The Middle

POC = people of color

LEO = law enforcement officer

I didn’t sleep at all on Monday night. 

My husband is a law enforcement officer. On the most violent night of the DC protests, I waited until midnight for him to come home, had nightmares until 3AM and then went to work at 6AM.  I’m sure many people of color had the same quality of sleep as they waited for their loved ones to come home. 

I grew up in a small liberal town in Massachusetts. I had a liberal education, come from a very democratic family, and cried when my husband said he was becoming a police officer. They were not happy tears. 

We had been dating for about a year at the time. When he told me he was going into the police academy, I burst into tears just outside of the American University Subway. Everything that I thought I knew about police officers popped into my head. At that point in time, I believed that they were ill-educated overly-aggressive jugheads on a power trip who couldn’t get a real job. And then five years later, as of May 17th, 2020, I married one. 

I have the utmost respect and admiration for the majority of police officers. To every single LEO that took a knee in Germantown and to the one who attempted to take a knee in D.C., I want to offer a heartfelt thank you. Taking a knee means that they put themselves in one of the most vulnerable positions in the middle of a crowd of people. This goes against all of their training (for right or wrong). I’m grateful for all the peaceful protestors out there who repaid their trust with cheers and not bricks.

My liberal background combined with my choice of husband has left me feeling trapped and unable to express my horror at the death of George Floyd and the death of retired St. Louis police captain, David Dorn. How do I express that I support Black Lives Matter without friends and family coming to the conclusion that I hate cops? How do I express that I support my husband without friends and family believing I do not support justice?

It was when I was reading back through my own website, that I knew I had to say something. I am an equine marketer who believes in Authenticity. How can I be authentic when I am hiding my beliefs in this pivotal moment in history?

I see so many equestrian brands capitalizing on the horrors of this moment in time to further their business. #BLM has become the latest buzzword in a corporate world of marketing strategy. “Want to increase your online engagement and drive traffic to your website? All you have to do is comment on George Floyd’s death in some vague way and you’re set to go.” 

So I am faced with another obstacle. How do I say what I want to say and remain authentic without capitalizing on tragedy? You’ll see this post shared to my personal social media pages, and it will be hosted on my website, but Golden Fleece Farm will overall stay silent on this issue, out of respect. It is not my intention to use this post to increase my business, only as a cathartic way to speak my mind. 

I am a privileged white woman. I chose to marry a law enforcement officer. I had a privileged upbringing with two amazing parents, great siblings, a horse, and a nearly full-time competitive riding career. Now, I own a house, two ex-racehorses, and run my own business. I understand that for many reasons this is not possible for many people my age, not to mention millennials in the POC community. Who am I to say that I understand the hundreds of years of slavery and fight for rights that follows the history of people of color everywhere?

I cannot know your pain, but I feel your worries, anxiety, and fear. 

Everyday when my husband leaves for work, my heart beats a little faster and my brain drifts to him every other second. Will this be the traffic stop where a bullet travels through his vest? Where someone takes him by surprise? Where he is executed by the side of the road? 

It’s at these moments that I think of the mothers and wives of black men and boys. When their loved ones leave the house, I imagine that I am sharing in their emotions. Will this be the day my son is pulled over by an aggressive cop? Will it be the day my father is pinned to the ground with a knee on his neck? Is this the day my husband will speak the words, “I can’t breathe?” 

While the core emotions are the same, I know that the history of our situations are not. I do not in any way, shape, or form, want my readers to believe that I am reducing the systemic oppression of slavery that occurred over hundreds of years in order to compare it to my fear when my husband puts on his uniform and leaves for work everyday. But I do know that fear is fear. And my fears and your fears, and my love and your love, may hopefully one day unify our country. 

At 9:25pm in Minneapolis, George Floyd was pronounced dead after a police officer pinned him to the ground and held a knee to Floyd’s neck for nine minutes. At the same time (adjusted for time zones) in Maryland, I was on the phone with my husband who was on his way home from work. I could hear his radio crackle to life in the background and then there were hurried “I love you”s and a “be safe” from me before hanging up.

At the same moment George Floyd died, my husband was pulling a man from a vehicle. The vehicle was on fire and the man had slit his own throat, before crashing the car. He fought my husband and an off-duty DC police officer tooth and nail as they pulled him out. He would rather stay in the car and burn to death than live. He had just escaped from a nearby hospital after attempting suicide earlier that week.

As George Floyd was choking on a knee and fighting to survive, my husband was choking on toxic smoke and fighting to save a life. I can only imagine the horrors of both situations.

Because of the actions of my husband and the other officer, the man lived. Because of the actions of Derek Chauvin, a man died.

This is not a “Not All Cops” post. This one incident does not erase the past murders of black people by law enforcement officers (obviously). But it does serve as a sobering reminder of the trauma that law enforcement officers face every time they walk out the door. The ghosts of these tragic situations hover over the families of LEOs, as the deaths of George Floyd and others must hover over the families of POC. 

