To my 20-year-old self, I am a complete and utter failure – a disappointment of the highest degree. She was convinced that her future lay riddled with golden hair and tanned skin upon a string of sleek show horses all routed for Badminton and the Olympics and perhaps the more common ones to local four-stars. Olympic medals would be strewn about her house in Martha Stewart-esque shadow boxes and she would drive to the events in an ink-blue BMW.
My 40-year-old self does have blonde hair, and to be fair, such tanned skin that I’m trying to find time to book myself in for a chem peel, but I’m afraid that’s where the comparison ends. I do have the shadow boxes full of medals at home (but sadly they are not my own) and I drive a black Mazda to the events.
But in my own defense, I would like to prove to the court that the aforementioned 20-year-old girl was an idiot. Oh, she had the vision down to the last detail, but she never asked the questions as to the how and cost of said horses, nor did she compare her reality with the right role models. She compared apples to oranges all the time. She was naive and ignorant and had no idea what it meant to be a ‘normal’ girl in a horsey world.
I have attended two events in the past year which also touted open forums on women in horse sports generally, or eventing specifically. Both times I got quite excited by the idea of what I thought was a very good initiative, yet both times I was deflated after I heard who was on the panels. More often than not, the speakers were women sans children or husbands – and once even a man! While I greatly respect the individuals that were on said panels, it’s not because of their place as women in horse sport.
I didn’t attend either forum and heard mediocre reports back, but at the time I thought what I should do is rock on up to the meeting and give them the true story – tell them what it’s like to be three months post-C-section, shivering in the sleet during the advanced cross-country warm-up at Pine Top, waiting to do your first advanced back when someone has the audacity to bring your crying baby down to the warm-up to watch and you are circling the box feeling your boobs leaking milk and thinking, “I have finally lost my mind.”
Or perhaps they would like to hear about the times when you haven’t had a day off in over a month – days that start at 6 a.m. and end at 10 p.m. when you are cross-eyed and worried about what you are forgetting and so tired you could die, but knowing you should go put on that beautiful nightgown that your husband loves so much because he deserves a beautiful, loving wife and not the burnt-out hag that’s about to peel herself and her wine glass off her desk for the night.
Or lastly, maybe they would like to hear about the Fridays when you’ve just ridden and coached dressage all day at the show and driven at Mach 50 to get to school before your kid is tied to the mailbox. You run in to get him wearing your whites, knowing you have four more rides tomorrow and five clients to coach, and he looks up at you with those gorgeous blue eyes and says, “Mommy, you know I love spending family time with you and Daddy at the events, but I would really like to go to the track meet with my friends tomorrow.” And your heart drops through the floor and you spend that night on the phone in Maps with the show schedule in your other hand, trying to figure if there is any way short of inventing a wormhole so that you could do everything the next day, only to succumb to what you already know, which is no, you can’t. Falling into bed, you pray that your son doesn’t grow up to hate you because you dragged him to too many events.
Yes, those are the true tales of being a ‘normal’ woman in a horsey world. I keep using the term ‘normal’ for lack of a better one, but perhaps I should explain why. I used to get very depressed at my lack of horses, my lack of means, and my lack of ‘ease’ in general. I would look around and it seemed at every turn I was faced with girls with multiple horses, multiple vehicles, and the ability to do whatever they pleased and vacation on sandy beaches in between. In comparison, I found myself sorely lacking. Luckily, I married a very smart, if not overly-empathetic man, who in my moments of tears, frustration, and feelings of failure would sit me down, stare me in the teary eye and plainly state, “Lesley, take stock of that list of people you wish to be like. Eliminate the ones whose parents own their horses, the ones who are over thirty and their parents still give them an allowance, the ones whose parents bought them their farms, homes, pay their kids’ school or dentist bills, and the lucky two percent who are supported by some of Forbes’ Top 20. Now, compare yourself with the remaining one or two. Surely you’ll feel better about yourself and we can go to bed now.”
What he is trying to say is that we (almost) own our own farm, every penny paid for by ourselves. We own our vehicles, trailer, pay our own private school bills and orthodontics, own our horses or have clients that own them, and run our own business. So that’s what I mean by being ‘normal’. But the problem is, in the horse world, normal is actually quite rare, as my husband likes to point out. In a world that is frequented by the rich and fabulous, it is difficult not to get caught comparing your apple self to the exotic oranges. To be a normal woman in a horsey world means trying to be and do everything well and thus setting yourself up for failures while trying to minimize them the best you can.
