You've finally brought your horse home. So why does your dream-come-true feel like a nightmare? Here are some tips for happy horsekeeping.
You've bought that horse property you always wanted. Your barn is solid. Your fencing is in good order. Your arena footing is the latest blend. You have good horsekeeping skills-and even some barn-management experience. You're more than ready. You pull up to your barn, horse in tow, and your stomach gives a little jump. Your dream has finally come true!
Or has it? Your facility may be ready to house your beloved equine-but are you ready for the social and emotional changes that go along with bringing him home? You may begin to feel isolated -- your built-in equine community is gone. Or, you may start to feel overwhelmed with the responsibility. Can you really handle every problem that might arise? You may also feel tied down, unwilling to leave your horse in someone else's hands. Finally, you may find yourself besieged with requests from friends and neighbors-and you don't quite know how to say "no."
Here, equine sports psychologist Janet Edgette, PsyD, takes you through each of these issues. She explains why you might feel the way you do, then gives you specific ways to cope.
HORSEKEEPING ISSUE #1: FEELING ISOLATED
You may not realize how important your barn community is to you-until it's gone. You may've discounted the significance of those contacts as "just my barn friends." In reality, your barn friends were a vital social outlet, as well as a valuable resource. They provided companionship, advice, a safety net, and competitive motivation.
In terms of social contacts, you're without the fellowship of barn pals, sharing dreams and cleaning tack on a sunny afternoon. And, if your horse develops a minor health problem, you can no longer turn to the resident horse-care sage to find out what she thinks before calling your vet.
You've also lost that built-in safety net-there's no longer someone around to make a phone call should you become injured, unless you arrange it. When no one is around, you may be hesitant to engage in such risky-but-rewarding pursuits as riding on challenging trails, practicing reining maneuvers at a gallop, or working a green horse.
And, finally, it's easy to lose your winning edge at home, where a casual attitude is okay. Away from watchful eyes, your riding can lose some of its sharpness-which may mean the difference between first and fourth place.
Find a buddy to ride and/or train with. That can be as close as your horse- savvy neighbor, or as easy as placing a note on your local tack- or feed-store bulletin board.
Join local horse clubs. Become active in local breed, show, and/or trail associations. To contact them, look in your state horsemen's directory, or again, ask around at your local tack or feed store.
Form a trail-riding club. If you have trails nearby, and riders who enjoy them, you have all the necessary ingredients. Simply post a note at your local tack or feed store, and/or take out a small advertisement in the personals section of your community newspaper.
Sponsor clinics. If your facility is large enough, sponsor a show- or communication-oriented clinician. Most big-name clinicians have representatives throughout the country, who'll give first-rate clinics to smaller groups. For contact information on communication-based clinicians, see "Your Clinic Companion," Special Report, EQUUS March '00. For other clinicians, check advertisements in national publications, and use your Internet search engine to locate relevant home pages.
Take riding lessons. Sure, you know how to ride. But everyone can use a few pointers. Or, you might want to try another discipline. Group lessons especially offer social opportunities. If you find a fun group, ask the others if they'd like to go on a trail ride-or grab a soda-after the lesson is over.
Become a certified riding instructor. If you're an advanced rider with a gift for communication, you might prefer to give lessons. Not only will you meet interesting horsepeople, you'll also make some extra income. To sign up for a certification program, contact the American Riding Instructors Association at (941) 948-3232.
Volunteer. Offer to work with schools, 4-H clubs, etc. to educate kids about horses and horse safety. To get the number of your local chapter, contact the National 4-H Council at (301) 961-2800.
HORSEKEEPING ISSUE #2: NEW PARENT JITTERS
You might feel as though you're just in over your head. Taking your horse home for the first time is much like the experience facing new parents-right down to the panic you feel when left alone with your new arrival. It can be very nerve-racking.
First, realize it's normal to feel anxious. Give yourself time to settle into the new experience. It's also normal to be hypervigilant. Virtually all new horsekeepers dash out into darkness and rain, dressed in pajamas, to check on their horses. Expect that feeling to subside once you gain knowledge and practical experience.
Prepare yourself. Care for your horse full time at the barn for a week before you bring him home. You'll discover how much time chores require, and get a feel for the rhythm of his routine. Confidence comes with hands-on experience.
Keep it simple. Take steps to keep the first few weeks your horse is at home as simple and stress-free as possible. Before taking him home, have your farrier and vet perform routine maintenance. Then deworm your horse, and give him a good bath. Once he's home, start with the basics-feeding, turnout, and just enjoying having him nearby. As these become routine, add lessons, dietary supplements, etc. Be kind to your emotional circuitry-don't overload!
Increase your education. Many local community colleges, horse clubs, and tack or feed stores sponsor free or low-cost horse management classes-take advantage of them. Surf the Web. Stock your horsekeeping library with books, videos, and magazines. Two books we recommend are Horsekeeping on Small Acreage (Storey Communications, 800/441-5700; www.storeybooks.com); and Horse Around the House (The Crown Publishing Group, 212/572-2537; www.randomhouse.com).
Build a support network. Get to know your neighbors, local handy-people, etc. If you need to get a new vet and/or farrier, get recommendations from your existing ones, and ask your horsey neighbors for their recommendations. You'll soon realize you're not alone.
