Ending the Pandemic Pause

hi·ber·na·tion

noun

  1. the condition or period of an animal or plant spending the winter in a dormant state.

“grizzly bears gorge on seeds to prepare for hibernation”

  • an extended period of remaining inactive or indoors.

“the fair-weather cyclists are emerging from winter hibernation”

(all definitions from Oxford Languages)

I look forward to the arrival of spring at Cold Moon Farm each year with eager anticipation. For me, the predictability of restoring the farm to a more active state after winter’s dormancy provides a sense of satisfaction; the requirement of annual chores marks the passage of time, affirms that even when snow comes in April (as it did this year), spring will prevail in the end.

April 16, 2021. I didn’t actually cry but it was close.

Step by step, the essential equipment of winter—bucket heaters, extension cords, heavyweight blankets, shovels—is cleaned and stowed away, replaced by hoses and fly masks and the onset of shedding season. Gardens are raked, the horse trailer pulled out of its winter parking spot, grooming tools and grain bins washed and aired out. Each task completed marks a satisfying check off the “to do” list and brings me one step closer to the best riding months of the year here in New England.

The arrival of robins and eastern bluebirds and barn swallows marks the end of winter’s rest for the horses; in the past, I have called this period the “deferalization of spring”. It starts with a renewed commitment to deep grooming, shedding blades and sturdy curry combs erasing the feathery remains of winter coats while pulling combs and thinners shorten manes that have become unkempt. The farrier pulls winter shoes and snow pads, making feet seem cleaner and lighter. We start legging up the experienced horses with thirty minute walks, increasing to an hour, then adding light arena work. The green beans go on the longe line or work in the round pen, hopefully demonstrating some memory of lessons learned last season.

Just another day of shedding season for this professional hair-grower. (JEF Anna Rose)

This spring, it feels as though my personal equestrian hibernation has been longer than usual. This was the first winter in years I didn’t avail myself of an indoor, instead giving all of my horses three months off. Yet in some ways my “extended period of remaining inactive” began long before the winter solstice. I haven’t competed in person since 2019, took only two lessons in 2020 and otherwise hauled out just a handful of times for trail rides. Now, as both the calendar and world around me proclaim that it is time to resume activity, I find that I am struggling to emerge from my sheltered cocoon.

There are so many reasons for this. The pandemic, of course, is a huge part of it; given the many uncertainties over the past year, it was logical to simply stay home, and I am out of practice. But the pandemic also became a wonderful excuse to simply remain within my comfort zone and avoid new challenges that might intimidate me—challenges that could also test my skills and inspire me to grow. Even though doing new or difficult things can produce anxiety, nerves and even a little fear, it is the successful completion of these small challenges that develops confidence. And having had little opportunity to achieve these small stepping stones in the past eighteen months has left me feeling less confident than before all of this started.

Through Lee’s ears.

I recently interviewed a top hunter/jumper coach and course designer on the subject of riding under pressure; he commented that humans in general tend to move away from pressure but the most successful riders instead continuously seek it, putting themselves and their equine partners into situations in which they must manage nerves, excitement, challenge and stress. Navigating pressure—whatever that looks like for you—is where growth occurs. Living within your comfort zone is safe but will not and cannot produce new growth.

My extended hibernation was inspired by the pandemic but augmented by excuses and transitions such as horses needing to step down career wise and horses needing time to mature. It has left me feeling too familiar with my comfort zone and excessively rusty and out of practice with pushing my boundaries. Now, I have a rising 6-year-old ready to go out and see the world. Regionally, shows and clinics and other equestrian activity is on the upswing. All signals indicate that the time for hibernation is over—but after such a long period of inactivity, it is so tempting to stay within the security and familiarity of my comfort zone.

re·new·al

noun

  1. an instance of resuming an activity or state after an interruption.

“a renewal of hostilities”

  • the action of extending the period of validity of a license, subscription, or contract.

“the contracts came up for renewal”

  • the replacing or repair of something that is worn out, run-down, or broken.

It is easy to feel inspired by spring. The annual process of nature’s renewal is manifested by drab fields rebounding lush and vibrant, buds on branches unfurling leaves with panache and perennial flowers and bushes bursting with color. As I complete morning chores, the air is filled with the trills and warbles of birds dividing territory and attracting mates. This natural cycle happens whether we will it or not, whether we notice it or not. The renewal is inevitable.

Rabbit the Barn Cat poses with the posies.

For me, the first true days of spring, when the sun is finally strong enough and warm enough to kiss the skin and warm the soil, are a tonic for the ache winter leaves behind. The smell of fresh earth, the feel of heat on your cheeks, the chirp and whistle of a vivacious cardinal, all demand to be experienced.

Spring is a time of inspiration and action. I make promises to myself, set goals, make lists. I think about which projects need versus would be nice to complete on the farm. I make more lists and set timelines. On a separate page I write each horse’s name. I list activities for them, too. I am a planner, and these lists are a road map directing our progress through the weeks ahead.

But even so, as imperceptibly as Mother Nature restores her environs from dormancy to activity, my inherent drive toward achieving my goals has changed. This year, I am finding the renewal offered by the change of season insufficient to fully offset my inertia.

A winter rainbow.

There was a time when each spring, I highlighted activity after activity on the print out of the West Newbury Riding and Driving Club’s calendar of equine events. I was out on the road with my horses to compete or clinic two or three times per month, borrowing trailers and occasionally entire rigs from generous friends (what amazing trust they had in me) or bartering rides. When I later acquired my own trailer, I became even more mobile. I shipped out for weekly jump lessons. We hauled to competitions all over New England and New York. I let little stand in my way in pursuit of participating in those activities I had set my mind to.

