Confessions of a Coaching Intern: Finding Clarity with a Pitch Fork and a Song …

Horse Lover

This is the first in a series of intermittent posts about my experience as a coaching intern, 1995-1997. The memories will flow as they may so events are not likely to be in chronological order … but they will be fun to re-live. And we may actually learn something along the way … 😉

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It wasn’t so long ago (okay, more than a decade but who’s keeping track … ) that I was a lost and confused early 30-something.

With a failing first marriage and tenuous hold on a career path through the jungles of corporate communications, I was feeling unhinged. When my maternal grandmother, with whom I had a somewhat conflicted relationship, died in 1994 I was forced to take stock. I quickly realized my life was broken and needed to be fixed.

Within months my world turned upside-down.

A trip to the Calgary Stampede soon after the funeral (because we’d already bought the tickets) convinced me that all I wanted to do was work with horses. Much to the chagrin of my husband I left my corporate gig eight months later and became a barn hand and coaching intern at a local hunter/jumper barn/riding school. My big idea was to get my coaching certification. It was a somewhat strange notion given that just four years earlier I’d abandoned my love of horses as a childish pursuit and moved on … to nothing.

But somehow our passion always finds us …

As we often do when change presents itself I approached this fork in the road with much enthusiasm, little realizing the many pot holes that lay ahead.

After only a few days I was appalled to realize how little I knew about horses, this despite a life time love of them and trips to the barn every week to ride. Where had I gone wrong?

And I was doubly appalled to learn, over time, just how little I knew about myself.

I went in a a marshmallow and came out toasted …

The two years spent in this school of hard knocks provided plenty of opportunity for self-reflection and personal growth. It was the first step to exposing the cankers in my way of being and beginning the healing process.

Only I didn’t know this at the time.

Since, like me, my then husband couldn’t see the bigger picture his support of my “crazy” endeavour was reluctant at best. His main concern was the loss of a second income ~ this in spite of the fact that with my sole income I’d enthusiastically supported him through his expensive Master’s degree in Sports Administration at a U.S. university. My foray into self-education was costing us nothing, and as we had no children and were living at my mother’s at the time we weren’t risking much. For me the timing could not have been better, whether he supported me or not. I pressed on.

Have I mentioned it was hard work?

This was no ordinary equestrian centre. It was the largest in the area, set on at least 100 acres with three massive indoor riding arenas, barns for 200 horses, several groomed outdoor riding rings and lovely hacking trails. It was the venue for many local and national shows and was thus, for many years, the hub of the horse world in the Greater Toronto Area.

Me with Buck, my nemesis and the subject of a future post. He may look like Bear but my Bear he wasn't.

Me with Buck, my nemesis and coaching exam horse. Our experience will be the focus of a future post. … Photo taken in 1997.

The riding school, where I worked at first, had 32 horses. Rain, snow or shine I, little Ms Corporate now liberated from the dress suits and high heels I’d sported for most of my working life, eagerly arrived at 7 a.m. to help feed and turn out the horses into their respective paddocks.

The labour intensive task of mucking stalls tested my fabric. On good days there were four of us to do this dirty work ~ that’s eight stalls each. On many days there were just two of us. Our goal was to be done by 9:30. No mean feat.

Following a short break I, with my fellow interns, headed to theory and then rode. Then lunch; teaching theory; more riding practical; distributing hay; bringing the horses in; feeding … and whatever else remained to be done until I could leave at 5:30 p.m.

It was a tough slog for this former girl-about-town …

I worked 10 hours a day six days a week. Within days of starting my internship I came down with the worst cold of my life. But I still had to work. No sick days. No time off. No sympathy.

I lost weight. At one point my soft hands, whose toughest task until that point had been to pluck words out of a computer keyboard, became so mangled by the manual labour I couldn’t wrap either of them around a door handle or hold a pen.

At day’s end, exhausted from a surplus of fresh air and exercise, I was in bed by 9 p.m. and slept dog-like until 5:30 a.m. when it was time to begin all over again.

Above and beyond this I continued my weekly singing commitment in the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir. I couldn’t imagine my life without music. On performance weeks with extra rehearsals I burned the candle at both ends. Exhaustion became my middle name.

Still, I had to keep up. I wasn’t old but I had to use almost twice as much energy as the early 20-somethings around me to achieve the same results. I look back now and wonder how I did it.

