Remembering My ‘Why’

“Nothing feels better than going to the barn and just enjoying time with my horse, just the way the little girl who fell in love with horses all those years ago did.”

Allie snuggling with Wyatt. Photo by Allie Carlson.

I was that horse crazy kid. The one who lived in horse t-shirts, only read horse books, drew horses on their notebooks… you get the idea. I told my parents I wanted to be an equine veterinarian, which then morphed into an equine physical therapist and finally a horse trainer. I didn’t have a true focus as a rider, I just loved everything horses and barn. Then, as a freshman in high school, I watched “Horsepower: The Road to the Maclay” on Animal Planet. From there I moved my focus to the hunter jumper world and the show ring. I wanted to be just like Brianne Goutal.

As my junior years ended without a big medal final win, I turned my focus towards college. I studied Equine Business Management and Riding at Johnson and Wales University. I rode on the IHSA team, showed my horse, and worked in a barn, trying hard to lay the foundation for a career in the horse industry. When I graduated, I spent a few years showing as an amateur, hoping to build my resume as a rider, before taking a job teaching lessons and doing some training rides. In my mind I was on my way to be the big-time rider and trainer of my dreams. What I lacked in financial means, fancy horses and big money clients, I made up for in passion.

Allie and Grace. Photo courtesy of Allie Carlson.

Life, however, had other plans, and I married into the military. Two and a half years ago I said goodbye to my family, my friends, job and my plan and moved to Anchorage, Alaska. Pretty quickly the reality sank in that moving every few years and being a trainer might not work. I took a job working in advertising for a hunter jumper publication, clinging to the people I met through work to feel “relevan.t” I felt like I was failing and letting my parents, my husband and my college degree down by not being a big trainer or rider. 

I saw photos of friends showing at HITS and other big horse shows, while I only managed to make it to one show in Alaska my first year here. Last spring I left my job and COVID hit, canceling all three USEF rated horse shows in the state. Life was hectic, and I had barely jumped my horse all summer when it hit me: I was riding and enjoying my time with my horse, in a way I had not for years. Despite not showing or jumping, it did not feel like anything was missing in my life.

Allie on Wyatt during the summer of 2020. Photo courtesy of Allie Carlson.

I told my husband that I wasn’t sure if I wanted to jump or show anymore, a week or so later I told my parents. I was pretty scared to tell them — I felt like I was letting them down. To my surprise, no one was upset. They just wanted me to be happy and it didn’t matter if that came with ribbons or not. As I had the conversation with them, I realized that in my quest to be the best rider, to be a trainer, I had completely lost sight of why I began riding in the first place. When I started, I loved riding because I absolutely LOVE animals, and horses just always felt extra special to me. I enjoyed the 4-H shows I did prior to my hunter jumper focus because they were mostly about enjoying time with my friends and my horse.

In December my heart horse passed away very suddenly. While he and I had not stepped into a show ring for many, many years, losing the horse who had built me into the hunter jumper rider I am today sent me spiraling back as I looked at photos and videos of our time together in the show ring. But as I looked at the photos of the last few years of his life in retirement, I realized how precious those memories were to me — the bareback walks down my parent’s half mile long dirt road driveway, the hours spent just grooming him or grazing him. It was the moments I felt sad or scared and just sat with him and all my problems went away, those memories meant too much more than the ribbons we had won. I didn’t miss the horse show glory, I missed my horse.

Photo courtesy of Allie Carlson.

I then looked at my little gelding I have now. While I had visions of hunter derbies in my head when I bought him, his quirky lead changes and sassy personality don’t exactly lend themselves to the hunter ring. But I wouldn’t change that sass for anything. It challenges me to work harder and be a better rider. He is a jack of all trades, master of none, and with that he has challenged me to let go of the ribbons I chased and helps me honor the young girl who fell in love with horses.

As we grow up, I often find we lose sight of the “why” behind our passions. Moving to Alaska stripped me of many of my horse related goals and plans, but it has brought me back to my roots and reminded me of my “why.” Nothing feels better than going to the barn and just enjoying time with my horse, just the way the little girl who fell in love with horses all those years ago did.