For an apple like me, I have found it’s a part of life dealing with a constant internal struggle between feeling a total failure for dreams not realized, and yet a quiet pride in knowing that I have accomplished things that my 20-year-old self never even contemplated.
Although I have failed in the medal department – the closest I ever got was thinking I was going to Beijing only to have my horse break down a few days prior – I at least know that I have done my bit at all the star levels on horses I produced myself, have sold horses to young riders that have gone on to do great things, started a business with Leslie that is probably one of the top in the country for eventing, have a husband that I’ve stood with for over 14 years and a son that is tops.
When Leslie goes away for several days at a time I instantly get transformed into some kind of bag lady Superwoman. I wake up at 5:30, make my coffee, and get dressed while blasting Katy Perry’s “Roar” to try to motivate myself for what I know is going to just about kill me. The 40-minute drive to school at 7 a.m., home to a bunch of horses to ride, 5-12 lessons to teach depending if it is a dressage or jump day, then the dash back to school, the afterschool activities soccer/hiphop/chess club/cooking, followed by the hour of private school homework while scavenging for dinner followed by the OMFG entries are closing or I haven’t emailed the accountant/owner/USEF/fill-in-the-blank, and I still haven’t sorted out a better health insurance plan or booked that doctor’s appointment I was supposed to do two months ago. Then I finally fall into bed around 10 p.m. and just as my body is ready to pass out my mind whispers, “You are not doing anything well enough and by the way, how are those dreams of yours going?”
Yes, what about those dreams? A 20-year-old relic is in me, still yearning for them and to ignore them completely would betray the very reason I started down this path in the first place. So I try to quietly stoke them, even though I realize they can no longer be a priority for me.
So I am not sure what that panel on women discussed, but I do know this: it ain’t easy. We have fought as women for the ability to strive to be the best at everything, for the chance to succeed at anything; however, trying to achieve the trifecta of being top businesswoman (in any field), top sportsperson and fabulous family matriarch is a tall order. Add to that social media, the land of great omissions and fake news. Yes, people are grand at spouting off about their great days, but rarely do you read ‘I rode like a dolt this week; I should probably think about quitting.’
I will interject here that lest anyone think I believe otherwise, the horse world sure ain’t easy for a ‘normal’ man either. My husband works like a dog and has his own set of both society-contrived and self-burdened pressures to deal with. I look at him as he drags his butt from clinic to clinic, all the while trying to get his horses going and spending his few spare hours building forts or basketball hoops for our son. I see him as our own personal Superman and I only hope, at least on those nights I do don that gown, that he sees me as his Superwoman.
While it may seem like I am complaining, there are moments in each of those 6 a.m.-to-10 p.m. days that I wouldn’t trade for the world. I know how lucky I am to have my son and husband, and to own those towering live oaks in my yard and the horses that I dream with and each ribbon I come home with. I have learned to grade myself not by what I don’t have, but rather by the people who choose to call me friend. I have wonderful colleagues, owners, and long-time students who have turned into family; some of the best and brightest of the equestrian world will ring me up just for a chat, people that were legends and gods to my 20-year-old self. My group of friends, all of whom I see as successes, fill me with self-worth rather than a need for material things.
If I could go back to my 20-year-old self, the first thing I would tell her would be to stop comparing yourself to the oranges and rather make yourself the best apple you can be. To remember that being an orange without your child, or without your husband, or without the fabulous friends your unique life has given you, is not a life you would want at all. Plus, my story is not over yet; maybe, just maybe, the tortoise could win that race and have it all, but even if he doesn’t, what a rich and wonderfully full adventure he will have had.
I won’t lie and tell you I’ve figured it out or have found peace at all times. But I have become much better at pushing back when those failure feelings come knocking and have found a quiet pride in knowing I am strong and hard-working.
I overheard our son speaking to his friend once about picking teams for a school thing and he said, “Oh, I would pick a girl, too. Girls can be tough. My mom is fierce. She falls from horses in the water even and doesn’t cry and she won’t take crap from anyone.” Right there I knew that for all my failures, I was a success, too.
So for all those ‘normal’ girls out there in a horsey world … you hang in there. You may not end up with those shadow boxes full of medals, but if you can last long enough and work hard enough, you may find something even better.