Epilogue: Milestones

I think I’ve wanted to write this blog post for a long time. My last blog post. An explanation of sorts, for why I stopped writing. Some closure. Ever since returning home I’ve been hung up on milestones – waiting for them, commemorating them, thinking wistfully of what was, and watching it slip further away. A year since traveling Europe. A year since waking up in Aiken. A year since completing my first event. Finally, a year since coming home.

You would think that after a year, the “homesickness”, the longing, the sadness at leaving behind friends, horses, a lifestyle, would have faded. It hasn’t. I still follow the North American eventing websites, the live results, the social media accounts. I wouldn’t know anything about the Australian eventing season, but I could tell you who’s winning back in Canada. Re-adjustment, re-integration back into an equestrian community is hard. I’ve been fortunate enough to find something to ride, but after my time abroad, I am spoiled for anything less than the best. Riding in my old second-hand saddle, in a paddock not quite flat, with no arena, no coach, and not much of an idea of how to re-educate a young polocrosse horse, I struggle to find the enjoyment that once came so easily riding the Rock. Babies and greenies are fun, but most of me yearns for the experienced horse, the one I can just get on, and lose myself in the nuances of a shoulder-in, or the art of riding an angled line. The one that teaches me, instead of me teaching it.

I miss the people, the horses, the lifestyle as much as I did the day I flew home. The milestones bring sadness and smiles – sadness because they’re over, smiles because they happened. A constant balancing act.

I’m not writing this to be depressing, or melodramatic, but rather to help myself find some closure. Today, without even realising it, I passed another milestone. I went to work, I walked into a room, I sat down, and I spoke with a small group of graduates aspiring to work where I do. A process that I went through about a year ago, when I managed to make it through all the applications and tests to attend an assessment centre for a highly regarded graduate program in a government department. A year ago, I left the assessment centre feeling overwhelmed and uncertain of my chances. Today, I shared my experiences with others in that situation, detailing how much I have experienced in the six short months I have been in my job. I have met wonderful people and worked on challenging and exciting tasks. I have moved states, moved cities, and moved out of home. I have capitalised on five long years of study, and attained the job I always wanted but never knew existed. I have started creating new memories.

For me, it’s hard to accept that I no longer have the luxury to drive five minutes to a beautiful barn, fetch an amazing horse, tack her up in beautiful gear and go off to ride with an amazing coach in a stunning arena, or through miles of forest, or around a perfectly manicured jump course. That simply does not exist here. What does exist is the beginning of a career, the forging of new friendships, the slow re-integration into the equine community, the slow re-education of a new horse. What exists now are memories, of the best kind, and new milestones.

 

The next adventure…

Don’t get too excited.  I’m not too sure what it is yet!  But I have been overwhelmed by all the lovely comments I’ve been reading on here lately, along the theme of “good luck/I can’t wait to hear about the next adventure”.

Right now, the current adventure revolves around replenishing the bank accounts, through contract promotional work.  Not my favourite job, but a well-paying one, and therefore a necessary one.  Although the first two days were torture, since I had to stand at a desk right opposite a travel agent, looking at all the international flight prices, whilst trying to focus on doing my job.  I’m still not sure what kind of full-time job I want yet, since I have changed a lot in the past year and discovered passions and talents I never knew existed.  In light of the feedback I received from numerous people back in Aiken, including my coach and many of the clients, I thought I’d share one of them on here.  Throughout my entire trip, I was never far from my cameras (yes, I had to take 2), and I could often be spotted snapping away at weird things or setting up some sort of obscure photo opportunity.  At the end of my time as working student/barn manager, I presented my coach with a book of photographs I had captured over my time with her, as a thank you and a sort of memoir.  I hadn’t expected it to receive so much praise, and it only made her more determined that she should convince me to take up some form of photography or videography. (I also created several video projects of our eventing exploits, although I am unable to publish them online due to copyright regulations.)  Since one of the most important lessons I learnt during my gap year was to always listen to my coach, I have spent a bit of time compiling my photographs, and creating a place where they can be viewed.  I don’t really think it’s a significant career move, but it’s something to explore, and if you’re dedicated enough to read a) this much of my blog and b) this much of this post, you’ll probably be interested in seeing what I’ve come up with.  Many of these have probably already been featured on here, but hopefully there are some new and exciting ones too!

