me miserable.

It was a moment that hit me in the gut and took me a while to accept: I wanted to blame everything and everyone for how I had gotten to such a bad place but the truth was that I created this problem because I let myself pack away the grief and force out the one good thing in my life. So I took the winter off from riding and focused on something else. I took up kickboxing and started writing again. I painted and started training for a 5K. I did everything and anything not horsey.

Now, I am noticing I can enjoy my horse a little more and more each time I make it out to the barn. I smile more even seeing those loving eyes of hers staring back at me, even if she is only looking for her favorite cookies in my pocket. I feel more than just physically being there at the barn — I’m mentally present. On the rare occasions I have jumped on her my riding has been better because I am not carrying the weight of my bottled-up grief anymore. Board bills are on time now so the financial stress hasn’t been weighing down our rides either. I am starting to let go of an ugly part of my life.

Winnie is always tolerant of hugs when she knew I was hurting the most, despite the smile. Photo by Ally Leavenworth.

Now with winter coming to an end, I am starting to feel the riding bug come back. This winter off gave me time to really understand a saying that really didn’t have the same meaning as it does at this very moment: “Horses are not my whole life, but they make my life whole.” I don’t have to be an Olympian to love what I do and it doesn’t have to be the only thing I enjoy in my life; I can have eclectic tastes.

Now it’s still a long road ahead, but I’m in such a better place to start back. This summer I’ll ride out on the trail with my mare, but I’ll also go hiking with my friends. I’ll watch my friends compete, but I’ll also study hard to get into nursing school. I have given myself permission to not be the same horse girl I was at age ten, but to live the same way: with all the love and passion horses have given my life and to just enjoy that feeling on the back of my horse.

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