My Uncomfortable Truth in Deciding a Career in Horses Wasn’t for Me

At just 20 years old, Tayler Stewart has a long list of accomplishments to her name. With her esteemed partner Ideal Contini, she competed through the four-star level, finishing in the top 15 at numerous FEI events. She was named to the 2017 E18 list and the 2018 E25 list, and was a team gold and individual silver medalist in the 2018 NAYC CICOY3* at Rebecca Farm for Area II. We applaud her dedication and bravery, both in and out of the tack, and thank her for sharing.

Tayler Stewart and Ideal Contini at the 2018 FEI North American Youth Championships. Photo by Leslie Wylie.

When the time comes for you to change or grow, the universe will make you so uncomfortable that you will eventually have no choice. In all my 20 years on this planet, every choice I made, every sport I didn’t play, and every school day I ever missed had this greater purpose of riding horses.

I was held on a horse at nine months. My mom rode casually as a teen, and my aunt is a top trainer and dealer in the hunter/jumper world, so it was ingrained into my every fiber that my life would involve horses. Now don’t get me wrong, I could have at any age said “nah I’d rather
play soccer” — it would have been much cheaper — but nevertheless I chose horses.

By the time I was 10, I had spent nearly everyday after school at my aunt’s farm in Jefferson, MD, riding five to nine ponies a day. I showed at Upperville, Capital Challenge, Pony Finals, USEF Medal Finals, HITS in Ocala, and WEF. In third grade I was homeschooled for three months in Wellington, FL. I rode everyday, showed most weekends, catch rode ponies worth an easy six figures, and in hack classes for now some of the biggest names in the hunter/jumpers. I was blessed to obtain more show opportunities and experience by the time I was 12 then most young riders will ever have. I developed a thick skin, a tenacious aptitude for dealing with pressure, and was taught to “find a distance” to a pole on the ground before I was able or even allowed to jump a crossrail.

Tayler Stewart and Ideal Contini at NAYC 2018. Photo by Leslie Wylie.

Then with the help of my longtime mentor Packy McGaughn, I made the switch to eventing, and it became my home. Eventing became my community. I came in the timid pony hunter rider, who leaned too far up the neck but had a good eye, and just shy of 10 years later I had made a relative name for myself in the sport. I won medals and made lists. With my horse of a lifetime, I had accomplished the majority of my young rider goals by 19.

Then when I began to feel stagnant and disenfranchised from the sport, I made the bold decision to try something new, to challenge myself on a new level. I rode with Marilyn Little in Wellington, FL. It was quite simply the opportunity of a lifetime. I became 10 times the rider I ever thought I could be. I was riding horses that made you hold your breath and your heart still from the feel of the jump beneath you. I was looking at jumping in a whole new way, I was overwhelmed with the talent I was accessing. I felt as if I was becoming a rider who had the capacity to be the very best in any discipline. And I will be forever grateful for the opportunity to feel what I was capable of.

Photo by Leslie Wylie.

Though after this experience I found myself at a crossroads. It was time for my horse of a lifetime to move on to someone new and while I knew what I was capable of as a rider, I was faced with a new sort of reality. I was 20, and it could no longer be just about how great a rider I am, or how competitive I can be. I had to look at it as a long term future. I had been incredibly lucky to have a supportive father, who refinanced the mortgage so I could have my horse of a lifetime.

But the reality was, I didn’t come from much, and I now had to look at horses as a career. It had become an existential question of, how do I actually make a living doing this? Let alone how do I afford to do this? Now you could look at any professional in this sport and say well, there are a collective number of ways to make money. And depending on your strengths and weaknesses, you can find your niche. Some are great horse producers, some are great dealers, some are great coaches, some are good at all three, and maybe not particularly great at any one. There are an exponential available outcomes for how one makes a living doing horses.

Tayler Stewart and Ideal Contini at NAYC 2018. Photo by Leslie Wylie.

So here came my existential crisis. Because the uncomfortable truth was, I didn’t necessarily enjoy the struggle of any of it. I enjoy the struggle of horses. I just did not enjoy the struggle of making horses a career.

One of the best books I’ve ever read, The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck, by Mark Manson, is a book I highly recommend to anyone facing a quarter or midlife crisis. Most of all because it presents the uncomfortable truths that many of us don’t want to acknowledge about the hardships of life. Now, I know I’m 20, and the struggles of life are only just scratching the surface, and relative to most everyone, my problems are immensely first world, a point I will attend later, but the reality was, I became lost. I felt no motivation, I didn’t know where I wanted to go or who I wanted to be, and I felt it so hard to be honest with myself about the uncomfortable truths I was faced with.

