A Working Student at YOUR AGE?! Five Things I Learned Working at a Barn

Ha! A working student at your age?

Becoming a Barn Rat

Just after New Years, I became a barn rat. If you don’t know what that it, it is usually a term applied to kids who hang around the stables doing any kind of work in order to get free rides, lessons, or training. It is most definitely a young person’s game–something I’m not! Just the same, for a little over a month I worked at a big dressage training farm cleaning stalls, scrubbing buckets, and turning horses out in exchange for a generous reduction in board and free full time professional training for me or my horse. Friends my age thought I was crazy, especially when the polar vortex swept through and temps dropped to below zero. Despite the hard work, I learned some valuable lessons (besides the fabulous intensive riding lessons).

Confidence: Step Out and Find Out or Casting off the “What if” Shackles

I had thought about taking on this position for several months but was hesitant to do so. I really wanted an intensive period of riding lessons and my horse needed to be brought back into work by a professional. All that costs a lot of money and the working position was an ideal way to get it. However, I waffled back and forth over the decision. What if my horse didn’t stand up under the training? What if I couldn’t do the job and had to quit? What if it took too much time away from my other obligations? What if, what if…? You get the idea. I made up imaginary scenarios that may never happen. What I learned is this: you have to step out to find out. You have to take small risks and see what happens. You can always adjust course, but if you are paralyzed by indecision, you will never find out what is possible.

Fortitude: You’re as Old as You Feel (OR THINK)

I’m not going to lie, there were days when I was so tired after several hours of stall cleaning, pushing a loaded wheelbarrow through mud and snow, and walking miles turning out horses (according to my FitBit!), that I did not think I could groom, tack up, and take a riding lesson on my horse. Somehow, once I got going, I got going. If I decided I was going to do it, whatever “it” was, it usually got done. It is amazing what you can accomplish when you make your mind up you are going to do the task. Have the right mindset and you are unstoppable (almost). I told myself that I was just as strong and as capable as a much younger woman, and that kept me going.  After all, I was used to heavy work– I have my own horses I care for at home! That attitude sustained me and looking back, I’m rather proud of what I was able to do and feel blessed that I am still able to keep going strong.

Humility: If You Do the Same Thing, You’ll Get the Same Result

Part of my work compensation was five days a week of professional training or riding lessons. Once my mare was stronger, I started taking my “pay” in lessons. It is difficult to get fit fast enough to sustain intensive training, but more than that, I had to re-learn a lot of what I thought I knew. Although I had been riding for a while, my position was wrong and I had to un-do my “physical memory” of where I should be in the saddle, my leg position, hands, torso…you name it, I was a complete overhaul project. To get the work accomplished, I had to be willing to dump what felt “normal” or safe and try new things. I was put on a longe line to relearn how to walk, trot, canter, and steer. It was the best thing that ever happened for my riding. Many people do not want to look or feel like a beginner again, but I learned that you have to always be humble to keep the learning portal open. If you are taking riding lessons to show the instructor how much you already know, you’re wasting your money. Show the instructor all your bad habits, your weaknesses, your misconceptions and miscommunication with the horse. Be a leadline rider again. Have a beginner’s open mind in order to progress. Enjoy the video of me (floundering) on the longe line. If that’s not humility to post this, I don’t know what is.

Gratitude: There’s No Such Thing as the Perfect Horse (Except Yours!)

Comparing what you have to someone else is non-productive, soul-crushing, and full of negativity. We are always told to be grateful for what we have, but it is so easy to fall prey to envy while watching others with (seemingly!) perfect, healthy, talented horses. If horses aren’t your thing, fill in the envy-producing object of your desires. But what we don’t see or know about that stunning Grand Prix horse executing his fifth clean change is all the stuff behind the scenes. Every horse has its issues, be it health challenges, allergies, strange behaviors, fears, soundness, moodiness—on and on you name it. In a barn full of beautiful, talented, successful horses I came to love my little mare even more for who she is. All of my “why can’t she be straighter, why can’t she get on the d%#n trailer, why can’t she go forward more willingly” diminished in scope as problems when I saw that every owner has their challenges from the very experienced Grand Prix riders and pros to the amateurs with “greenies.” The love is for the horse, not the sport or the validation of your own goals in competition. I love my quirky little mare and appreciate her for what she is on any given day.

Discernment: When It’s Okay to Move On

Circling back to what I learned about Confidence and Fortitude, this point may seem like a bit of a contradiction, but it’s not. It is probably one of the strongest lessons I learned. It is okay to quit. It is okay to change course–it does not mean you failed. After a little over a month I became aware that the work was wearing on some joints and tendons. I could and would have continued if need be, but luckily the trainer found the perfect replacement for me who was willing to start right away! Instead of feeling like I gave up, I felt that I made a smart decision. I had gained valuable experience. Now I am putting that extra energy and strength into my riding. The freed-up time in my life has also been well spent, preparing my next book (Horse Gods: The Dressage Rider’s Betrayal) for publication. It’s okay to quit as long as you are doing it as a conscious choice and you are moving on to new challenges.

So that’s it for my lessons learned. Who knows, perhaps my experiences will inspire a new story in the future. Stay tuned!



  1. Humility reminded me of nursing a newborn after my last child was 7. I was totally confident nursing, but baby kept fussing. The nurse said I was holding my newborn like a much older baby, because the last time I’d nursed it was an 18 month old and not a newborn. She adjusted my hold and baby nursed happily. We always have something to learn, especially when we feel like “we’ve git this”

    1. Yes, indeed, Andrea–we always have something new to learn and as long as we stay open to the idea of being a “beginner” we will do okay.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *