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Renee Russell

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Barn Time Before and After Kids

What time at the barn looks like nowadays.

At the barn this morning I was driving the tractor while holding two kids on my lap when I realized something: This is not what barn time used to feel like. Up until a few years ago, my entire world revolved around riding and being in the barn as much as possible. I got my first barn job at 14 and never looked back. I used to think that nothing would ever stand between me and my barn time, like never ever.

As a young adult I would hear statements like, “Noah has a dentist appointment and then we’re going to Chloe’s tap dancing recital, so I probably won’t have a chance to ride tomorrow,” or even worse, “I used to ride horses back before I got married. I miss it!” I always thought that would never be me; I could not survive without my all-day every-day barn life. But here I am, married with two kids, and I get it!

Riding when you’re young and single and free to do as you please is awesome. And guess what? Riding when you’ve got your hands full with a home and a job and kids and all kinds of adult responsibilities is awesome too. These are, however, totally different experiences. Here are just a handful of examples.

Barn Work

Before kids: How many of you can remember spending all day cleaning stalls and grooming and stacking hay without a care in the world? Working in the barn was always so peaceful. It was a time to be outdoors, getting some exercise and being productive. There was often no one around, no questions to answer or problems to solve.

After kids: Nowadays, I can typically be found in the barn with a baby strapped on my back, holding a pitchfork in one hand and my 3-year-old’s half-eaten peanut butter sandwich in the other. Barn time is often a balancing act of trying to keep two humans and eight horses safe, fed and content. On the rare occasion that I have a chance to sneak out to the barn without any children, though, it is even more peaceful and meditative than it was in my younger years.

Riding

Before Kids: Riding was my life. If I was not riding, I was working in the barn or reading about riding or watching videos of my favorite riders. I had a whole life planned out with an illustrious career as an upper-level eventer. As much as I loved to ride, all those ambitions combined with a lack of know-how and resources ultimately led to a lot of frustration. I wanted to be an elite competitor but in reality I could barely get around Training.

After Kids: When I have an opportunity to ride now it is without a doubt the most amazing feeling in the world, although “riding” these days often means tacking up for my kid and leading her around. The great thing is that when I actually have a chance to ride there’s no more pressure. I know I’m not going to Rolex and I couldn’t be happier.

I get on, do my best to ride correctly and enjoy every moment of it. It’s a time of freedom from all the juggling that moms do on a daily basis. The only thing I’m responsible for in that moment is riding. And not falling off. Speaking of which …

The Unscheduled Dismount

Before Kids: We all fall off, it happens. Most of the time it’s no big deal. We dust off and hop back on because why not, right? No harm no foul. I don’t ever really remember being scared of falling and I definitely recall riding through lots of scrapes and sprains and even the occasional dislocation.

After Kids: I just recently took my first dive since becoming a parent (I’m going to go ahead and pat myself on the back for making it nearly four years!) and as I was flopping through the air, not graceful in any way, the only thought in my head was “my kids!” That was it; only two words.

When there are beautiful little humans depending on you for all of their needs and wants in life, dangerous situations can elicit a very primal and fearful reaction. And it’s not only my own falls that worry me. Being a mom has made it so much harder to continue on after hearing about terrible falls.

The Car

Before Kids: Raise your hand if you’ve got some bailing twine and a hoof pick in your car. Don’t we all? The barn car is ever so recognizable: changes of clothes, gloves, ball caps, hay on the floor and seats, probably some horse and/or dog hair and likely more than one lead rope. Some people call it messy. I like to consider it being prepared. I can count half a dozen times when having some twine in my passenger seat came in handy.

After Kids: Well if I was prepared before, I am really, really, extra prepared now. Not only do I have all of the barn essentials but now also have managed to make room for changes of clothes for three people, diapers, snacks, toys, blankets and pillows in case there’s a nap emergency. You name it, I’ve got it in my car, from pacifiers to paddock boots.

How about you guys? How has growing up, getting married or having kids affected your horse life? While there are undoubtedly unique circumstances for each of us, let’s give hugs and high fives all around for the strength and dedication that it takes to persevere when life gets in the way.

All We Need Is Love

We announced the final four in the 7th Annual EN Blogger Contest, and now we are bringing you their second round submissions. The prompt: "Eventing has been approved for inclusion in the Olympics through 2024 under an altered format, but the sport still faces uphill battles both in the U.S. and abroad. What can we do to make eventing more appetizing, engaging and understandable to the mainstream public? Share your ideas in an interesting, funny, informative and creative way." Take it away, Renee!

Spectators watch Lauren Keiffer gallop by. Photo by Rare Air Eventing Photography.

Eventing is clearly at something of a crossroads in its history. More than a decade after the twilight of the long format we still face a number of challenges looking towards the future of our beloved sport.

Horse and rider safety is being studied and addressed but still urgently needs further improvement. Events face financial strain; even the World Equestrian Games have been plagued by these woes as they were relocated from the original planned host city for 2018 after sufficient funds could not be secured. Additionally, drawing interest in the sport from the public has been a particular challenge. The very nature of the sport makes it fundamentally expensive to participate in and difficult to understand for those spectators not attuned to a scoring system quite a lot more complex than the largely recognized sports such as soccer and baseball.

Working on this query of how to better engage a broader fan base, I was continuously coming up with questions rather than answers. How can eventing be made more appealing to a mainstream audience? I initially wondered what changes in the sport itself would make it more entertaining and accessible to those outside of our own community. Changing our attire could help, but I’m hardly a fashion designer. In the real world I can honestly barely style myself beyond the trusty t-shirt and jeans combo. So that was a dead end for me. Making the scores easier to understand would be cool, but I’m not a delegate or judge or anyone remotely qualified to make suggestions about rules, format or scoring.