To black families everywhere, I just want to say: the world would be so much easier if I could feel what you feel and you could feel what I feel. And then, maybe, we could find unity. While our country is currently divided on either side of a very messy line, I believe that both sides are faced with the same thought. Will my loved one come home today?

Out of Hope, I believe that Black Lives Matter. 

Out of Fear, I ask the world to please keep my husband safe. 

Disingenuous Truths & Equine Marketing

There’s a scene in the movie “Elf” that I think sums up most modern marketing pretty accurately. Will Farrell walks by a coffee shop with a sign on the window that says something along the lines of “World’s Best Coffee.” Throwing open the door, he runs in and shouts “Congratulations! You did it!” The rest of the patrons sit there, staring at him. (Watch the scene here.)

Of course the coffee shop doesn’t have the best coffee in the world. Maybe in the owner’s opinion it does, but really it’s just a marketing gimmick that the world allows, but does not accept at face value. It’s a disingenuous truth. To the owner, it may be true. But the rest of the world? We know it’s a subjective matter of opinion.

I see examples of this throughout equine marketing. Have you ever read your fly spray bottle? Supposedly the stuff lasts up to 14 days. Fake news, anyone? I don’t know about you, but flies are always back on my horse within a day of application. You may still be able to find chemical traces of the repellent on your horse 14 days later. But is it still repelling flies for two weeks? Not in my experience. If you know of a fly spray that does— drop a line in the comments. I will personally buy stock in that. 

Situations like these are why most consumers are so skeptical. Marketing is just no longer authentic. Testimonials and reviews are often faked. Companies make wild claims that are only occasionally backed up by evidence, but if you read the fine print, you’ll find several “Catch-22s.” 

Too often equine marketers are just comfortable stretching the truth. Your marketing slogan may sound good, but if it’s not accurate, what’s the point? Or there’s the slogan that literally any company in any industry could say. “Quality products. Affordable prices.” Sure, I guess that’s true. Depending on what other prices and products you’re comparing to. All you’re achieving with disingenuous truths like these is destroying any relationship you had with the client.

Equestrians are looking for authenticity. If you say your product does something, it better do it and do it well. Disingenuous marketing can make you stand out in the short term, but you’ll find your business failing in the long run. Once the truth gets out, you’ll be hard-pressed to find customers. 

Equestrians are not fools. Throwing a horn and some glitter on a white horse does not a unicorn make. 

Sometimes trainers and equine business owners are blind to their own disingenuous truths. The owner of a small family run tack shop may post glamorous stock photos of shiny bits and beautiful tack rooms. When, in reality, they aren’t being authentic. Instead of pretending to be something they’re not, they should be playing to the family-oriented aspect of their business. Post photos of Cousin Jerry organizing the bridles and of your niece’s new pony. Representing the family-aspect of your business online is more authentic and your customers will love you for it.

People typically have some level of fear related to authenticity. Would anyone really want to go to a tack store that isn’t selling high-end saddles like CWD or Circle Y? The answer to that is a resounding yes. The equine world is full of unique and interesting people. I firmly believe that if you’re authentic to your own brand, your people will come to you. Stretching the truth won’t get you far. But being honest to yourself and your clients will. 

Here’s another trend that I take issue with for blatantly untruthful marketing. What is with the #FarmGirl influencers on Facebook and Instagram? I see these women with beautifully done makeup, clean jeans, stylish boots, and hay-free hair standing in a field of cattle. There’s something wrong with this picture.

I only have two horses and two dogs, not 50 head of cattle. Yet, I still wind up covered in hay, dirt and dust the majority of the time. Let me tell you– when I’m getting up early to take care of my mini-farm before work, I’m not going to spend an hour on my eyeliner.  Who believes these women are actually doing the farm work?

What happens when a little girl sees these beautiful women and decides she wants to run a farm one day? I applaud her, but she’s going to find a pretty rude awakening. 

I’ll be honest with you- I personally struggle with authenticity. When I first designed my website I was tempted to use stock photos. My personal horses I bought for a combined total of $501. I love them, I think they’re beautiful. But they’re not long-maned friesians galloping through fields of daisies. Most days I’m thrilled with LB if she can remember how to pick up a right lead canter on the lunge (#OTTBProblems). However, I had to have a discussion with myself about what I wanted to represent online. 

I could design a website that was worthy of a business with multiple employees. I could refer to myself as “we” and stretch a few truths. But that would commit a cardinal sin against authenticity. I’m a one-person small business established in 2019. I’m able to create high-quality results, but Golden Fleece Farm is not a corporate establishment. When you work with me, you get what you see. Because that’s all it is– just me.

Elbow Grease and Patience

Riding horses can feel a lot like banging your head against the wall. 

You put the best feed, care, and training into an animal– a partner– only to have it pull a shoe and come up lame the day before a horse show. All of that blood, sweat, tears, and dreams dashed. 

I’ll let you in on a little secret: marketing is the same way. 

Whenever I tell family, my farrier, my veterinarian, my boss, that person at the grocery store (the list goes on and on) that I run a small equine marketing business, I get a similar question: How do I ____ ? Almost every time they’re looking for an answer that will get them from question to result seamlessly. It sounds like it should be simple. 