The online version of the photobook I created can be found here:

My tumblr, where my photographs are posted, can be found here:

 

Practising my photography on Emma Green and Bellscross Sunny Cruise.

Willing photography subjects Emma Green and Bellscross Sunny Cruise.

Homecoming

So finally, after a whirlwind year of adventures, I’m home.  It’s very strange, and a little surreal.  But I’m getting ahead of myself.  There are still some Aiken tales to be told…

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The Rock contemplates the risks involved with riding.

The final days in Aiken were filled with lots of riding and lots of packing, and lots of memories that I will treasure always.  I had my final jumping lesson on the Rock the day before I flew out, and it was an absolute blast.  Having not jumped since our event at Full Gallop almost 2 weeks prior, she was (predictably) raring to go, so we blazed through a small course and worked on angling a 3ft oxer, which was wicked fun.  We came round to jump the first jump in the angled line for the last time, and about 6 strides out I realised that one of the dogs was sniffing around for a mouse under the rails.  Naturally, I yelled at her to move, and when she didn’t, I yelled some more.  It soon became clear that this dog wasn’t moving, so there was nothing much to do but just… jump!  And jump the dog we did.  We kept it short and sweet and I spoiled the Rock with a bath and some mints afterwards.

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I was relieved to wake up on my last morning in Aiken and discover that my nightmare of my coach forgetting to take me to the airport was in fact just a nightmare.  My final day was spent with a morning hack, more packing, and then a trip to town for lunch at the Aiken Brew Pub – always enjoyable – and a frantic rush to post a large box of stuff home.  Finally I returned back to the farm to shower and pack my last few things.  The time to departure ticked closer, so I decided to call my coach, who had taken some health papers for signing in Columbia, to see if she would be back in time.  Turns out the nightmare wasn’t totally over – she’d got a flat tire and was only just leaving the mechanic – and wouldn’t be able to make it back in time.  Frantically, I called one of our other working students at our other barn who (thank goodness) came through and rushed me up to Columbia.  My relaxing departure became a rush to say goodbye to people, ponies, and puppies before I jumped into the car and we set off, only just making it in time.  But of course nothing ever goes smoothly for me, (remember racing for the train in the Netherlands?) and my suitcase was too heavy.  So began the rearranging of things across suitcases, and I was eventually forced to (reluctantly) concede that I couldn’t bring my helmet, the GPA that was gifted to me by Rolex rookie Rachel McDonough.  It will remain in Canada (I hope – you guys better not have abandoned it somewhere!) just in case I do venture back…

So I then waited for my coach to meet me outside the airport for the final, hardest goodbye.  It was a poor substitute for the half an hour goodbye I’d expected to have in the car, but on this occasion, it was what life threw at me, and there was nothing to do but shed the tears and make the most of a brief, very teary goodbye.  We both expressed our gratitude for everything the other had done or given them, and then we stood in silence.  There were no more words to say, just tears, and more hugs as I reluctantly headed off to board my first of three flights home.  I fought back tears as I passed through security and waited at my gate, calling another friend to say goodbye.  Then it was off to Washington, sitting next to a lady reading the most southern magazine I’ve ever heard of – Garden and Gun. Oh yes.  It’s a thing.  After a few hours and a bite to eat in Washington, I boarded the first of the long hauls – a 13 hour flight to Abu Dhabi where yet again I had issues with the weight of my carry-on luggage.  I should have just taken the opportunity to board through the business class lane when offered – ain’t nobody weighing their luggage. As soon as dinner and drinks were served it was time to pop the sleeping pills… and just as they were taking effect, the man next to me started up a conversation and a photo tour of Abu Dhabi and Dubai via his iPhone.  Sleep was cut short on that plane.  Arriving in the UAE for my final stopover I did the last bit of present shopping, tried (unsuccessfully) to find a powerpoint to charge my iPhone before realising I didn’t have the right adaptor anyway, and wrote a quick blog entry before getting on the last 13 hour flight home.