I might add, however, that I was no saint. I whined … a lot. When the school barn manager had had enough of my complaining (This is hard; I don’t understand; Why this? Why that? Why? Why? Why? etc.) she arranged for my transfer to the show barn. This, she hinted not so subtly, would really give me something to whine about.

Life got bigger …

The show barn was across the parking lot and an industrial complex by comparison. It was amazing, actually. (I say was because at the end of my internship the whole farm was razed for commercial/industrial property development. 😦 ) The barn housed an Olympic-sized indoor arena where shows were often held and had attached to it an enormous warm-up ring, also indoor. Between the two buildings were enclosed aisles of 50 large box stalls each. One wing was completely occupied. The other was saved for show stabling.

Big stalls house big horses and there were a few of those. Whether by design or chance I was assigned the stalls with the behemoth horses. My daily quota was 12-15 stalls. The riding school was paradise by comparison.

Apollo, an impressive grey, 18-hh show jumper, was the largest horse in the barn with the messiest stall. Mucking it was an exercise in unfettered misery for me until one forbiddingly hot day in July (at 8 a.m. it was already in the high 20s with humidity) and a moment of clarity.

It happened while I was in the throes of pitching hooey onto the conveyor rolling beneath the open trap door in front of his stall.

Beads of sweat trickled mercilessly down my forehead and pooled in my eyes while particles of pine shavings floated in rogue waves through the sunbeams, landing as a scratchy film on my damp flesh and drifting up my nostrils.

I had for some time felt the whole situation to be absurd, even surreal, wondering what on earth I was doing at my age and stage of life, shovelling horse hooey and wishing for a career with horses. I felt invisible; invalid; small. I felt I had somehow let myself down. My dream of horse ownership so buried in disappointment I had no idea where to search for it.

Why had I allowed my promising career in corporate communications be derailed so unceremoniously? Why was my marriage failing so miserably? Why was I feeling so aimless? Why?

Relief came by way of a song …

Because music lives so deeply in me I have a wealth of songs stored who-knows-where that pop into my head and onto my lips in moments of stress. Interestingly, the songs usually reflect my state of mind or emotion at the time without me realizing it.

And so it was between forkfuls in the midst of my mucking nightmare that these immortal words, made famous by the iconic Doris Day, tripped melodically from my lips:

When I was just a little girl I asked my mother what will I be. Will I be pretty? Will I be rich? Here’s what she said to me …

(Altogether now … )

Que sera, sera, whatever will be, will be. The future’s not ours to see. Que sera, sera.

Once I really started listening to these simple words I somehow felt permission to let go of any worries about my future. A burdensome chore evolved into a mindful meditation. I became the rhythm of the pitching fork and learned to revel in the experience of “cleaning house.”

It was my first conscious lesson on the importance of expelling the detritus of life to make room for new growth.

The truth is, positive life changes require this of all of us. If we aren’t willing to fork over the hooey in our lives we are doomed to continue watching it pile up and then wallow in, and complain about, it.

From that moment of clarity forward my experience as an intern changed dramatically. My mind opened; I began to embrace the journey; … and I stopped whining.

Bird buddies

Fast forward 16 years …

So, the other day while at the barn visiting Bear and just 10 days after getting married, I grabbed a pitch fork and spent a few minutes tidying up his stall. I didn’t have to ~ the boarding agreement includes daily stall cleaning ~ but I wanted, needed some grounding.

With fork in hand I picked through his bedding, scooping up the missed poop balls. I dug out the ammonia-laden shavings in his pee spot, which sometimes gets missed, and banked the walls a little with a mix of old and new shavings. I smoothed and plumped up the bedding so it would cushion Bear easily when he slept at night and, just as in days gone by, sang Que Sera, Sera. … but not with angst of not knowing, you understand ~ with the conviction that life unfolds as it should.

ForksWe are the masters of our own destinies only in so much as we become awakened to our state of being, consciously aware of the choices we make, and grounded in the effort required to live the changes we seek. As well, we need to accept that at any time we could be unceremoniously dumped in a more challenging scenario which, though it’s painful at the time, might actually be the making of us.

My experience as a coaching intern rocked my world. And little did I know, as I was mired in the angst and confusion of the time, that it would open the door not just to my understanding of the world of the beautiful horse but to the amazing, complex and awe-filled world that resides in me.

For me clarity began with a pitch fork and a song.

What about you?

Nurture what you love …

Dorothy 🙂
Horse Mom

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Copyright Aimwell CreativeWorks 2013