For example, it’s well known that in order to solicit free products from brands, you need to have a large social media following. Most anyone that asks me how to get more followers is looking for a simple one sentence answer that starts with the phrase, “Oh that’s easy…”

Unfortunately, marketing is a lot like starting a horse.

If you’ve ever watched a Hollywood horse movie you know that all that’s required to break a horse is a wild untamed mustang and a besotted little girl who’s being bullied at school. Put the two together and POOF! You have a fully trained horse ready to win blue ribbons at the county fair. 

Equine professionals and marketers know it’s not that easy. 

Marketing can feel like you’re banging your head against the wall. You’ve googled the SEO checklist. You’ve completed the steps. So, why aren’t new customers suddenly knocking on the barn door and offering you money?

Equine marketing isn’t as simple as marking off a checklist. Instead, you need a cohesive guiding strategy that runs through all of your actions and creates a well-oiled machine that helps to bring more money into your business. 

Expecting that a new Instagram account and a website will suddenly bring more customers flocking to your shop is akin to the besotted little girl and wild mustang scenario. An Instagram account and a website can be crucial to your success, but several questions need to be answered. Does the branding match across both platforms? Are they presented professionally? Have you been able to get the word out about your newly expanded online presence? Is the website getting any traffic? Is it optimized for search results? 

Here’s where the “banging your head against the wall” comes in. It may feel as though you’re doing all the right things and getting nowhere. You optimized your website for SEO, but maybe used the wrong keyword so you still aren’t getting search results. Or your website is finally getting traffic, but you still aren’t getting new customers. 

Just as there are solutions to almost every equine-related pre-show day disaster, there are solutions to every marketing problem you may be facing. It just takes some elbow grease and never-ending patience. As equestrians, we should have plenty of those. 

Next time you’re about to throw in the towel on marketing your equine business, take a deep breath, and pretend you hear your trainer’s voice in your ear during a lesson: Try it again. 

Equine Professional’s Guide to Surviving the Coronavirus

Equine Marketing for the Coronavirus

Between the coronavirus and the upcoming election, the world has become a scary and divisive place. For equine professionals, the economic crisis that seems to be looming over the horizon is frightening. Here’s the good news: animals will always need excellent care. 

The other good news is that you can take advantage of the added downtime you have now to protect your business’s future in the wake of the coronavirus. Here are some things you can do today to succeed tomorrow. 

Build Trusting Relationships

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: marketing is about building relationships. The coronavirus requires physical distancing, not social distancing. Use social media and other online platforms to connect with your customers who may not be able to make it out to the barn anymore. Now is when your customers are looking for reassurance the most. Modern technology allows you to reassure them that their animals are being well taken care of. 

You may not have the coronavirus vaccine hiding in your tack box, but you can provide your online followers and clients with a sense of normalcy. Be sure to send current clients updates on their horses, along with pictures. Take to social media with pictures of happy animals, calming barn views, and positive messages. There’s enough fear-mongering out there right now and that’s not why anyone ever went to the barn in the first place. 

If you really feel like being creative, set up a livestream of your barn aisle or paddocks onto your website. This way owners (and potential clients!) can check in when needed and bring some of the calming energy of the horses right to their living room. 

These tactics don’t just apply to current clients. Potential boarders and students will also appreciate the positive calming messages and reassuring tone in the midst of the coronavirus madness. 

Increase Online Engagement

Riding lessons may be on pause and the barn rats may all be safely quarantined at home, but that doesn’t mean online engagement has to stop. 

Use your extra downtime now to start laying the groundwork for when you’ll need new clients the most– after the immediate coronavirus threat passes and the economic crisis starts to hit even harder. Take this time to work on your social media, develop videos, and consider doing an online webinar for potential and current students. After all, horsemanship lessons don’t have to stop just because you can’t get out to the barn. 

People are stuck at home bored. Give them a distraction, something to do, so after the inevitable quarantine is over, they’ll remember your barn and want to engage with you.

Don’t Back Off Your Marketing

Many equine professionals make the mistake of cutting their marketing budget when the going gets tough. People tend to think that they need marketing when times are good. It’s actually just the opposite. 

High-quality marketing helps your business grow and succeed. Your equine business needs growth the most when times are hard. If you can, now is a good time to amp up your marketing and get ahead. Some low- cost marketing activities that you can do now include:

  • Social media management
  • Online networking
  • Facebook and Instagram Live
  • Blogging

If you want to use the time you have now to really give your business a boost, look into hiring an equine marketing professional for search engine optimization and website customization. 

Look to the Past, Plan for the Future

You can learn a lot about your business and what direction your marketing should take by talking to your favorite boarders. In this case, I don’t mean “favorite” as in best friend. I mean “favorite boarders” as in those who pay on time, take lessons and board, have their horse in your training program, and are drama-free. 

These types of boarders are your bread and butter. When the economic crisis does hit, you want to make sure you’re able to get more of them. Appropriately-targeted marketing is crucial in bringing in new clients that fit your equine business. 