This manner of striking down ideas made me wonder if I had anything to offer at all in this important discussion. I have no background in marketing to suggest the best ways to attract new spectators and participants. I basically felt as though this was a conversation to be had by people who are not me.

My breakthrough came–it should not be surprising to any of you–while I was cleaning stalls. What is it about sifting through shavings that ushers clarity and creative thinking? Whatever it is, I’m thankful for it. I had spent nearly a week focusing my attention on all of the things I am not and wondering how I could write about something I’m not qualified to assess. What I realized, by my sixth stall of the day, was that I couldn’t write an article about what I am not. But I can write about what I am.

People often call me a hippie. I do love tie dye and John Lennon but, more than that, I am a huge believer in love and kindness and positive human interaction. I think that there is so much power in simply treating people well. So I can’t speak to the officials or the organizers or the owners, but I am addressing all of my fellow event riders. Intro through Advanced, amateurs and professionals alike, we can have a tremendous impact on the accessibility of our sport by being more accessible as individuals. We don’t need the “powers that be” to fix it for us, this is something we can address on our own.

I was blessed with the opportunity of a lifetime when I spent ten months working for Buck Davidson, but not long before that I was a young child from a family without the financial means to buy a pony or take lessons or enter horse shows. Every summer I would beg for my parents to bring me to Millbrook Horse Trials just to watch in amazement at the riders I had only seen in magazines, now warming up right in front of me. I spent several years this way, reading Pony Club manuals and Young Rider magazines 51 weekends a year and watching Karen O’Connor, Phillip Dutton, Bruce and Buck Davidson and countless other idols for one glorious day.

One of the happiest memories of my childhood is the day I collected pinnies after cross country at Millbrook. That day I wasn’t just an outsider; I was a part of something big and so exciting. Enamored, I worked my heart out for years until I was finally able to compete and join the sport in earnest. I think that’s what we riders can focus on: we can treat spectators and volunteers as a part of our big, amazing eventing family.

I totally get how busy and stressful shows can be, but take a moment to imagine what it would be like to engage with some of the spectators who often look a little lost. They’re standing around flipping through a program and hoping it can tell them what the heck is going on. We as eventers can reach out to begin opening a dialogue on what our sport is really about.

If you see a group of people standing on the sidelines looking a little lost, take the time to talk to them. Bring some strangers along with you on your course walk. Give your ribbon away to a kid you see watching (honestly you have enough in your tack room, right?). These are the kinds of changes that we can make (without using any additional resources) to engage the public and ensure that their spectating experience gives them a reason to come back. Maybe they’ll even invite other friends to join them.

Any eventer can tell you that the greatest thing about our sport is the spirit of friendship and community that travels with us around the country and even the world. So what could be better than to invite people into our midst by being outgoing and welcoming? I am a lower level eventer, a mom, a former working student and someone who was once very much an outsider of the eventing world. It turns out I didn’t need to be a marketing expert or a technical delegate to come up with a realistic and effective strategy to make eventing more appealing to the public.

All we need is love, guys!

The Dos and Don’ts of Working Student Life

We announced the finalists in the 7th Annual EN Blogger Contest, and now we are bringing you their first round submissions. Leave your feedback in the comments, and please offer your encouragement and support to the finalists! We hope you enjoy their creativity, insight and love of the sport.

Allow me to tell you a cautionary tale …

In the 10 months that I spent as a working student I created amazing memories, learned volumes and made an absurd number of mistakes. Luckily for you I’m going to reveal some of my own fumbles, as well as what I was able to learn from them in hindsight. Whether you are a working student currently, hope to be one someday or just enjoy a good old cautionary tale, I’ve got you covered!

DO work as hard as you can. I was a terrible rider when I first arrived, but I worked my butt off mucking stalls and helping around the barn and everyone noticed and appreciated it, especially my boss. So instead of being the outcast due to my lack of riding ability I was seen as a valuable team member.

DON’T complain. All of the other working students are tired and sore and covered in bruises and blisters too. They don’t want to hear about it.

DO find healthy, positive ways to handle your stress. I have never been as stressed as I was in my working student days. My biggest mistake was letting my stress get out of control and dealing with it in the most unproductive ways. Exercise, meditate, watch a movie, listen to music, or whatever else helps you feel calm.

DON’T take up smoking cigarettes and drinking to forget about your stress. It won’t end well. Ask me how I know.

DO take the extra time to take care of yourself. Use sunscreen, pack yourself some lunch to eat quickly between rides, drink lots of water. None of this is rocket science, but it’s easy to neglect yourself when there is so much else to do. The healthier you are, however, the more helpful you can be. Your fellow working students, grooms and employers would rather have a happy, nourished worker than a sunburned, hangry, dehydrated mess.

DON’T be selfish. The other working students are in the same boat as you, so help them out whenever you can. They’ll return the favor one day.

DO talk openly with your boss. I was shy and nervous, and this really hurt me in the long run. Looking back I can see how different things could have been if I had been more willing to talk to my boss about problems I was having.

DON’T enter a show when you know that your bank account is literally empty, just because you’re embarrassed to tell coach you can’t afford it.

And finally… DO be kind! Everyone has bad days but, as much as you can, strive to be a smiling face that sets the mood for the barn. Being kind, generous, understanding and patient will have a tremendous impact on your level of success.

About the author: My name is Renee Wright. I am a twenty-something mother of two and a survivor of the Hunger Games working student life. My notable skills include getting lost with a rig full of Buck Davidson’s horses, clipping my own horse half-bald before a lesson with Bruce Sr. and falling off of future CCI4* contenders.