Earlier this week, I received the call every horse owner dreads. The call which starts with “there’s been a terrible accident” and ends with uncontrollable sobbing.
Grief and pain immediately take over, leaving you unable to do anything but continuously replay the horrific details over and over again in your mind. In that one instant, all your hopes and dreams suddenly vanish and you are paralyzed with sadness.
Moving on after such an intensely sudden and painful loss feels utterly impossible.
It’s the type of call which causes you to question why you ever got involved with horses in the first place. This one incident threatens to derail a lifetime of passion, perseverance, and hard work.
Even despite the emotional agony, a tiny piece of me yearned for the answer. I desperately needed something to hold onto. Something to get me through the quiet desperation of an unfair situation.
That tiny piece of me needed a silver lining. I needed his legacy to be defined not by his death but by his life and by the value horses have brought into my life.
I’ve heard it said time and time again that horses have the ability to reveal things about ourselves which would otherwise remain hidden. They are a mirror into our inner selves and I sincerely believe this. Every partnership has something different to teach us if we are willing to listen.
In this time of grief, I am choosing to reflect back upon life lessons from horses rather than dwell upon the sadness of his loss. And if you are going through a similar situation, I hope that you too can take comfort in reflecting back upon all the good times. The times which were so incredible that you’d never dream of trading them even if you knew how it all would end.
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My History with Horses
Fortunately (or unfortunately for my husband!) horses have been a lifelong obsession. I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t fascinated by their beauty, strength, and majesty.
Some of my earliest memories revolve around our family’s horses. Although my dad and his brothers operated a dairy farm, we always had a diverse range of horses around. My dad and uncle grew up farming with horses and even after machinery entered the picture, the horses remained.
As did my passion for these beautiful animals. And my own life lessons from horses.
I read everything about horses that I could get my hands on. Subscribed to multiple magazines and watched movies and shows galore. Throughout middle and high school, I rode in 4-H and other open shows. And as a natural introvert growing up in a very small town, horses also served an emotional support role for me.
After high school graduation, my life went a completely different direction. Horses were no longer a central focus and although the passion was still there, it lay dormant for a period of time.
A New Direction in Life Lessons from Horses
About 5 years ago, I began to feel the need to include horses in my life once again. After some searching, I finally found an instructor willing to give me a few lessons in a completely different discipline than I had grown up doing. And I immediately fell in love once again! Since that time, I’ve ridden a few different lesson horses under her careful (and very patient!) guidance, even doing a partial lease on one.
But there’s just something about owning your own horse. Ownership means an opportunity to grow and bond with the animal on an entirely different level.
Although I had seriously contemplated ownership, there were several significant roadblocks (aka my husband) in my path so I eventually resigned myself to leasing.
Until about a month ago when my sister completely took me by surprise with an offer. She had recently acquired a new horse and was wondering whether I was interested in her other horse, Ike.
My sister had purchased Ike about 10 years ago and had gone through thick and thin with that horse. She had taken him from an unruly youngster to a sound and sane partner over those years. Countless hours of patient and persistent work were put into him.
But despite all those hours, Ike simply was never cut out for the type of riding my sister loves. He liked to move out and became bored easily, qualities which do not win in the western pleasure circuit.
But they are qualities sought after in the dressage arena and he was therefore right up my alley.
After about a week of begging and pleading, my husband begrudgingly agreed to the purchase. And I was in heaven! After 5 years of lessons and leasing other people’s horses, I was finally going to have one of my own.
Curious about dressage? Find out more here.
Although I had ridden Ike a few times over the years, it had been over 5 years since I had last done so. To make matters even more complicated, my sister lives in Kansas, a bit of a trek from my home in Wisconsin. Agreeing to the purchase without even trying him under saddle beforehand was a gamble.
But a chance at horse ownership meant fulfillment of my dressage dreams and even more life lessons from horses. It was a gamble I was definitely willing to take.
After some deliberation, my sister decided to make the trip from Kansas up to Minnesota where her in-laws live on a Thursday and then head to my trainer’s farm the following day.
On that Friday morning, I eagerly waited for her to drive up with my dream horse in tow. Finally, I heard the rumble of gravel and frantic whinnying signaling his arrival.
He was clearly not impressed with the number of hours spent in the trailer over the past 2 days.
Despite being slightly disgruntled, he calmly walked out of the trailer and across the yard to the round pen. After trotting a couple of laps in the pen, he realized there was grass to mow down and he settled right in.
Two days later, I saddled up for the first time and had an absolutely fabulous first ride. I was ecstatic thinking about our future together and the partnership being built.
Little did I know that our first ride would also be our last and in a little over 24 hours, I would be making the heartbreaking decision to say goodbye forever.
Life Lessons from Horses
Although our journey together was incredibly short, Ike’s loss has been a deeply painful experience. I wouldn’t have changed a thing but desperately wish we could have had more time together.
In moments like these, there’s a natural tendency to question why bad things happen. And in truth, we may never get the satisfaction of knowing exactly why things happen the way they do.
But we can make a choice to actively search for the silver lining. We can choose to focus on the good which is present in even the worst of circumstances.
