Amigo says, “If you can, now is a good time to rest.”
Everyone is facing difficult and unique challenges right now. Uncertainty is everywhere and we have all been caught off-guard by this unprecedented global event. Now we must attempt to get in with this new, albeit temporary, and very disrupting rhythm and do our best to create a happy ending.
As a horse facility owner we are facing our own unique set of challenges with respect to horse care and management. I won’t bore you with the details, suffice to say we’re doing our best to be resilient and to ensure the health and welfare of our equine charges and all those associated with them.
Every storm passes. In the meantime, if you can stay home and rest, not just to protect yourselves but to help support and protect those on the front lines in hospitals, grocery stores and other essential services who do not have that luxury.
Finally, some nice spring weather and a chance to be creative with the horses again.
I call this image Yonder. It has two points of focus … the horse’s eye in the foreground and then something less defined on the horizon.
Life is kind of like this. Of course, it’s important to be aware of what’s right in front of us, still it’s equally important to be open to the unexpected possibilities that await on that fuzzy horizon. We just never know what little slice of wonder is coming our way.
Horses are social creatures. Curious and affectionate, especially among those they trust.
In that way they are like people. We all want relationships where we can be ourselves and feel comfortable socially. Where we can be curious and open to new ideas that help us to expand our experience of life and grow without threat of judgment or censure. So we can thrive, and not merely survive.
Still, trust is a fragile thing and easily abused. Horses are slow to trust. We must earn it every time we interact with them. To do this we must be authentic and consistent every moment we spend with them. To this end we must release the ego and its toxic agenda and surrender to the truth that lies within the heart.
Canadian horse trainer, Chris Irwin, describes horses as “victims waiting to happen.” To me this says that when we want a connection with a horse we must demonstrate that we are worthy of their trust. For, when we engage with them with the intention of creating connection we’re actually asking them to relinquish their natural instinct as prey and trust that we are not, in fact, a predator.
In my opinion, one of the most precious and satisfying feelings is to have earned the trust and made a connection with one these 1,200 lb (+/-) flight animals. From this perspective alone it is a privilege to pat a horse never mind sit on its back.
First, this is a first! Having my fine art photography recognized in this way is such an honour. The subject matter, the skilled empathic people (in this case women) who work quietly in the background of the horse industry to keep the engine humming, is one near and dear to my heart. Partially because I’ve been there.
When I was interning for my national coaching certification at a hunter/jumper show barn/riding school years ago it was a hard slog, long hours and exhausting on every level. I was in my mid-thirties trying to figure out the next phase of my life, struggling with personal battles in the pursuit of a dream that was barely formulated. Good people with a passion for horses and working behind the scenes in various aspects of the equine industry have inspiring stories, too, and I want to tell them.
Second, how cool is it that Unsung Heroines of the Horse Industry (see menu for YouTube link) has now been selected as a finalist for an EQUUS Film Festival WINNIE Award? I’m beyond speechless to have my work acknowledged in this way. We;ll find out Sunday evening if we’re bringing a little something special home.
Third, this is my first trip to New York City. Being a country girl now the thought of spending time in a large city for any length of time is a bit intimidating. I love the wide open spaces and the tranquility of rural life. Cities tend to overwhelm me. But I’m going to have fun and make the most of it. It’s my birthday weekend, too. I’ll be fine.
A year ago I submitted six photos for a Toronto exhibit and now they, and several more, are being acknowledged in a film festival in New York City. We never know where life is going to take us as long as we’re willing to dream.
In November 2017, I answered a call for submissions from the Urban Gallery in Toronto to participate in their “Women at Work” show lined up for the ScotiaBank CONTACT Photography Festival the following May. Since I live on a horse farm and women work tirelessly in the barn I felt it would be perfect to pay tribute by shadowing them for a day to see what moments stirred my creative spirit. My thanks to Eira Engzell, a manager and trainer at Santerre Show Stables, and Courtney Dunkeld, her able right hand at the time, for giving me permission to do so.
The truth is my photography is more intuitive than technical so I’m never quite sure what will happen. Light and shadow and colour dazzle me and it’s really about capturing their impact in a moment; the dramatic contrast created in a delicious melange of three tasty ingredients. I don’t process much, only enough to draw out what drew me in. I was pleased to see that some fine images emerged, so took a chance and submitted them to the gallery just before the deadline. As fate would have it Calvin Holbrook, Gallery Manager, and his partner Allen Shugar, the Curator, loved what they saw and told me immediately that my work was in. It was my first such exhibit and I was so excited.