Talk to these boarders. Ask: How did you hear about me? What improvements do you want to see? Why do you like to board here? 

These questions give you more information on the types of boarders you want in your barn and how to attract more of them. Stay tuned for an upcoming blog post with more on marketing for the right clients for your barn. 

We WILL Make It Through

The most important thing to remember is that this, too, will pass. Take the extra downtime you have now to build your business for the future. Equine marketing will keep your business front of mind for when the economy picks back up. Remember to provide current and potential clients with reassurance, and a sense of normalcy. Work on creating trusting relationships even in the midst of a crisis. 

Your equine business will make it through if you play your cards right. You are not alone— the time to come together as a community and support each other is now more than ever. 

I’m Proud of the Hay in My Hair

equine marketing

The other day I was late feeding the horses. I had gotten caught up writing an article for a client, and lost track of time. I zoomed through feeding as much as I could (I’m a notorious lingerer in the barn) and rushed out to run errands.

I got to my favorite hardware store a mere fifteen minutes before they closed. A high school student was sweeping up and the owner was running the counter. I stepped into the store in my muddy barn shoes completely without thinking and the owner helped me get what I needed. As I paid, he called over the high schooler and asked him to sweep the floor by the entrance again, as there was mud on it– mud that I had tracked in.

Let me tell you, I was pretty embarrassed. First, I make it a point not to go to any small business so close to closing time and my harried thoughts and muddy boots had delayed their closing time even more. Second, no one likes to feel dirty. After my barrage of apologies, to which the shopkeeper said it really wasn’t a big deal, I was off to the grocery store.

I wandered up and down every single fluorescent-lit aisle, mumbling to myself (as one does when grocery shopping) checked out, drove home, and put the groceries away before looking in the mirror while washing my hands. Hay. Hay everywhere. My curly hair seems to be a hay magnet and that evening was no exception.

equine marketing; wizard of oz scarecrow
He’s a bit creepy, right?

Not only had I tracked mud throughout my favorite hardware store, but I had also spent an hour in the grocery store looking like the scarecrow from the Wizard of Oz.

In a town with a whopping 1500 residents, I know there’s a very large chance I’ll see everyone I interacted with again.

It was one of those evenings where the checkout lady laughs with her friends and you find yourself wondering if she’s laughing at the cut of steak you bought (which one is the good one again?) and you’re slightly concerned that you’re not looking friendly enough (or maybe too friendly?). Did I say that word weird? What do I do with my hands? Am I being helpful? Am I speeding up her day or am I an annoying customer?

The list of questions that goes through my head goes on and on and on. So when I got home and discovered my scarecrow-like appearance, I was a bit dismayed and a bit tired of being covered in hay. But you know what? I’m also all out proud.

Since I brought my horses home, I spend the majority of my day covered in some sort of slop. The other day, my fiance was watching me throw grain when he suddenly stopped mid-conversation and said, “I now understand why your hair looks the way it does when you come back inside.”

equine marketing; horse; farm life
Buzz covered in grain soup.

I patted around the top of my head to figure out what happened, coming across a suspicious wet patch. LB had drooled her dinner all across the back of my hair. It’s at times like this you have to laugh and just be grateful that you were wearing your yard-sale-find Carhartt and not your “nice” barn jacket.

But my point is, there’s a reason I’m covered in hay, dirt, and (thankfully rarely) grain soup a far-too-high percentage of the time. That reason is that I put my animals first.

All that hay at the grocery store was a sign of the hard work I put in muscling around 750-lb bales and stuffing hay nets to a full 25 pounds each. My shoes are covered in mud because this constant rain has made mud season particularly bad this year and I need to go out into the paddock to find hay nets, treat thrush, and check eyes and legs — even if it is nine o’clock at night and I have a great bottle of wine waiting for me inside.

It takes hard work to take care of your animals. A lot of that work means doing whatever you can to make their lives better, even if you do have to be slightly embarrassed at the grocery store, and hardware store, and… maybe just cover up the mirrors in your house (kidding, kidding).

But I’m proud of the care that I give the animals that call my home, their home. I’m out there at least four times a day, counting eyes, and checking legs for cuts, scrapes, or sprains. Feeding treats, filling up and scrubbing the water, throwing grain, and filling hay nets. It doesn’t matter if it’s raining, twelve degrees, or a swampy humid mess — as their primary caretaker, your horses need you and you better get out there.

Next time I’m in the grocery store and I spot someone with hay in their hair, I’m going to give them a high five and say nice job. Because running your own farm is a sacrifice. A beautiful sacrifice with huge benefits — but a sacrifice nonetheless. Vacations are difficult. Mud season sucks. My house will have a dirty floor no matter how much I clean. And, of course, there will most likely always be hay in my hair.

But you know what? I’m proud of that hay and the dirt under my fingernails. Because the reason for it is something to be proud of.

If you have dirt under your nails and hay in your hair: I’m proud of you too.

