Venturing Into the Uncomfortable: Working for Hawley Bennett-Awad

Photo courtesy of Lexy Galanos Photography. Photo courtesy of Lexy Galanos Photography.

It’s been said that only in being uncomfortable can you truly reach your full potential. I’ve always been pretty skilled at making myself uncomfortable — whether or not I mean to — so it seemed logical that I peruse working student and grooming positions idly throughout the years.

There were always a million reasons not to: shipping my horse is expensive, moving is expensive, working 6-7 days a week doesn’t allow much time for work, I don’t have enough money saved, and on and on.

But then a longtime role model sent me a message asking me to post an opening for a head groom on our working student opportunities page. I read the job description, and something inside me sparked.

Hawley Bennett-Awad has been someone I’ve looked up to for years. I followed her as she represented Canada on the international stage on multiple occasions and loved how she seemed to have a way with Thoroughbreds and “tough” horses. Everyone has their lifetime idols, and she remains one of mine.

The first time I met Hawley, she was competing in the Advanced division at the Nutrena American Eventing Championships in 2013. I had hesitantly sent her a Facebook message ahead of time asking for an interview, and she happily accepted and was my second EN interview ever. I was thrilled with how friendly the riders were in my first foray into equine journalism — Michael Pollard, Tamie Smith, Ellen Doughty-Hume, Hawley, you all helped me get my sea legs!

Last year, I organized two clinics to bring Hawley to Area IV, and her teaching style and enthusiasm was well received in both clinics. Each time she left, I wished I could spend more time training with her.

So when this job opportunity came up, I thought about it. I thought about how I could make things work, and I asked Hawley if I could talk to her about more details so I could figure out if it was a feasible option for me.

“Am I too old for this?” I asked Hawley on the phone. She laughed and said “Of course not!” While she may have been generous with that — a 30-year-old working student is, after all, not the most common scenario in the world — she still instilled confidence that perhaps this was the next move for me.

So I packed my bags, found a new home for my retired horse, and set about finding my other horse a ride West. I was bowled over by the enthusiasm of so many people who I’ve never even really met, eager to help me get to California. Before I knew it, my horses were safely on their way to their new homes and I was sitting in my car ready to head West.

It’s been a big adjustment, what with the time change and the early mornings, but I wouldn’t trade it for the world. Hawley runs a tight ship, but she’s right there with you, working to ensure her horses get the best of care and that her barn (Bill Dickenson’s picture-perfect Sweet Oaks Ranch) is spotless and well-organized. The early mornings, the late evenings after a show or cross country schooling — she’s always there beside you. She’s always ready with helpful hints on organization and care, and she’s gracious to those who work for her.

And even within just two lessons with her, I’ve already felt my confidence blooming. I came out here with withered confidence after not riding consistently for the last few weeks. I had only taken my horse cross country once before, and I was a nervous wreck for my first time out in California. But I needn’t have worried. Hawley pushes you to get your “big girl britches” on, but she won’t ever overface or intimidate you.

Before you know it, you’re accomplishing things you had forgotten you could do, or perhaps that you didn’t know you could do in the first place. All you know is that someone believes in you. Someone with a lot of clout and credibility behind that belief. When she tells you to jump, you close your leg (but be sure not to cluck!) and hang on tight. And if you keep your wits about you, you find yourself on the other side looking for the next challenge.

I’ll be checking in periodically with more scenes from behind the scenes at HBE, so stay tuned for more. In the meantime, many thanks to Hawley and Gamal for hosting myself and my friend Bri, who came along for the summer, before we move into our apartment, to James Alliston and Helen Bouscaren for helping me get my horse to California, to Hawley’s other working student, Sam, for patiently showing us the ropes, and to everyone else who has had a hand in making me truly, ecstatically uncomfortable.