That weekend (November 18 & 19) brought a lot of soul searching as I processed this wonderful news. Shakespeare (Bear), my heart horse for almost 12 years, and I spent some quality time as per my equine experiential learning training. I needed his gentle spirit to help ground and guide me. In that session his distinct message to me was, “Let go, and let be.” It didn’t register right away what it meant, but I felt it was about releasing old patterns of self-denial and embracing this new truth of acknowledgement and celebration in my life. After all, what was there not to be happy about? Bear had brought so much wisdom before and this was another one of those nuggets I could add to my treasure chest that would help move my life forward.
Two days later, and after four hours of agonizing torsion colic, my heart horse was gone. Words cannot adequately describe the devastation I felt, and yet his admonition to “Let go, and let be” seemed to take on a whole new meaning and even offer some comfort. It became my new mantra. Bless his big heart, Bear had imparted this wisdom and prepared me for his imminent departure all in five little words.
For a while it was difficult to accept Bear’s sudden death and enjoy my small creative victory, and yet somehow I knew that he had opened a way. I vowed to honour his memory by embracing this new chapter in my life and keeping vibrant everything he had been, and was, to me.
Of course, the show in May was an exciting step forward in my creative journey. To see six of my images gracing the walls of the intimate gallery in downtown Toronto, along with the photographs of three other distinguished artists, was a thrill to say the least. I received wonderful, supportive feedback and felt entirely good about the experience. When the show was over I brought all of the images home and set them up in my studio so they could continue to inspire me. That’s right, none of them sold, however it didn’t seem to matter. Somehow I knew it was important for the exhibit to remain intact for another time.
The show must go on …
Riding the wave of grief for some weeks, I began to prepare my exhibit for the show. I called it Barn Mavens. One of the images I selected (above) is the last ever taken of Bear, just four days before he died. He looked right at me and snorted as I captured the moment. He made me laugh. Oh, how he loved to ham for the camera. A warm, enduring memory.
In June I caught wind of the EQUUS Film Festival coming to the Hills of Headwaters, where I live, and through an acquaintance who had organized the event was connected to the founder of the festival, Lisa Diersen. I threw caution to the wind. Was there some way my images might find a platform through the festival? I knew nothing about anything. Putting my creative works out beyond blogs and websites was a new experience, but what the heck, my beautiful images are of no value to anyone hidden deep in my computer archive.
Lisa suggested I put together a video photo journal of my images, an emerging way for photographers to get some traction. I knew nothing (and I mean nothing!) about making video. iMovie existed on my computer, but I’d never brought it to life. Oh dear, what was I to do? Again, I threw caution to the wind and gave it a go. I had lots of images beyond the original six to play with. I consulted a friend who had some experience making video, and while I cursed and struggled I grew modestly in film making enlightenment and produced my first short, short video, complete with a soundtrack through www.bensound.com. When I was more or less happy with it, I re-named the project Unsung Heroines of the Horse Industry to be more inclusive and, after spending hours figuring out how to upload it to YouTube, sent it on to Lisa. Her response was highly encouraging, and she suggested I submit it to the EQUUS Film Festival.
What? Really? After picking my jaw up off the floor, I threw caution to the wind again and got myself signed up on FilmFreeway, the online portal to film festivals everywhere. I made my submission to the category “Equestrian Photo Journal ~ English”; paid my fee and forgot all about it until I received word in October that Unsung Heroines of the Horse Industry had been officially selected for EQUUS Film Festival 2018 in New York City.
And so, here we are. What happens next, I don’t know, but I’ll continue to throw caution out the door and live the moment as fully as I can. If there’s one thing Bear taught me it’s to be in the now. Let go of what no longer serves and let be that which comes in its place. There is a lesson to be learned in each experience; there’s a silver lining to every cloud. I never thought that part of mine would be seeing my fine art photography on a silver screen.
It’s been almost a year since Bear’s sudden departure. Memories are flooding back, but they don’t make me sad anymore. They make me wistful, and grateful. He was the horse that healed my heart and now I can only think of him with the joy that was our life for all those amazing years.
As the cycle of the first year comes to a close, I’ll be sharing some of my favourite images of him in the next few posts. I’ve also put together a Celebration of Life video that will be uploaded to YouTube soon and tagged to this blog. It’s all part of the closure.
Connected through heart and spirit, Bear’s last message to me was to “Let go and let be.” Two days later he was gone and 50 weeks on I am finally preparing to release his ashes and fully pour my heart into life again.
