Barn Burnout to Beginning Anew

Nicole Cammuso has examined her training program and decided to rebuild it from the ground up — and she’ll be sharing the journey with our readers!

Have you ever had a moment in your life that makes you question all your past choices? An instant of realization in which, even though you have had accomplishments, everything before now was mediocre? It’s a lightbulb moment that opens your eyes to endless possibilities.

I have recently had one of those moments with my horse training program. Although I have spent years sharpening my skills, what has been done prior to this moment is no longer good enough.

Metaphorically speaking, my training program is like the mythological phoenix. And like the phoenix that dies and crumbles into a pile of ashes, so did my program last year. I had been experiencing a major case of “barn burnout” and last year was my breaking point.

Adobe Stock/ slobodyan_78/CC

The burn out was not just a result of the training, it was everything about my business. I was a full-time trainer and running a boarding stable. I am sure those reading this who have similar businesses can relate.

I have often been questioned by those on the outside looking in about how I could possibly get stressed out about living my dream. After all it is not a “real” job. That kind of remark can make one’s mouth fill with blood due to the amount of tongue biting it takes to hold back a sarcastic response.

The financial, mental and physical strains had finally taken their toll on me and I took a big step back. I became numb to my passion for horses, not only due to stress, but also because of the grief and loss I experienced last year. I lost my grandmother, I had to put down my first horse, Chicks, and my other mare, Shelby, had to be retired from riding just as we were getting competitive in our sport of mounted shooting.

Nicole and Chicks. Photo by One Way Street Productions.

It has taken me a lot of self-reflection to finally admit to myself just how much a loss can contribute to the choices we make. Even those of us who bury our feelings deep down in an effort to remain strong, cognitively we are grieving.

A part of me considered walking away from the industry completely. But if I wanted to continue owning my two personal horses that was not an option. Yes, I could buy a piece of property big enough for my retired mare to live out her days as a pasture puff, but I stayed involved because of my filly. Bugatti is my yearling I acquired last year. I fell in love with her sight unseen from a photo and then meeting her as a newborn sealed the deal.

I knew in the back of my head that if I wanted to continue competing, I would need to bring along another horse. Little did I know Shelby’s career would be ending a lot sooner than expecting. I found myself without a riding horse for the first time in a very long time. But honestly, it may have been exactly what I needed.

Shelby with Bugatti in the background. Photo by Nicole Cammuso.

In addition to all the other life changes I made over the past year and downsizing the horse business, having one horse to focus on from the ground up really helped me decompress. I was starting to view the barn and my horses as an outlet again, and that made my heart happy.

Yet, the pile of ashes from the dying phoenix, aka my training program, has remained lifeless and unmoving. Don’t get me wrong, I am very excited to be training my own horse from the ground up and have been on a mission to do as much as I can with her to get her ahead of the curve.

I have the desire to do better with her than I have with every other horse that has been through my program, but what does that mean? Better stops? Lighter, more correct maneuvers? Absolutely I want those things, but something in the back of my head was saying “that is not enough”.

Recently, the lightbulb turned on. There was a rumbling from inside the pile of ashes. The phoenix was about to be reborn. To rise like the phoenix from the ashes is to transform into something better than what was, to overcome difficulties, to get back up after failure as a better version of yourself. It is letting go of old ways of thinking, so that real change can occur.

I had to take a long hard look at my training methods and really think about what I was resenting, what mistakes I have made, what has worked well and what I was missing. I let my mind become open to new ideas and concepts as I dove into new education head first. I figured out what I truly wanted to create was a deeper connection with my horse.

Bugatti and Shelby. Photo by Nicole Cammuso.

So, what does this mean? Well, have you ever watched a talented liberty trainer perform with their horse? It gives me goosebumps at the amount of try and willingness they can get out of their horses freely. No ropes, no restrains, no bits, no spurs. The horses are engaged because they want to be. They are choosing to take part in what the trainer is asking. That spark and communication is something I want for my own horses as well.

I can’t speak for all training programs, but I know for myself and many others we train using a pressure and release system. The quicker the release, that faster the horse learns. It makes sense to the horse and it seems to be as close to speaking their language as we can get. But even the happiest horses are performing for us for a release of pressure. To have the work stop. Their reward is not having to work anymore. And when I look at it that way, what fun is that for them?

Over the past few weeks I have been immersing myself in some new training models. I will soon start the process of applying some new techniques and theories with my girls as I completely transform my training program, mixing in what has previously worked, letting go of some old ways and allowing genuine progress to transpire.

The good news is, you will be along for the ride as I document this journey. I plan to share a candid experience that will not only share the successes, but also the learning curves and hurdles along the way.