6 Benefits of SEO for Veterinary Marketing

veterinary marketing

Veterinary clinics provide a crucial service to pet owners around the world. Whether a client owns a horse, cat, or iguana, veterinarians are there to help them with emergencies and keep their pets healthy. At Golden Fleece Farm, we believe that it is our job to provide veterinarians with amazing marketing so you can keep making a positive impact on every client you touch. That’s where SEO for vets comes in. As part of our veterinary marketing services, search engine optimization can bring some big benefits to your practice. 

Most vet clinics have a website and do some form of marketing. SEO is a great way to give your website a boost and supplement your marketing.  Your clinic website isn’t helpful if it isn’t showing up in Google search results. Search engine optimization can make your website appear on the front page of Google, create a great online experience for clients new and old, and much more. Your website can be so much more than just an online representation of your business– here’s how search engine optimization can turn your website into an unstoppable marketing tool. 

 1 . Bring High-Quality Traffic to Your Website

Search engine optimization is a form of inbound marketing. Inbound marketing is kind of like setting a lobster trap compared to hunting. A lobster trap sits and waits with enticing bait inside for a hungry lobster to come along, looking for food. A hunter seeks out deer in their natural habitat and shoots. Both strategies work, but have very different approaches. 

When a pet owner googles a keyword, they’re actively seeking out information to help them with their problem. Veterinary marketing is the lobster trap. Your website sits on Google, waiting for a potential client to find the information they want on your site and click “Contact Us.” 

SEO for vets can bring high-quality traffic to your website, purely because you’re interacting with potential customers who are already engaged. They already know they have a problem (they need a vet) and are searching for the answer on google (your vet office!). Because of this, traffic generated from SEO is much higher-quality than traffic from ads. 

2. Get Your Content Seen

If you’re website is number one on Google, you’re getting 40 percent of those clicks. That’s a big number of potential new customers coming to your website each month! Very few people visit the second page. If your website isn’t ranking for the first result, let alone the first page, you’re missing out on visitors. 

So, what about the other 60 percent of traffic on Google? Only 15 percent of it goes to Google ads. Why would you pay to ensure you get 15 percent of the traffic, when, with some elbow grease, you can get 40 percent of it? The more clicks you get to your website through organic search results on google, the more your content is seen. The better your content, the more likely you are to close leads– but it all starts with getting more eyeballs on your site. 

3. Close More Leads

Sure, if you pay Google you’re almost guaranteed a spot on the first page. But you aren’t guaranteed new customers. On average, leads from organic search results have a 14.6% close rate, compared to 1.7% for outbound marketing leads. That’s a big gap! 

Google ads are just that– advertisements. Due to the nature of the ad, you may not be providing visitors with the relevant information they were looking for. You’re much more likely to close if you offer high-quality, high-ranking SEO content that actually provides customers with something of value. 

4. Spend Less for Great Results

This marketer suggests spending between $1,000 to $10,000 on Google advertisements. Not only is that a lot of money, but what happens when you stop putting money into the” Google machine?” Your results go away. With search engine optimization, your results take longer to manifest, but they stick around for a lot longer too. 

SEO as part of your veterinary marketing strategy isn’t free. There’s still the cost of an SEO audit for your website, blog creation, and content optimization. But those costs pay off in the long run. The return on investment for boosting organic search results is much greater than the ROI for google ads. In order for your website to fall from the front page rankings there needs to be a shift in search volume or competitors. When it comes to organic SEO, you’re spending a lot less for longer lasting results. 

5. Beat your Competition

Veterinary marketing isn’t just about having the prettiest graphic or the catchiest tagline. Amazing marketing brings in more customers, expands your practice, and helps you beat the competition. Most veterinary clinics aren’t relying on top notch SEO strategy. As a matter of fact, most animal owners find their vets via word of mouth. Word of mouth referrals are great but are quickly becoming old-fashioned. It’s crucial to establish your practice on the first page of Google before your competitors start to catch on. 

Expert SEO strategy can help you rank above your competitors. 

6. Make a Difference in the Lives of Your Patients

Veterinarians don’t often get vacations. You work long hours, with unforeseen emergencies, and quite literally save lives every day of the week. Veterinary marketing can grow your business so you can keep doing what you love: helping animals and their humans. If someone had an emergency, you’re easy to find in the number one spot on Google. With just the tap of a button you could be there to help. 

At Golden Fleece Farm, my job is to empower you to keep making a positive impact for animals everywhere. Marketing for vets is just one way I’m able to help you do that. I offer expert SEO strategy based on tried-and-true corporate tactics. Interested? Tell me all about your vision for your practice– together, we’ll make it happen. Talk to me here.

Putting the Fun Back in Horse Training

equine marketing
Gabby

“Are you ready to have fun?”

I greeted the little grey mare at the gate the same way each day. She hadn’t had the best start in life. Living out in a field, with no human interaction, and no vet or farrier care for her first five years. However, she did have food. Lots of food. Her previous owner would dump out a bag of grain each day for each horse. Needless to say, she was fat. I rubbed my hand through her tangled mane and felt her breathe. Then I slipped the halter on and we made our way up to the barn.