For most of the early aughts, I kept two or three horses in full work year round, while also stabling two of them on rough board, finishing a Masters degree and holding down a full time job that often required evening or weekend commitments. My days started early and ran long. I had an internal drive that was impossible to ignore and compelled me to push through fatigue and frustration. I was motivated at least partially by catch phrases which are probably now memes, expressions like ‘hard work beats talent when talent doesn’t work hard’ or ‘shoot for the moon because even if you miss you will land among the stars’.

I didn’t make this meme….but I could have.

But what used to be a raging inner fire to ‘go out and do’ seems to have tempered to a gentler glow. Where I used to wring my hands over a missed ride or schooling set, now I sigh and think, ‘well, another day’. I see photos on social media of friends who have eagerly returned to competition after vaccination (as well as those who never hung it up to begin with) and think ‘good for them’.

Yet my own calendar remains blank.

I will admit that in some ways, I have had a discouraging few years. In 2019, I made the decision to retire my distance horse, Lee, from competition and have had to step back from a new sport I really enjoyed. In 2020, after pushing and pressuring Anna for several years, I finally had to admit that it is unlikely I will be able to finish my USDF Bronze Bar with her.

But these minor disappointments cannot take away the many years of success and fun we have had together. I have partnered with each of these special mares since their 6-year-old year; in 2021, Lee will be 22 and Anna, 17. Looking back at all I have experienced with them is an amazing trove of memories and moments. They have each immeasurably shaped my journey as a horseman and trainer and I consider myself lucky to have them both living in my front yard, sound, happy and useful animals, albeit in different ways than before.

The long partnerships I have enjoyed with Anna and Lee are perhaps why the thought of starting new journeys with Izzy and Nori is, at times, overwhelming. Each of these youngsters was less than two when they arrived here at Cold Moon Farm, and so of course there was much for them to learn. Izzy, now 6 years old, is at an age where she can be expected to manage more both mentally and physically. Nori, now 4, is also ready to build on the foundation laid in the past two years, which will hopefully include being backed this summer.

Nori, during an early spring grooming session (after she was too sassy to manage her patience in the barn.)

My younger self would have proceeded forward with a ‘just do it’ mentality, but today I hesitate and worry too much about the ‘what if’s’. And after over a year of easy excuses to avoid taking young horses out in the world, it is hard to be brave enough to tell my monkey brain to be quiet and take a seat.

Someday, maybe someday soon, I will have no excuses left. And I will have to either decide to ‘just do it’… or out of fairness to these young horses’ future, hand the reins over to someone else who can.

met·a·mor·pho·sis

noun

  1. (in an insect or amphibian) the process of transformation from an immature form to an adult form in two or more distinct stages.

“the persistence of the larval tail during metamorphosis”

  • a change of the form or nature of a thing or person into a completely different one, by natural or supernatural means.

“his metamorphosis from presidential candidate to talk-show host”

There are many lessons humanity ought to take away from the experience of a global pandemic, and it seems impossible that any individual who is remotely connected to the mainstream can emerge from the past eighteen months truly unchanged. Personally, I struggle with the idea of a “return to normal,” as neither I nor the world around me are the same as before.

In a March 2020 blog post, I wrote:

“The coronavirus/COVID-19 pandemic will change all of us in small and large ways. I fervently hope that for many Americans, this time of challenge will allow nearly everyone the opportunity to reset their compass and focus on those pieces of our lives that matter on a deep, fundamental level. I believe that most equestrians did not start riding to win ribbons; we started riding because we felt inexplicably drawn to these powerful and majestic animals. Those of us still lucky enough to have horses in our lives after the dust settles have a responsibility to remember that magic and to share it with others.”

I’m not sure I fully recognized it then, but perhaps this sentiment was an early stage of what I can only call my equestrian metamorphosis. Increasingly, I am more interested in the positive impact that horses have on those they touch than I am in personally pursuing upper level sport. At whatever point in the future my own career comes to an end, I don’t want it to be defined only by my competitive success (or, let’s be honest, lack thereof). Instead, I hope that I will be recognized as a practitioner of compassionate horsemanship, as a model of affordable, sustainable horse management practices and as a teacher who took the time to truly listen to her students and their horses, celebrating the victory of establishing the correct foundation that makes a lifetime of enjoyment with horses possible.

Spring Hollow Marquesa on an early spring ride.

For a caterpillar to become a beautiful butterfly, it literally obliterates its original form, then rearranges cells and tissues into new patterns and connections. If the chrysalis is cracked open before the process is complete, the cycle may be irrevocably interrupted. Metamorphosis is messy and destructive of old forms and behaviors. But going through this process is essential for the caterpillar to become its highest evolved self– a butterfly able to offer its services as a pollinator, visiting spring flowers and perpetuating the cycle of renewal.

Perhaps instead of considering the Pandemic Pause a set back to my continued evolution as an equestrian, I need to think of it as time spent in the chrysalis. As with the caterpillar, old models of doing things must be dismantled for new forms to emerge. Perhaps my slow return to full activity is more about testing new wings, recently unfurled, than it is about not living up to old, outdated expectations of myself. Perhaps this metamorphosis is about cementing that my horsemanship journey is and always has been about the relationship I enjoy with each horse specifically. It is about shedding the weight of expectation that I have been so accustomed to carrying so that I can instead move more freely from one beautiful moment to the next.

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