Going the long way round does have its advantages, although small compared to the amount of time I had to spend in aircraft.  I got to see the edge of Australia – the pristine sandy beaches of Western Australia, the bare red desert of the Red Centre, through to the rolling mountains of the Great Dividing Range, all the way to the blinking red light on the top of the Sydney Harbour Bridge.  As the plane touched down I could barely believe my trip was over.  In a daze, I made my way through immigration, baggage claim, and eventually customs before emerging on the other side.  Seeing my family waiting at the arrivals gate I nearly fell over my suitcase down the ramp – no, seriously, if there hadn’t been a wall there I would have faceplanted it in front of everyone – and I rushed straight into the arms of my mother, father, and sister.

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Having been home almost a week now, it still feels odd.  I feel a little like a foreigner in my own country.  I’m constantly aware of the accents of the people around me, everything looks and feels small, and I’ve finally crashed and succumbed to the inevitable post-travel illnesses.  I’m subject to the same sort of questions from everyone, which although it’s great people are interested in my future, does get tiring, and I turn on the windscreen wipers every time I go to put my indicator on.  Then there’s the comments on my changed accent, the fact that my dog has suddenly become a pensioner, and the realisation that after living out of a suitcase for a year, I couldn’t possibly need all the STUFF that’s in my bedroom.  I can’t get used to milk instead of cream in my coffee, I can’t get used to not drinking filter coffee, and everything is built so close together that I feel claustrophobic.  I can no longer sleep in past 8am, I get an itchy feeling not riding and exercising and mucking stalls every day and get hopelessly bored around the house whenever I take a break from cleaning, organising, and job-applying.

Being home is great, but it’s different, and it’s going to take quite a bit of time to settle back in and figure out what the next step may be… stay tuned if I ever figure it out!

Valuable life skills

Valuable life skill no. 5 - How to pack a horse trailer

Valuable life skill no. 7 – How to pack a horse trailer

Over the past 382 days I have accumulated and honed a set of very unique life skills.  Unfortunately, most of these just didn’t seem to fit in to my resume, so I thought I’d list them here.

 Life skills that should make me a more employable person but are most likely sadly underestimated:

  1. The ability to manoeuvre one or more suitcases in a variety of intricate fashions.  Including but not limited to; getting a large suitcase and accompanying hand luggage into an airport toilet cubicle, down stairs, up stairs, along 2km of cobbled streets, into elevators, onto escalators, onto buses, etc.
  2. The ability to dig a rainwater ditch. Because there comes a time at every horse show when someone has to do it.
  3.  The ability to accurately judge wind speed, direction, and velocity. Because when you’re mucking paddocks and flinging manure into the wheelbarrow, you want it to land in the wheelbarrow, and not fly back in your face.
  4.  The ability to PROPERLY coil rope, hoses, and electrical cords. Because if you don’t do it properly, there’s nothing more annoying than trying to untangle them.
  5. The ability to remember several different timezones simultaneously and coordinate phone calls and Skype calls accordingly. So I’m basically be qualified as a secretary now, right?
  6.  The ability to pack large amounts of stuff into one suitcase and one carry-on bag. Also known as suitcase tetris.
  7.  The ability to pack a horse trailer. Sounds easy, but you try fitting 16 bales of hay and 12 bags of shavings in a trailer so that a) the horses don’t eat the hay and b) you still have enough room to fit in the rest of the gear AND get the horses up the ramp.  Also known as trailer tetris.
  8. The ability to film/take pictures whilst riding. And actually have the pictures turn out half-decent.
  9. The ability to do currency conversions mentally. Because if you can’t do this when you’re shopping internationally, you’ve got a problem.
  10.  The ability to sleep on planes, buses, trains, couches, and similar places. Because when you’ve got two 13 hour flights back to back, you need that sleep wherever you can get it.