He will be forever in my heart; the heart he healed with his deep wisdom and his own incredibly loving heart.
Women in the horse industry work very hard. I know because I’ve done it.
Each day is a grind of activity that wears you out and wears you down. You work in all weathers; under all conditions. For good owners, and bad. With well-mannered horses, and with demons (largely a reflection of their owners either way.) You don’t call in sick, and if you’ve broken something in the line of duty, you work around it.
You muck, you sweep, you clean tack, you feed hay (and grain), you scrub toilets, you pick the s**t out of paddocks, you groom, you ride, you de-cobweb the barn, you dust, you clean the kitchen, you do first aid. In many barns you do your best to manage uncomfortable feelings caused by the disdain of those who look down upon you while you’re doing all you can to ensure their horse(s) are happy and healthy.
You must be vigilant; resilient; detail-oriented; take initiative; be observant; empathetic (difficult for some); patient; skilled at what you do and be quick at it. You get back on the horse if you fall off. The horse always comes first.
“The Mane Tamer” on display at the Urban Gallery, May 2018, for the ScotiaBank CONTACT Photography Festival
At the end of the day you leave the barn filthy and saturated in Eau d’Equine. Exhausted and maybe even bruised or broken from an unfortunate altercation with one of your charges for which you are always to blame (always!). You stand in line at the grocery store to buy dinner, somewhat self-conscious of your malodorous presence, yet unable to motivate yourself to care too much because you don’t have the energy to go home and clean up first. Oh, and a social life outside of work? Good luck with that. Almost killed me to sing in the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir during concert weeks after a 10-hour day at the barn.
For most who follow this path it is a labour of love. There is no glamour and certainly no big money to be made. The best you can hope for is an environment where you and your work are appreciated; where you can find your niche and from there build your life.
When I was interning at a hunter/jumper show barn in my mid 30s I was at a crossroads in my life, trying to figure out what’s next. And for some that’s exactly what working in a barn constitutes. It’s a weigh station for figuring out the next step. Some choose to pursue the equestrian path; others give thanks the equestrian path led them somewhere else. Those who are fortunate enough to have built successful careers from the ground up in the equestrian world have slogged in barns aplenty. This does not include the (very) few who are born into money and have it all handed to them on a silver platter. Most in the business have done the grunt work, and have a few tales to tell because of it.
To celebrate the unsung heroines of the equestrian world, six equestrian-themed images from my new series Barn Mavens will be on display in May at the Urban Gallery in Toronto. The gallery is one of 200 official venues in Toronto during the ScotiaBank CONTACT Photography Festival.
The gallery theme for this exhibit is Women at Work, and in my showcase I’m pleased to feature two of the knowledgeable and hardworking horsewomen of Santerre Show Stables in Mono, Ontario.
The top images are not on show for this exhibit, but will feature in an expanded exhibit sometime in the future, or possibly even a photo book docu-tribute to women who work in the horse industry. In the meantime, it is an honour to have my work featured along with three other talented photographers at the Urban Gallery for this international event.
The ravages of time take their toll. We are weathered by the challenges we face; the people we encounter; the experiences we have, and the joys and troubles we share. For good or ill, life weathers us, and we either wear it well or we allow it to wear us down.
I know as an equestrian that while I still ride and love it, my limits are now set by the wear and tear on my body and a sense of my own mortality. Life has weathered me to a new level of self-awareness and taught me to respect my own boundaries. Just as I cannot expect an old performance horse to perform the strenuous tricks of his earlier career I, too, must cut myself some slack.
When it comes to our farm everything about it is weathered to one degree or another, and since landing here in autumn 2016, we’ve committed to sprucing it up a little at a time. Taking on a run-down 100-acre horse farm is no picnic and presents all kinds of challenges. Priorities must be set, and accepting the fact that some things are perfect in their imperfection is an important thing to bear in mind. Our schedule for improvements must not compromise the integrity of the farm’s character.
This old place has seen a lot during its 150-plus year history. To the extent that it’s possible I want to work with the local museum and archives to discover who put down roots here and how the property evolved and changed over time. Who had the vision; built the original buildings; planted the trees. We’re going to acknowledge those who pioneered here with an historic plaque and place it by the original hog barn (above), the weathered foundation of which was built with stone found on this property.