For years, I had succumbed to the belief that deciding to either put horses on hold, go to college, or quit all together meant that I had failed, that I wasn’t good enough, or tough enough. Which by the way, I call the biggest load of BS. If you are a young rider out there thinking to yourself at this very moment that “oh such a shame, Tayler couldn’t continue in horses, she just didn’t have ‘it’” I urge you to rethink, because deciding that I wanted to pursue something other than horses as a career was the hardest, most painful decision I’ve ever had to make, and really had nothing to do with a lack of faith in my talent or heart. I felt as though I had let myself down, let my father down, and that I had failed to prove anything. I was just “another statistic” of kids who go to young riders, win gold, and you never hear from them again. I had to let go of every vision of the future I had for myself, and build a whole new set of aspirations. All these thoughts went through my mind, in fact they played on repeat for weeks, bringing me to the hardest, most demoralizing rock bottom I’d had in my life so far.

Tayler Stewart and Ideal Contini at NAYC 2018. Photo by Leslie Wylie.

For years, all I wanted to do was to medal at Young Riders — I tried for four years. I went as a groom, a rider, a cheerleader, and a rider once again. I dreamed and I dreamed, I worked toward this goal endlessly, I prioritized this dream above nearly everything else, it was more or less my core value. Then I achieved it, and the only way to truly kill a dream is to achieve it. And after the high of it all wore off, and therefore a lot of my motivation, then came this internal crisis once again. I wanted to have a horse, I wanted to pursue new equestrian goals, I wanted to go to my favorite events, but I didn’t want it to be my career.

That was my uncomfortable truth. I wanted to do the sport, I wanted to ride, but I wanted to do it because I loved it, not because I had to make a living at it. I didn’t want the pressure of needing to reach a certain level or have a certain number of clients, horses and owners. I wanted the luxury of being a talented rider and great horseman as any professional should be, but with the freedom of an amateur. Of course I loved the idea of being a world ranked rider, with a string of horses, maybe being named to a team, and I truly believe I’m talented enough, but I didn’t necessarily love the struggle of this dream. I didn’t love the ugliness. I didn’t love the sacrifices.

Tayler Stewart and Ideal Contini at NAYC 2018. Photo by Leslie Wylie.

I came to understand that happiness and success are not the same, and are completely relative. For the happiness derived from success is a mere reward for solutions to a series of problems, would you believe that problems are never ending, and more often than not success may never come no matter how many problems you solve, nor is success always reliably sustainable. You could be the hardest working person, the most dedicated, most talented, and at the end of the day you will more often than not fail. So if you don’t find happiness in the everyday, the success being a mere cherry on top of it all, then you will evidently fail to ever be genuinely happy.

Mark Manson wrote the better question to ask yourself is not what happiness you want in your life, but what pain do you want in your life. And that was the real uncomfortable truth for me to face. To me, the struggles of an everyday career in horses, wasn’t the pain I wanted in my life. I love the pain, and I value the heartbreak of riding horses, but I did not necessarily love the pain and heartbreak of a career in horses.

Now remember how I mentioned I’m 20, and that I’m having an quarter-life crisis of no longer wanting a career in horses, and how that’s an incredibly first world problem, well that brings me to my other major uncomfortable truth. I was beginning to realize that morally, I didn’t find a career in horses all that fulfilling. In his book, Mark Manson had also enlightened me to the idea that having problems is not the antithesis to happiness, having “bad” problems is the antithesis to happiness.

When I think objectively about what a career in horses entails and the problems I will face, I just don’t see much justification in feeling pride or fulfillment in really solving them. My greatest happiness in horses always just stemmed from improvement and the rewarding challenges its derived from. Medals were great, but the real happiness came from producing a score that no one thought I was going to. My real happiness came from the feeling of the horse I rode everyday, that I genuinely enjoyed riding, becoming more rideable, more correct. I didn’t really find much satisfaction in getting horses sold, or collecting owners and sponsors, or even in competing. And the very idea that I would feel stressed or bitter that I could not independently afford a string of competitive horses, made me feel even more upset, because what an unfulfilling, first world problem to have. Truth is, I wanted better problems, at least for me.

The Area II Gold Medal winning NAYC team in 2018 — Tayler on right. Photo by Leslie Wylie.

So who am I, without horses as my core value? Who am I apart from horses? What do I want out of my life apart from horses? What type of person did I want to be apart from horses? Well I want a lot of things, and I’m no longer afraid to accept them. I want the freedom to travel, to invest in myself and my relationships, and to selflessly invest in others. I want to be able to value the quality of my inner and interpersonal happiness, and never have to compromise who I am. I’m the girl obsessed with politics. I gave a speech at my graduation that I spent months writing, memorizing, nearly crying from the pride I felt when parents and students came up to me after with grateful admiration. The best hours of my school experience were in English Language and U.S. Government. I have strong opinions and a bleeding heart. Truth is, I want to come home everyday and say that I tried, I tried to make the world a better place, and I tried to make it a better place for those that really need it to be. Those are the problems I want in my life.

I want to ride horses because it is and always has been my escape. No matter what I was going through, it was just something that brought me genuine enjoyment. And in order for me to live a fulfilled life I have come to the truth that it doesn’t need to be anything more or less than that. As for the next chapter in my life, I took an internship with a prosecutor in Washington, D.C., and will most likely go back to school in the spring. And maybe I will change my mind a year or 10 years from now, but in this moment I’m working toward something new and uncharted, and my
love of riding and of horses will be there every step of the way.

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