 

Valuable life skill no. 8 - how to take decent pictures whilst riding.

Valuable life skill no. 8 – how to take decent pictures whilst riding.

 

The in between

Sitting at my gate lounge in Abu Dhabi waiting for my last flight home, I have a bit of time to reflect and recount the happenings of the past few days.  They were filled with packing and organising and putting away jumps and riding – dressage, jumping, trot sets, gallop sets, and hacks.  They were also filled with goodbyes.

Yesterday (or was it today?) I said the hardest goodbyes of all.  I said goodbye to several humans, two dogs, and one very special horse.  I cried many tears, and held back many more.  The hugs were never ending.  The gratitude flowed endlessly.

When people encourage others to go overseas, to travel, and to live and work abroad, they tell you about all the fabulous things you’ll experience – the great memories, the friendships, the amazing times to be had.  But what they don’t tell you is how hard it is to leave.  Particularly with another 16 hours of travel before I return home to my family and friends, I feel like I am in the ‘in between’ –  unable to let go of what I’m leaving but also unable to grab hold of what’s waiting for me, because I’m not there yet.

Despite the emotional trauma, I can’t forget the amazing experiences and memories I have made along the way, and I know these will keep me going when things get even tougher.  Stay tuned for a more detailed account of the final days in Aiken.

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Home is where the heart is

With just four days until I go home, life is starting to feel a little weird.  What will it feel like to not have to muck a barn every morning? How am I going to re-adapt to driving on the left hand side of the road? (Sydney, consider yourself warned.)  How am I possibly going to survive without my Rock – my new four-legged best friend, the horse that has seen me through so much, and that brings so much happiness to my life?  All of these are questions that I have to wrestle with, at the same time that I consider how excited I am to go home and see my friends and family again.

You see, the thing about travelling and living abroad is that it changes your sense of home.  No longer do I have just one home, and one family, I have several.  No matter where you are, you will always be missing one of them, and the more you travel, the more you experience, the thinner you spread yourself.  You never stop having to think about what timezone you’re in, or what slang you’re using, because one or more of your families are on the other side of the world.  Inconvenient, no?

Although it is heartbreaking to leave another family behind, it’s the sadness that reveals how much they have changed me, and how important they are to me.  I will miss the humans, yes, but also the horses and dogs that have made every day a joy to experience.

I started this journey with a sense of anticipation, and I was anxious to answer one important question I had for myself.  After so much time away from riding, would I still love it as much as I once had? Or had I already succumbed to the all-too-common teenage affliction that results in horse-crazy young girls losing interest and pursing other things in life, like a normal social life?  Without even realising it, I have answered that question for myself ten times over.  I still have the drive and the passion for horses, as much as I ever did.  I lived, breathed, and slept horses for the past year, and loved it.  Although I felt like a little bit of a gypsy this year, living out of a suitcase, I know now I had one true home all along, and that home will always be in the saddle.

Home is where the heart is

For where your treasure is, there will be your heart also.

P.S – Here’s a video of my show jumping round from Full Gallop Horse Trials, having a blast on the Rock.

Show jumping on the Rock

Full Gallop and the final countdown

For those of you waiting with bated breath to see how we did at our event yesterday, let’s cut straight to the chase – we were 5th!

It was a crazy day for us with 7 horses competing, so I had my work cut out for me in the morning grooming for everyone else – luckily I had a late dressage time and very late jump times.  Our other horses all did really well, and we ended up coming home with a few other ribbons too.  So when the time came I put on my borrowed jacket, shirt, stock tie, hairnet (so civilised!) and saddle and off we went to warm up.  The Rock was feeling great and performed beautifully, so off we headed to the ring.  We had a fairly nice test, despite breaking gait in the walk (typical) and cantering into the trot transition, and goal #1 was achieved: Don’t lose your way in the dressage test.

