When The Great Ones Leave The Barn
The nature of working for a horse trainer can often by physically, and emotionally, taxing. Physically, you're riding horses, you're cleaning stalls, you're on the road and often, you're far away from home. However, today this post is about the emotional side that I think every trainer, trainer's assistant, or loper has had to deal with atleast once in a life time... and that's saying goodbye to a good horse. What I mean by this is when a horse leaves your barn - it may be to another trainer, another barn, or another owner, but every which way you cut it, the sting and the hurt is there as that trailer pulls out of the driveway. For this post, I'm going to talk from personal experience - as a cutting horse loper, but I know that this same occurrence is often felt by owners, and trainers, as well.
As a loper, you spent a lot of time with the horses in your training program. Often you feed them in the morning, you muck their stalls, and you turn them out. You probably change their blankets, make their farrier and vet appointments, and hold them for those respective people. There's always a few in every program, usually the ones with the biggest personalities, that you gullibly fall in love with. Just like every bad country love song, you know you shouldn't - but to hell with it, you do anyway. You've probably swatted them a couple good times, but you've probably also talked to them, whispered to them, petted them, kissed them, and laughed at them. The reality is that in any given day, you spend a lot of time with those horses. You learn who they are, and you learn how to handle them like the back of your hand. Why shouldn't you fall in love with them, you ask? Well, the good ones, the great horses, the ones with the big personalities, they are often also the best in the show pen. They win everyone over, including prospective buyers. Or, maybe they are so solid that owners decide they no longer need them in training. Perhaps, this happens too, the funds have dried up and the owner has no choice but to take the horse home. Any which way you cut it, that horse is leaving you, that horse isn't yours. I've thought a lot about the bond between a great horse, and "the help", these past few days. In cutting, a loper will generally groom, saddle and warm up a horse - whether that be at home, or at a show. You get them ready to hand them off to your boss, the trainer, or the client that owns them. Often those warm ups will really determine how easy and willing the horse is in the show pen. If you mess it up, don't wind them down enough, or jack them up with your own emotions, it will show up when they go to show. So you learn, you learn how to handle and manage the big personality horses that are often hot and expressive. You learn how to relax them, how to get them to focus. Sometimes, it takes a lot of work, often, you learn the mistakes you've made only after they leave the show pen and the reins are thrown towards you. Then, you cool them down. The quiet practice of letting them get their air back, letting them calm down and wind down. Sometimes you run your fingers through their mane and tell them what a good job they've done. You pet them on the neck. You quietly tell them that next time they'll do better, or that they are the champion you always knew they could be. It's quiet, it's intimate, and all of a sudden, they start to feel like they are yours. This is where the trap is laid. The loper, generally, will walk the horse back to it's stall, they will remove the tack and give them a bath. Then, they will put a cooler on the horse, and maybe ice and wrap it's legs. When it's dry, they will blanket it, feed and grain the horse. At night, the loper rolls out of bed to check on the horse, who most likely will nicker happily to see you approaching. You make sure the horse has enough water, enough hay to last them the night. The loper surveys the horses attitude, determines how the horse will be the next day. Do they seem relaxed? Should I give them some more hay to munch on? It's these quiet moments, when it's just you, and the stars outside, and that show horse, that the feeling creeps over you again - this is my horse. But it isn't, and realistically the minute you begin to forget that, that's when it all goes downhill.
Why? Because the nature of the show horse world is that horses get sold, clients leave trainers and take their horses with them, new horses come, and older horses go home, horses move around - that's how it works. It never makes it any easier though. This phenomenon has happened to me twice in my lifetime. I've settled into having "my horse", "my favourite". Both horses, I put many, many miles and hours of my own life into. I handed them off to trainers, to their owners, and I held my breath through their works, through their 2:30 minutes in the show pen. I talked to them while I worked, told them my secrets and I trusted them completely, as if they were my own. Without even realizing I was doing it, I spent a little extra time with them, on them, for them. I doted on them, and always put them first. Then suddenly for different reasons they were leaving the barn, and the hole forms in my heart. Quietly, there's that voice, they were never yours to begin with.
So, what's the answer? Maybe we shouldn't fall in love with these horses? I don't think that's the right way to look at it though. I think, in life, we are blessed with good horses - great horses - that challenge us, expose our flaws, teach us, form and mold us, work for us and show off their own, and our, talents. Some of them you own, and some of them you just get the honour of being around and working with. These great horses are what life is about in the horse world. The chance to swing a leg over a champion and be a part of "it" - no matter how short, or long. Whether or not the accolades are in your name, or not. So, tonight, when you go to check on your herd, or you walk down your barn aisle, stop by the stall of that one horse that somehow manages to be your favourite, and give them a couple more scratches than normal. Know that even if you don't own them, even if they are never going to be truly "yours", that you have a big part in who that horse is - and they have a big part in who you are, and thank them for that.