Gabby was a half-arab half-andalusian 15-hand mare with lots of spunk. But she was also heartbreakingly timid and when scared, would freeze. I’ve never been the rider with the best relationships with her horses. It pains me to admit it. But they rarely greet me at the gate and, to be honest, I wasn’t sure if they ever looked forward to our rides. I was competitive and intense. Unable to find the line between doing nothing and drilling every exercise in the book.

With Gabby, it had to be different. My goal for her wasn’t to win blue ribbons. I needed to start her under saddle and create a functioning citizen of the horse world. Gabby demanded that it was different. Without a relationship, she would have never progressed. With pinned ears or a wild eye, she would tell me when I wasn’t paying enough attention to her opinion. Hence, the same question every day. I wanted her to have fun. I wanted her to look forward to our rides and understand that we could build a solid relationship based on positivity, not competitive drive.

Because of this, our arena looked a little different. My trainer and I had tarps, balls, and poles laid out every which way. The kiddie pool and pedestal even made the occasional appearance. With the help of some creativity, we were making progress. But I have to admit, there were moments where I doubted our approach. The well-known classical dressage trainer would be working her students in perfect collection on circle after circle. I, on the other hand, would be teaching my whale of a scruffy grey pony how to stand on a pedestal. The trainer’s students asked me several times if she was pregnant.

Despite my doubts, we were making progress. She could walk, trot, and haphazardly canter around the ring. Trail rides were still out of the question, but she wasn’t scared of tarps, or plastic bags, or anything else. We would play games where I would hide treats (low-cal!) around the ring and she would hunt for them. We even started to lose weight as I could work her under saddle more and more.

The first time that I got on her was pure magic. Terrifying and adrenaline-rushing magic, but still one of the highlights of my riding career. After groundwork for two months, I could put our relationship to the test under saddle. I got on her with a bareback pad and my trainer ponied us around the ring. Then she let us loose. My heart was in my mouth. I was so thrilled and excited and terrified. The first ride is a crucial moment in every horse’s life. If I made it a bad experience, she could wind up with even more baggage to work through.

Gabby had to trust me in order to let me ride her around the ring after 9 years of barely any human contact. The fact that she allowed me onto her back spoke volumes about our relationship. After that ride, I felt like I had finally started to accomplish what I always wanted to.

For the first time in my riding career, I felt a true relationship with a horse that wasn’t built on competition or drive. Better yet, she started to come to me in the field. When I first met Gabby, catching her was a production. She was barely halter broke and would run away when she saw you. You had to approach her from the off-side. She would turn her rear end towards you and present you with a lovely visual of her gray tail. This intimidated the crap out of me, at first. But then I discovered that she was asking for bum scratches. Yes, this horse loved to have the base of her tail scratched down. Then and only then, would you be able to catch her.

After some trials and tribulations, she became easier to catch. The day that I called her name and saw her cantering, not walking, but cantering over the hill and towards the gate took my breath away. I felt like jumping for joy. I called my mom, “Gabby came to me today!”

We celebrated together over the phone. It was such a big step for a neglected little pony and filled me with so much joy.

My “have fun” philosophy that was slowly being cultivated with the help of my trainer caught me some flak at the barn. At one point, I was trying to work Gabby through a tarp and kiddie pool combination when I could hear the dressage trainer at the other end of the ring openly discussing my training strategy. “What do you think that kiddie pool is for?” she would say, half-scoffingly to her student. “What is she trying to do?”

It didn’t matter that Gabby was starting to enjoy her hunt for treats and was becoming a little bit braver with the ball. It didn’t matter that working with the kiddie pool would teach her to stand still for the inevitable hoof-soaking that she would need some day. Or that the pedestal taught her where her feet were and helped her stretch out her back. My methods weren’t on the dressage pyramid and therefore, were complete and utter bunk. I gritted my teeth in frustration and tried to ignore her mumblings at the other end of the ring.

It was almost the start of the show season and my competitive drive started to rear its head. My trainer and I discussed entering her in some low level dressage tests or maybe a trail class or two. Gabby and I’s sessions started to take on a little bit more intensity. Then, one rainy snowy night I walked up to Gabby’s paddock and she walked away from me.

That stung. A lot. I was in the middle of second-guessing our planned show season, when I noticed blood dripping down her hind leg. In the cold, dark air, I squinted. She was lame at the walk. My heart caught in my throat. She wasn’t letting me catch her because she was trying to tell me something– she was in pain. The moment I understood, she stopped and looked at me. We walked to the barn together painstakingly slowly.

After a few days of waiting, monitoring, and hoping, the worst was discovered. Gabby had a broken leg. Her cannon bone was fractured and a small piece had chipped off and was floating nearby. My trainer, who was also Gabby’s owner, mentioned euthanasia and my stomach just dropped. To some degree, I understood. Gabby wasn’t earning her any money and was just on field board. She couldn’t be on the stall rest she needed. On the other hand, I loved this little mare but didn’t have the funds or the time to provide her with what she needed.