Ike’s loss has driven me to search for the good and the valuable life lessons from horses I’ve gained over the years. He gave me retrospection and the opportunity to appreciate the impact horses have had on my life.
And for that, I am truly grateful.
1. Be Grateful for Life Lessons from Horses
Life comes with no guarantees and tomorrow is not a promise. The key to happiness is appreciating the here and now as the gift that it is.
Too many people in this world spend all their energy wishing for things to be different instead of acknowledging what they do have. I am certainly no exception.
There have been more than a few moments over the past week when I have desperately wished things had gone differently. But no amount of wishing will bring him back again.
And this type of mindset gets you nowhere except bitter and unhappy.
Although there will never be another Ike, there are other incredible horses out there waiting for their human partner. And those lesson horses that I spent the past 5 years riding? They’re still there too.
I have so much more to learn and am incredibly grateful for everything they have taught me thus far.
Choose to be grateful and watch your world brighten.
2. All Good Things Take Time
If you want to truly excel at something, you have to put in the work. There are no quick fixes in life. No shortcuts.
Especially when you are building a partnership. This is true regardless of whether it’s with a horse or with another human.
Building trust takes time and effort.
Things will almost never go according to plan and nothing worth pursuing in life comes easy.
Add in a little patience and you have the recipe for success in the dressage arena and in life.
3. Do What You Love
Want some good news? Opportunity is everywhere in life but it comes with a catch.
Opportunity is everywhere in life.
Let me explain.
The world is full of distractions disguised as opportunity. There are choices to be made at every turn. Choices about your work and home life. And choices about how you spend your free time.
In other words, you have to be intentional about your time otherwise you will undoubtedly fill it with mindless distraction.
But if you are truly passionate about something, set your intention and follow it with all your heart.
Life is too short to live in a state of constant distraction instead of with focused intention.
4. Forgive Easily
Any partnership, whether with a fellow human or with a horse, is susceptible to misunderstandings from time to time. We will be let down because no horse or human is perfect.
But if our ultimate goal is a strong partnership, there can be no room for holding grudges. We have to learn to let the small things go for the sake of the bigger picture.
In thinking back to my early days of riding, I had a tendency to hold grudges against my horse for not responding correctly. I would then hold onto this negativity and it would darken the entire riding experience.
Once I learned to let go of perfection and forgive the mistakes, riding became much more satisfying. It took on a lighter and more positive experience when I finally realized that I was far from perfect and should forgive my horse’s honest mistakes.
Forgiveness is central to happiness because bad things are inevitable in life. Learning how to process tough emotions and move on releases us from a cycle of pain and bitterness.
5. Find a Mentor
It’s incredibly difficult to make progress in a vacuum. Finding a mentor is essential if you desire more from your riding, your personal development, or really any other area of your life.
An outside perspective provides unbeatable value when you long for lasting and meaningful improvement.
Prior to starting dressage lessons 5 years ago (and coming from a strictly western background), posting the trot was a foreign concept. Mastering even this very basic technique felt nearly impossible.
Today I am able to not only post the trot but have made huge strides in achieving throughness and collection across all 3 gaits. I have become a much more confident and able rider under the guidance of an experienced trainer.
There’s absolutely no way I would be where I am today if I hadn’t found a mentor.
6. Motivation Comes from Doing
There’s a common misperception out there about motivation. Many people think motivation is the very first step toward achieving greatness.
No matter how passionate you are about something, I guarantee there will be days when you won’t feel like putting in the work. There will be days when you don’t feel like saddling up, hitting the gym, or writing.
Motivation in and of itself only takes you so far and is typically highest at the beginning of your journey. But then a shift happens and you must rely on something else to drive you toward those goals.
At that point, motivation only comes after you’ve put in the daily work.
Doing the work then becomes the thing which motivates you.
Dig deep into your why and saddle up even when you can list 10 different excuses as to why you should skip today’s ride. It’s the small, daily actions which eventually add up to spectacular results.
Check out this post for tips on staying motivated.
7. Life Lessons from Horses Involve Never Giving Up
I’m not going to lie. In those moments after Ike’s death, I seriously contemplated getting out of horses altogether. Losing him so quickly after waiting 5 years to find an equine partner seemed like a sign.
A sign that maybe horses weren’t my path. That maybe I should give up, go home, and just forget about the whole thing.
Except it’s nearly impossible to give up something you’ve thought about every single day of your life.
My earliest memories include horses and even to this day, they are a constant presence in my best and brightest daydreams. Even away from the barn, I am always mentally processing my latest lesson and figuring out how I can do something better next time.
Walking away at this point means giving in to the sadness and letting negativity engulf me. It means completely eliminating something which has brought so much joy and fulfillment to my life. It’s not the legacy that Ike deserves to leave.
And although his life ended far too soon, he was truly loved and that’s really the best a horse can ever hope for.
The silver lining in all of this is that his death has given me the opportunity for reflection and has proven my gratitude for life lessons from horses.
Horses are my passion and I would feel completely lost without them in my life.
If you are going through a similar loss, I hope this article has inspired you to find your own life lessons from horses. I pray that you can take comfort in knowing that your horse was also deeply loved and that the memories will forever live on.