Have a crisis-management plan. Make a list of everything you can think of-veterinary emergency, water leak, fire, blizzard, hurricane, power outage, fence down, etc.-and formulate a written backup plan, including contact numbers of applicable support people-to deal with each one.
HORSEKEEPING ISSUE #3: LEAVING HOME
It's very important to have ways to get up and leave. Otherwise, you may begin to resent the very thing you love-your horse. Certainly, one of your most agonizing moments will be your first time away from home, trusting someone else to care for your beloved equine. So, by all means, choose wisely-but choose! If you start to believe you can't leave the property, it could turn into a divisive issue between you and your spouse. Just because you're happy living with your horse 24 hours a day, doesn't mean your partner necessarily feels the same way.
Find a reliable horse sitter (or two!). Whether you decide to hire someone or exchange favors with a friend, evaluate their qualifications. They should get high marks for knowledge, experience, compassion, and reliability. For more information, see "How to Find a Horse Sitter," EQUUS, July '99; for how to prepare for your sitter's visit, see "Horse-Sitter Checklist," below.
Ease into it. Your first time away, leave for just one night, and don't go far. Call your sitter to reassure yourself that all's well.
Get your spouse involved. If your significant other is nonhorsey, teach him or her how to take care of things. Feed your horse together in the evening. Have him or her help with morning turnout. And offer a special surprise as thanks.
Adjust your expectations. Realize that keeping horses at home is a big responsibility-you can't just pick up and leave any time. If that's a major problem, rethink having your horses at home.
Take your horse with you. Consider going on riding vacations with your horse. Choose a barn-and-breakfast with full horse-care service, leaving you free to have fun. Riding-vacation references include: ETA Overnight Stabling Directory and Equestrian Vacation Guide (Equine Travelers of America, Inc., 316/442-8131); Jim Balzotti's Best Guest Ranches and Horseback Riding Vacations (Balzotti Publications, Inc., 800/829-0715 or 781/829-0710; www. jimbalzotti. com).
HORSEKEEPING ISSUE #4: MAKING TIME
Your excitement of having your horse home with you may cause you to become so absorbed and single-minded that you stop participating in nonhorse activities, which can lead to burnout.
How many of these classic burnout symptoms sound familiar? Instead of your horse's master, you've become his slave; you're riding less and horsekeeping more; there's never enough time-for your horses or your family-and your sense of guilt is growing; minor crises create major headaches; you feel isolated and trapped. Whoa! Take a deep breath, and use these suggestions to leave burnout misery behind. (For more information, see "Burnout Rescue," Horse Coping, EQUUS November '95.)
Engage in nonhorse activities. Go on family outings, see movies, spend time with your extended family and friends, etc.
Give yourself a break. Reduce all the demands you've placed on yourself, and take a break! Let barn chores slide a little-or use that great horse sitter you found-and take time for yourself. Don't add to your lists, subtract. Free yourself to act on your whims-they're there for a reason! Walk your dog, read a book, take an afternoon nap, or go to a matinee movie.
Get real. Take time to identify what's causing your burnout. Adjust your expectations, and set more realistic goals. For example, instead of entering five shows this summer, focus on two. Barn burnout passes if you eliminate the source.
Address feelings of guilt. If guilt is plaguing you, ask yourself why you feel that way. Don't ignore the issue, just because it's uncomfortable. For instance, if you feel badly because you're spending more time on barn chores than with your kids-make time to read or play with them. The guilt will go away when you recognize and eliminate the cause.
Compromise. If you feel guilty because your significant other is feeling abandoned, lend an ear to his or her concerns, then agree on the sacrifices each of you will make to keep the relationship solid. For instance, your spouse may agree to stay home alone one weekend while you go horse camping-if you'll agree to go on his or her corporate retreat another weekend.
Find a shoulder to lean on. You don't have to bear the burden alone. If you feel you need a neutral ear, contact a sports psychologist in your area. (Ask your physician for a referral.)
Recognize when to take drastic action. If your feelings of burnout become overwhelming, board your horse out at a local barn or with friends while you get out of Dodge for a few days. (Offer to pay your friends, or arrange to horse-sit for them when they need a break.)
HORSEKEEPING ISSUE #5: SETTING BOUNDARIES
Just as fences make good neighbors, so do the nonphysical boundaries you set. Appeals and requests will follow you home-from an acquaintance who wishes to board with you; from a neighbor asking to borrow your horse for a guest; from kids begging for a "pony" ride, etc. If you don't learn how to set boundaries, you may start to feel cornered and resentful.
Learn how to say no. Decide ahead of time what parameters are comfortable for you, so that when you're asked you have a ready response. For instance, if a friend calls asking if you can give foster care to an abused horse-and you can't take that on-say, "I'm sorry, I just can't do that right now, but I know someone who can-here's her number."
Learn when to say yes. Find your comfort zone. This will come with time and experience. Proceed cautiously, and accept additional demands in incremental steps whenever possible. For instance, if a friend wants to board her horse with you, and you think it might work, agree to a trial period.
Avoid a lawsuit. Familiarize yourself with the legal ramifications of others riding your horses and on your property. See your insurance agent-you may need to expand your coverage. Two legal resources we recommend are Horse Law News (Piebald Press, LLC, 888/ NAGS-001 or 909/817-9616; www.piebald.com), and Equine Law and Horse Sense (Horses & the Law Publishing, 248/644-8645, e-mail, Fershtman@aol.com).