The vet wanted to forge ahead in spite of our hesitations. If she was quiet enough out in the field, she could have a chance at healing. A month of bandage changes and stifled hopes later, we had some good news. She was healing relatively well, but still had a long road ahead of her. I was happy that she was healing, but I was still worried. My childhood horse had to be retired at the age of 13 after tearing a suspensory. It was so painful for me to give up the future that I saw with him. I couldn’t do it again. I felt helpless. As a college student, I didn’t have the money to buy Gabby and put her on the stall rest the vet recommended. I went to school an hour away, I couldn’t be there everyday to change her bandages and take care of her the way that I wanted to.

In my helplessness, I felt myself withdraw. It would be a stupid financial decision to take on a horse with a broken leg. Gabby and I had built a relationship based on trust and connection. It was so hard to let that go– but I couldn’t torture myself by watching her limp around her turnout paddock and be powerless to help.

Gabby eventually got the stall rest she needed with the help of a small turnout pen and a stall loaned to Gabby’s owner by a kind boarder. But for me, the damage was done. I felt powerless. I couldn’t help her. I had to leave her in the care of her owner and trust that she would continue to heal and wouldn’t be put to sleep. I left the barn and took the lessons that Gabby taught me with me.

Gabby taught me how to be patient, stand up for what I believe in, and most importantly, how to listen to what matters most. Riding isn’t always about the blue ribbon or perfect collection. Sometimes it’s just about that first ride on a scruffy little horse. Sometimes it’s about understanding how love and trust can create a relationship between two wildly different species, between predator and prey. Now, almost two years later, I greet my rescued 3-year-old mare with the same question I greeted Gabby.

Are you ready to have fun?

Loving Those That Came Before

There is a body in my backyard. He does not belong to me and yet when I bought the house I adopted his bones right along with it.

They lie 6 feet underground, the weight of the earth pressing them deeper into the embrace of the Rainbow Bridge. After a lifetime of abuse, this is now his final resting place — marked only by a simple blue cross, worn and falling apart with the ravages of time. His body was dragged there by a kind neighbor who took pity on his herd. They had stood over him for days, staring at their future.

I know of his story only through hearsay, but I hear stories like it so often that I feel as though I know it in its entirety. His story is one of divorce, daddy’s money, and responsibility. It is quieter than usual, more insidious. It was not featured on the news. It never made the rounds on Facebook. But it is no less tragic.

It starts with a woman who thought she loved horses.

After she bought a house with her husband, her father built her a barn. A paddock was put up with care. A large run-in shed filled one corner, a barn the other. A shiny white stock trailer appeared and a parade of miniature horses high-stepped off of it.

The dead body was among them, but he did not yet know it.

As the months went by, more horses appeared for a total of nine on a one acre field. The little girl next door would come by with treats and the herd would greet her overjoyed. But then, the winter came. With the cold weather their once shiny coats grew caked with mud. The thickness of winter hair hid gaunt hips and the overwhelming presence of a skeleton underneath skin. Food had stopped coming many months ago and hooves had grown long and curled due to a lack of care.

The horses began to gallop to the little girl who fed them snacks, their eyes wide with starvation. The little girl knew nothing but that ponies were prettier when they ran, though I hope her grandfather’s eyes grew slightly wider with concern.

The neighbor on the other side of the house began to grow worried. Hay was dumped into the paddock. Concerns were voiced. Rescues were called. Still, no help came.

The same woman that once delivered beautiful shiny ponies to their new home, now stayed in the house more and more. Yelling rang across the yard. Doors were slammed. Gravel flew as cars sped off.

More time passed. Still, no help came for the horses on the overcrowded acre.

“No trespassing” signs went up. The hay started to come in the middle of the night. The horses grew skinnier. Yelling in the house grew louder and then silence fell.

A few weeks later, the horse died.

The kind neighbor waited for the right people to finally take responsibility. Still, time went by. Days later the neighbor ignored the trespassing sign. Driving an orange tractor, he rumbled onto the field and pulled the body from it, saving the herd from the stench of their dead friend.

Showing love the small figure hadn’t known in some time, the neighbor lowered the horse into the hole he had dug. The sound of dirt hitting the tired body called home another child. A small blue cross with yellow writing went up and the pony found peace.

Finally, a few days too late, someone had taken responsibility and gave him the treatment in death that he never received in life. And now, despite the years that have gone by, I arrive and read the story in what was left behind. I see the desperation in the chewed wooden dividers and the paddock full of weeds. I hear the sounds of starvation in the perfectly clean, tags still on it, feed scoop sitting inside the barn. My heart aches with the neglect and sadness emanating from the poop-filled sheds and the trash that I pick out of the paddock.

Every broken piece of ceramic, child’s toy, plastic bag, styrofoam, and rusty nail that I collect reminds me of those who came before me and how they will never be forgotten again.

Now, when I look out across the field at my two happy horses, I see the hoof prints of neglect that haunt the earth beneath them. I think of the rescue that came long after the divorce. I think of the dead body dragged through the sparse weeds. I think of the little girl that was the hope of a starving herd.

And I feel responsible.