In 2017 we had a barn quilt created and installed as an initial tribute to the farm’s history. It adorns the front of the original bank barn which was modified to accommodate horses in 2000 as part of a major building project by the then owners. The pattern is called Hunter Star, and the colours we selected bear some meaning. The green represents the proliferation of trees on the farm. The blue is for the headwaters of several rivers that have their source in these rolling hills. The plum is for a previous name of this farm (Plum Tree Farm) which we discovered while going through the basement and finding a piece of folk art of the original farm house and the barns (pictured below). And the maple leaf, of course, is to commemorate Canada’s 150 years of confederation. For point of reference our farm, homesteaded some time in the 1840s, is older than Canada.
Of course, there are lessons to be learned on a more personal level as well. One of my greatest challenges is accepting that I, too, am perfect in my imperfection. Time and its ravages have indeed weathered me, but they’ve also helped me to identify my priorities. Good health. Good works. Healthy relationships. Experiencing and sharing joy. And creating and maintaining an environment here on the farm where horses and people can thrive on every level.
Some days I feel more weathered than others. Bear’s passing was a harsh excuse for the building of character. Still, even as I rebuild and repair from that unexpected blow I remind myself that I want to thrive on the other side of life’s storms, not end up a broken relic. Resilience is its own reward.
It’s been just over two months since Shakespeare departed and the Wednesday wave of grief continues to roll through. Each week its impact is less, still, I choose to be gentle with myself on this day when the waters are stirred once more.
Today my thoughts begin to turn away from loss to what may be found from its experience. The silver lining, I suppose.
Bear was a huge part of my life for a long time, and for the past two and a half years our journey was shared by a beautiful Hanoverian mare, Sophia Loren (Sophi). Now she is the full focus of my attention so, in the spirit of getting on with life, I would like to tell you about her.
This little mare is as larger-than-life as one might expect from one bearing the same name as a cinema icon. I didn’t name her. Like Shakespeare, she arrived in my life offering a challenge. Shakespeare, named for one of the greatest wordsmiths of the ages, helped me to find my heart, and my voice, as a creative writer; Sophia Loren, named for one of the brightest shining stars in the firmament of Hollywood, is helping me to shine. I’m not going to get into all the complex ways this is meaningful to me. I believe, however, that my experience with these two horses rather underscores the idea that the Universe will send you what you need, when you need it. You just need to be open to recognizing and receiving it when it lands on your doorstep.
Sophi and I struggled, in the beginning. Not that we weren’t well suited. Not at all! Like Bear, she was only the fourth horse I looked at and we fit like a glove. No, our struggles came through outside influences. Finding our groove in that first year proved difficult as our coach, it seemed to me and for whatever reason, chose to dumb everything down. Sophi was training Third Level dressage when she passaged into my life, and our coach was keeping me stuck at First Level, a place from which I was determined to rise.
That coach and I parted company after a year for a variety of reasons. Four months later I was introduced to Nancy. A brilliant, accomplished coach whose only agenda was to help Sophi and I realize our potential. Within a couple of lessons she had us training Second Level movements. Six months later we were preparing for our first dressage show ~ my first time in the ring in 10 years! In such a short period, Sophi and I had risen together through the watchful eye and skillful teaching of a coach who truly cared and wanted us to succeed. No quick fixes. Everything I had learned over decades of training had been held within waiting for the right person to draw it out. It was a matter of trust.
Shoulder-in … Image: Victoria Sambleson
In July and August of last year Sophi and I participated in our first shows together. Three tests over three days at each show. I learned all the Second Level tests by memory and Sophi was an absolute star. Sure, I was nervous, and adrenal fatigue was a concern as always, but feeling Sophi’s confidence, and the encouragement and support of those around me helped to override that. Our scores improved from test to test and we ribboned in the top four in all six classes.
We had so much fun. I’m so grateful to all my friends who encouraged me to take that uncertain leap, and to my coach for showing me it was possible. I’m grateful for Victoria who groomed for me at the show, and JF who transported Sophi in the horse box, his journeyman show confidence underpinning the whole adventure (“Go get ’em, tiger!”) For Eira who did such a lovely job braiding Sophi’s mane; and Courtney for doing such a beautiful body clip on her. Sophi looked immaculate and so proud of herself. And, naturally, I’m so grateful to Nancy for working with what she saw in me, not with what someone told her to see.
Extension … Image: Victoria Sambleson
Sophi thrives in the show ring and this gives me confidence, and as we share in each other’s confidence we thrive together.
Now we’re training Third Level, starting to introduce all the fancy moves that Sophi already knows (lead changes, passage, etc.) and loves to pre-empt. (“Oh, I know what you want…” and gives it to me before I even ask.) She’s a very smart mare.
We’re planning to show next summer. We’re planning to shine.