January 26, 2011

the end of an era

two and a half years ago, I was returning to riding after a 9-month break. I had stopped riding three weeks before the 2007 portland marathon because I was terrified of sustaining a fall and being unable to compete in the race. when I returned, several weeks later, I was violently thrown three times in two separate riding days and decided to hang up my boots for awhile. I was spooked, and injured from the race.

in august of 2008, I came back. I was suffering badly from depression and wanted some of the 'old me' back. I called my old instructor and set up a lesson. it was the month just before my opera job was about to revert to part-time, and I was constantly trolling the internet for other work. a few days after setting up the lesson, I stumbled across a craigslist ad looking for a barn hand to clean stalls in exchange for free lessons. the phone number listed was my riding teacher's. 'can I do this?' I asked, and that was how I became the poo fairy.

it's funny to think about now, but when I first started cleaning stalls for my barn, I was terrified that I'd do it wrong. the only job I have ever been fired from was a stall cleaning job; I was 16 at the time. it was a summer job working for an older couple who had some horses. I think I cleaned four stalls a day. this was back in the day when everybody used sawdust and lime; the barn itself was very old. every morning for a week I showed up dutifully at 6 AM (OUCH) and cleaned the stalls. it would take me a couple of hours; I had never done the work before and the method they had showed me was very particular. at the end of the week, I was exhausted. I was a typical late-sleeping teen and 6 AM quite frankly sucked. that friday, the husband came out and told me that it just wasn't working out for them -- I was taking too long and not doing a good enough job. I felt embarrassed but I was also relieved to be able to sleep in the following week. and that was my only experience with a muck rake.

when I started in 2008, I cleaned 5 stalls twice weekly. it would take me about an hour and a half, and by the end I was exhausted. I had very little upper body strength to speak of, and not much experience. although I had been around horses for 13 years, I had never worked so closely with so many. we keep the horses in their stalls while we clean, because we don't have enough turnout space to let them all out, and it would be too time-consuming to let one out, clean the stall, bring it back, let the next out, etc. so we just work around them. the horses are, for the most part, very accustomed to it and will mostly leave you alone. you quickly learn the ones that won't. (I have one mare, whose stall I've cleaned since day one, who I still have to physically threaten with the rake to get her to back out of my space). it's hard to imagine now what I must have been like, horsemanship-wise, before I started the work. now I am so accustomed to making them move for me, to standing up to the pushy ones, to using my body language to communicate with them, that I can't remember a time before I had this vocabulary. stall cleaning turned me into a Person Who Works With Horses.

stall cleaning is probably the thing that pushed me over the edge to buying my horse. I had been working the job for about six months when I finally paid the deposit on her sale fee, and knowing that I could potentially work off a significant chunk of my board was incredibly reassuring. when I bought her, I began cleaning stalls on saturdays too, which I did for about a year until it became too much. then I switched to feeding the horses two nights a week, which is what I still do now. I haven't paid for a riding lesson since september 2007, and I've never paid full price for board.

over the last several months, I've lost my stall mojo. the problems with stall cleaning are primarily threefold:

1. it's exhausting;
2. it's time-consuming;
3. it makes me feel as though I've been at the barn without actually interacting with my horse (other than to turn her out or clean her stall).

in the winter, it's incredibly unappealing to clean stalls and ride in the same night. it's dark by the time I get there, and the job now takes 2 1/2 hours. (I clean more stalls than I did when I started, and I feed, and I know everybody at the barn so inevitably somebody stops to chat or needs something). by the time I'm finished working, I don't feel like riding. if I ride first, the job just slogs on horribly until late in the evening. I've gotten home some nights as late as 10:30.

the biggest thing, though, is that the barn used to be my third place. but once I started working there -- and after the novelty wore off -- it was another place to dread going. no good. after the charm of owning a horse faded a little, then going to the barn just became another chore. I would fantasize about going to the barn, pulling Cookie out of her stall, tacking up, and riding -- no work, no fuss. imagine! instead there was always work to do. hours of work.

so, I quit. just like that! I have a backlog of earned lessons (my instructor graciously has rolled over the lessons I don't use in any given week, and I have never managed to use them up), and since the job doesn't help me reduce my board bill, it won't cost me a dime. it'll give me four extra hours a week of freedom. I'm continuing to feed two nights a week, so now on those two nights I can ride! an unbelievable thought.

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