Responsible for honoring their bygone sufferings, to fix the cross, and cherish the animals that stand in their places. Because the only way that I know how to honor their memory is to love my horses and love all whose hooves walked across my lawn, even before it was mine. And even though they are now long-gone.

Conquering Negativity in the Equestrian World

My old riding team. What riding should be about: fun.

Let’s get this straight: negativity has no place in the equine world. The horse is an animal that lives in the now. They don’t care if your dressage test was botched — they probably didn’t even know they were performing a test. But the mental state of the rider can have a significant impact on the horse, and constant negative energy should have no place in that partnership.

And yet we see negativity Every. Single. Day. The media has had a field day with the story of Michael Barisone and Lauren Kanarek. Not only the fact that an ex-Olympic dressage rider shot one of his students, but that the victim faced online bullying afterwards. If you want my opinion, the story just sounds like a tragic ending to a bad relationship between two not-so-great people. Equestrians are so rarely in the New York Times. Yet, the big story that gets in the paper is about attempted murder and bullying. Is that really what we want to be known for?

Meanwhile, another high-profile mess, SafeSport and George Morris, has also made the pages of the Times. Another equine great brought down by a past tainted with sexual abuse of his students. More online bullying and discord ensued after that news broke. Equestrians everywhere fell on both sides of the split as to whether or not the allegations were true.

In the midst of all of this, videos of animal abuse regularly circulate the internet, filling our heads with unforgettable images of tragedy and pain. I believe that it’s important to remember that we are our animals’ voices and that role comes with the added responsibility of standing up for them — but I don’t need my Facebook feed filled with horrible videos every other post.

Even with all of these negative stories and images, equestrians somehow feel the need to bring ourselves down too. I was scrolling through Facebook the other day when I came across an ad for C4 Belts. The first image was a belt for eventers with the phrase “Why suck at one discipline when you can suck at all three?”

Ha ha, yes, very funny. But to me, that attitude can be so damaging to both horse and rider that why the heck would we want to emulate it, even as a joke? Go to any horse show, stand at the ring, and wait. If you wait long enough, you’ll hear trainers say absolutely despicable things to their students. Tears are far too common on show days when riders break under the pressure of making their trainer look good with a perfect round.

All of that pressure creates fear and anger in riders that gets passed on to our horses. It’s common and accepted for riders to growl — sometimes literally scream — at their horses to tap into that prey drive, pick up the pace, and jump a little higher in a jump off.

Really?

That animal blesses you by not throwing you on the ground every day and our response is to put the fear of God into them? We’re humans — not mountain lions. Acting like one is a surefire way to ruin your relationship with your horse.

There are significant repercussions for the maelstrom of negativity that currently has its talons in the equestrian world. At the heart of our sport is the horse. The creatures whose hoof prints built America and made possible every technological advance that we have today. The horse is second in its impact on history only to the wheel. Negative attitudes, training practices, and bullying all comes back on the horse. The animal that can sense every breath, shift of our seat bones, and pretty much read our minds must be undeniably burdened by our human pain, anger, and negativity.

As equestrians, our partnership with our horses is vital to the success of our businesses, riding careers, and happiness. Negativity is a surefire way to destroy any foundation that partnership was built on. The rise of positive reinforcement training and change-makers like “The Zen Racehorse” is a sign that we are finally recognizing the impact of our emotions on our four-legged charges. While I’m not entirely sold on using just positive reinforcement training, I’m grateful for the fact that it shows a paradigm shift in how we think about our relationships with our horses.

The horse isn’t the only one that suffers from negative attitudes and actions in the equine world. The mental health of our best riders is also at risk. The phrase, “It’s not the horse’s fault” gets pounded into the heart of every serious equestrian. In some ways it’s good. It (should) protect the horse from the blowback of our mistakes. But, that single phrase can bleed surprisingly fast into other areas of our lives. If the horse isn’t at fault then there’s only one party whose fault it can be — the rider’s.

If you ride competitively for too long , you’ll quickly find yourself applying that mindset to everything. Your trainer looks bad because there aren’t enough blue ribbons hanging in the barn aisle at the show? Your fault — if only you hadn’t knocked that rail. The horse tore a tendon in the paddock? Your fault — you probably didn’t condition him well enough. Your family spent far too much money on a horse that was only sound for one season? Your fault — you should have looked at his conformation a little more closely.

The Look

Pretty soon, it becomes: You didn’t get that blue ribbon in the equitation class? Your fault — you should have lost that extra five pounds.

Body image is one aspect of horse showing that is just now starting to be talked about. And a good thing too. Eating disorders run rampant in our sport as trainers search for the rider with “the look.” I’ll tell you a secret — it’s always the skinnier rider.

Why do we torture ourselves like this? What happened to just enjoying the ride? Connecting with our horses? Having fun?

In 2020, let’s give ourselves permission to enjoy our sport again. It’s not always about the ribbon, the money you spent on your horse, or striving for perfection. Sometimes it’s about taking the negative with a grain of salt, reveling in our own imperfections, and looking for the positive.

Next time, buy the belt that says “Imperfectly perfect, and loving it.”