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So then we had a 2 hour wait before the jumping phases, and I camped out at another trailer while the rest of the horses were taken home and everyone came back to watch me.  Our jumping warm up wasn’t great to start with a bit of rushing at the jumps, and it took a while to get the right approach and jump but eventually we were ready to go.  We got a good canter to the first jump so I sat and waited, and the Rock sped off into the course.  She was on fire and the distances just flew up to meet us.  Although I knew it was a bit too fast, I opted to let her out on the approach to the fence, rather than pull too much on the face and risk a rail.  It paid off and we raced around clean, with 20 seconds to spare on the clock.

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We went straight over to cross country and did one practice jump before heading to the start box.  Predictably, the Rock was wriggling all over with excitement and couldn’t wait to get in the box, but to her credit, stood relatively still while I started my watch (yes, I wore a watch for Beginner Novice, because our biggest problem was sure to be going too fast).  We were counted down and off she roared to the first jump.  Just like the show jumping phase, as soon as I was out of two-point and back in the saddle, she raced off to the fence and soared over.  I hauled her back for a wide turn to the second which came up much smoother, and started slowing again to the third.  Looking down, I noticed my reins had become twisted, so I flipped them over and accidentally swiped the Rock across the neck.  She considered this very unjust and didn’t hesitate to let me know by letting out a buck or two. I swear, if she had a voice, she would have been yelling at me to calm down and just let her do her job.  It left me shaking my head and laughing all the way over jump four.  We rolled around the middle section of the course, making huge sweeping turns as I came down to the gap in the tree-line – the wrong gap! I managed to slow the Rock enough to make a good turn to the bank and we continued on without any more navigational mishaps!  Through the water I managed to slow down enough for a strategic trot, since we were way too fast, before tackling the last section of the course.  We got four strides in between the ditch and the house, which had walked a forward five, just to give an indication of our speed.  After the rails on the top of the bank I managed to slow to a nice collected canter which put us just ten seconds off the optimum time.  I was ecstatic passing through the finish line – goal #2 achieved: don’t fall off, and finish the event!  Special thanks go to everyone that came to support me at the end of a long day, to my talented Rolex-bound friend Rachel McDonough for warming me up for dressage, to my cheer squad/photographers/videographers, and to my awesome coach Momo for all her hard work in preparing the Rock and I for this event.

Despite some harsh judging, we finished on our dressage score of 43.2, and here’s a few pictures of how much fun I had doing it! (Stay tuned for video!)

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In other news, today marks exactly one year since I left home, and exactly fifteen days until I leave to go home.  I am completely torn – I don’t want to leave, but I can’t wait to go home.  I’m preparing for a complete shock to the system, but also trying not to think about it and just enjoy the time I have left.  I can’t wait to see my family, but I can’t bear to leave behind my Canadian family.  As always, I will just have to go with the flow and see what the future brings.

Get out of the saddle

I had many goals for my year abroad.  Goals for personal development, goals for places to go and see, and goals for my riding.  I wanted to become a better horse person, and a better rider.  One specific goal I set for myself was that I wanted to improve to the point where I was capable of riding at the Preliminary level.  (Australians, that’s our Novice level).  Given that I hadn’t even completed an event at the lower levels yet, it must have seemed like a bit of a long shot.  I certainly got that impression from my coach.  But as with most people, the more you get the impression you’re being discouraged from doing something, the more determined you are to do it.  And yesterday my determination paid off.  It’s over the past few weeks that I have become more and more in tune with all of the Rock’s buttons and quirks.  In short – I’ve finally worked out how to put my leg on to the base of a jump, and as a result, we’ve been schooling bigger and bigger fences, to the point where we jumped a small Preliminary course.  And yesterday came the icing on the cake.  We went to an amazing cross-country course up at Gibbes Farm, and ended up schooling over a whole bunch of Preliminary fences.  “Get out of the saddle!” my coach called to me after I started over the first fence.  “It’s not dressage!”  So out of the saddle I got, and after that there was no stopping us.  Coffins, banks, drops into water, and plenty of combinations later, the five of us started our leisurely walk back to the trailer in good spirits, and it wasn’t until then that my coach pointed something out to me.  “You know,” she said, “you achieved your goal today.  You got to ride Prelim.”  In the few seconds that followed, the realisation of what she had said started to sink in.  I had achieved my goal.  I had ridden around a bunch of these jumps, jumped them well, and had the time of my life doing it.  I will freely admit I got a little teary, and was overwhelmed with gratitude for the amazing horse that has made it all possible for me.  The Rock had the time of her life jumping around, and that just made it all the more enjoyable.  Unfortunately, for all those interested, there are no photos, and no videos, so you’ll just have to take my word for it.

 

The Sweetie was piloted around her second cross-country school by a client, and conducted herself exceptionally.  Everyone in our group rode brilliantly after being challenged with some difficult fences and we had a fantastic time on such a beautiful course.  It’s days like this that make me never want to leave.  Even getting lost on the interstate after stopping for lunch was an adventure with the right company.  But if my gap year has taught me anything, it’s the importance of getting out of your comfort zone.  Just like getting out of the saddle, it puts you in a position where you’re capable of meeting your challenges head-on, and well-equipped for the ride.  Of course, it helps if you have a partner that’s as amazing as the Rock.  To her goes the biggest thank you.

 

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Lastly, this weekend I am chasing another goal – to complete an event! Wish us luck as we tackle Full Gallop Farm Horse Trials on Sunday 🙂

Another (productive) day in paradise

I’m down to my final month of my adventure, and if I thought things would wind down a little, boy was I wrong!  With our coach and fellow working student away for 5 days, manning the fort is proving to be a more full-on job than first expected.  I have just started putting together resumes for several job applications at home, and always find it frustrating how easy and uncomplicated working with horses looks on paper.  Things like “turn in/turn out, feeding, grooming, assistance at shows, and barn chores” do not adequately describe the amount of work that goes into maintaining a barn of horses.  To illustrate my point, let me describe my day today.

I farewelled my coach at around 7:30 this morning as she packed up and left, and took the time to have breakfast before barn chores, which was a bit of a luxury.  I then commenced with the usual – soaking two feeds and bringing in the horses that live outside, turning out our horses, delegating the feeding of the hay, mucking the stalls, dumping and re-filling water buckets, adding fresh shavings and hay, sweeping the aisle, making up and administering morning medications for the outside horses, changing their blankets, turning them out, and finally, going over the barn and cleaning up the tack room.  Other tasks this morning included raking the front of the barn aisle and refilling water troughs (kindly done by one of my helpers for the day), and mucking the paddocks – the most hated of all barn chores.  We then tackled the hay shed, cleaning up the loose hay suitable for feeding and throwing out the soiled/sandy hay that the dogs had been using as their own personal bathroom.

So finally, at around lunch time, we could begin the riding.  First up was the Sweetie, who performed admirably on the flat, if a little fresh.  Then was a walk hack with the Rock and two other horses that competed on the weekend, before I headed to the other barn for one last hack on the exceptional Timaru – one of my personal favourites who has just upgraded to Preliminary and is doing spectacularly!

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Timaru!

And the plan is to get up and do it all again tomorrow, except we have some canter sets on our to-do list! Stay tuned 🙂

Insanity in the middle

Yesterday, the Sweetie had her first cross country school! It was very exciting and so much fun – we jumped a tonne of small fences and only had one stop at a super scary barrel jump, which she then jumped super the next time.  It was awesome.

Today, I had a killer dressage lesson, hacked a lovely mare, then rode the Rock and the Sweetie.  I also got featured on Eventing Nation. You can read my article right here. 🙂