Tuesday, September 4, 2012

The Has Been

                                                by Laura Crum

            Yes, I once used to be a pretty handy cowgirl. And my good horse, Gunner, would really watch a cow. Looking through my old albums yesterday, I came upon these photos. They made me smile, remembering.
Gunner and I cutting cattle at the family ranch. Do we look determined or what?

Roping on Gunner at my uncle Todd’s arena.

Gunner winning the cutting at the county fair.

            But these photos were taken maybe twenty years ago. Today Gunner is grazing peacefully on the lawn, as I rub his neck and scratch his withers. And we’re both happy in our has been status.
Gunner at 32 years.

            Gunner put in ten solid years as a competitive horse. I broke and trained him myself. I’m pretty proud of what we accomplished together. But what does it mean now?
            When I talk to my various horse friends, both in real life and on the internet, they are mostly pushing towards some goal. A competition they want to enter, a clinic they want to take…etc. Whether it be dressage, endurance, cowhorse, roping or just horse training skills, they want to progress as horsemen. And me? I don’t.
            Alone, it sometimes seems to me, among the horse people I know, I am content to putter down the trail on my solid horse, riding with my kid, knowing that my skills are, oh, about one-tenth what they were back in the days when I was training and competing. I still have the thoughts and opinions I developed over those years, and my ability to read a horse is as good as it ever was, but my ability to execute—not so much.
            I don’t train horses any more. I don’t even ride young, green horses any more. I don’t compete. I don’t cut cattle or rope cattle these days (though I still gather cattle and move them from here to there on horseback). I only ride solid horses. I am, in fact, quite happy to ride what my friends teasingly call my “plug.” And Sunny is, in fact, a laid back little plug of a trail horse. Guess what? I like it like that.
            I enjoy the relaxed tranquility of my horse life today. I delight in the freedom from anxiety and pressure, in the peace of it all. I ride two or three days a week and enjoy it very much, but if I had to choose my favorite aspect of horses now, it would be having them with me here at home, taking care of them, seeing them many times a day, turning them out to graze. Just what I do with my retired horses. The sight of a horse’s pricked ears at dawn means as much to me as anything.

            Don’t get me wrong—I love my trail rides on Sunny, riding along with my son on Henry. But my absolute favorite thing is just living with horses. And I take endless pleasure in the fact that I don’t feel any pressure or anxiety surrounding the horses any more, something that I wasn’t aware that I once felt until after it was gone. I still remember the day, not so many years ago, when it dawned on me that an inevitable tension, that had always accompanied my interactions with horses, had disappeared. After some thought, I realized that the tension had been a product of underlying anxiety. No matter how much I loved what I was doing, there was a basic anxiety composed of the stress of training unpredictable young horses, and the desire to do well at various events. With that removed, I found a whole new level of peace and joy with horses.
            Nowadays I ride without goals, other than to enjoy the ride. I don’t put much pressure on myself or my horse—we’re both relaxed. And it makes me happy. I think my horse is happy, too. Just looking at the beauty of nature from a horse’s back is more than enough for me.

            Sometimes I can’t help comparing myself to others and I always laugh ruefully. I’m the has-been. I’m not accomplishing much of anything. Then I think back to the twenty-plus years in which I trained and competed relentlessly, and I shrug. Been there, done that. Got the T-shirt, or rather, belt buckle. I’m happy I spent those years achieving my goals. It leaves me free. If I hadn’t done all that, I think I would always wonder what if? What if I had pursued my goals?
            But I did pursue those goals, and achieved the things I set out to do. And now I don’t need to do those things any more.
            I’m not sure how this appears to others. At some level, I don’t really care. I’m doing what I want to do and it makes me happy. Maybe it seems as if a has-been shouldn’t be giving advice about horses (of course, when I do, you are all free to ignore it). Maybe I seem as if I’ve given up, or am just lazy. That I ought to try harder. Some have said that my life seems enviable, though I don’t mean to cause envy. In fact, my life with horses would be pretty boring for many of my friends.
            And there are days when I do question myself. I wonder WHY I don’t want to do more with horses now. I have many friends my age and older who are still competing. And some days I feel a bit lonely and isolated, disconnected from my horse friends who are still caught up in the passionate striving to improve as horsemen—whether it be for competition or for its own sake. I can no longer share in that camaraderie to any great degree.
            So, I sometimes wonder…are there other horsemen like me? People who have accomplished a fair amount with horses in their life, and are now content just to enjoy a relaxed ride from here on out. Or am I some sort of aberration? The truth is I don’t much worry over this—I’m happy with my life as it is. And I am very grateful to have (so far) survived a life spent very much on horseback with no serious injuries…and a continued joy in riding and horses. Not to mention the immense delight of sharing my horseback time with my son for about eleven and a half years now (yes, his first ride was at six months old, in front of me on my great old horse, Flanigan). So I’m Ok with being a has-been in the eyes of others (and for that matter, myself). But I am curious. Any other lazy has-been horsemen out there? Anybody else happy to just putter down the trail?



Anonymous said...

I don't think of you as a has been at all - I think of you as someone who is actively involved in the care of your horses - and this part is more important than anything else in my opinion - and actively riding while bringing your son into the horse world. All very good things - way more important and valuable than any competition, again in my opinion. There's nothing at all wrong with any of that - in fact the horse world would be a better place if there were more people like you and fewer people focussed on competition and winning.

Alison said...

I am the laziest! I must admit, I never accomplished as much as you did with cutting and roping. I dabbled in a lot of competitions but never seriously got the bug. A goal does get you riding with a purpose and now that I don't have a purpose, I am lazy about tacking up and heading out. Maybe because I don't have a great companion like your son! So enjoy him while you can.

Laura Crum said...

Kate--Thank you! I know that you and I are both in the been there/done that camp when it comes to competition. But unlike you, I'm no longer working with green horses--I admire your courage and persistence there.

Alison--I will admit that my kid is often my motivation to, as you say, actually get those horses saddled and head out. I am grateful for this riding time we've had together.

Funder said...

Love the old pics!!

This too shall pass. Everything ends - I think it's pretty cool that you quit competing before you were burned out on horses entirely. I mean, we're all (well, all the non-pros) are doing this to have fun. If you're so stressed out you're not having any fun at your hobby - ick!

Laura Crum said...

Funder--That is so true. And I did reach a point where I wasn't having fun any more at the competitions. I had just seen too much abuse (in order to win), and I would get there and be indifferent to how I did--just hoping that no horses or people would get hurt. I felt like I HAD to go--I'd been doing it for so long and all my friends competed--but I didn't actually WANT to any more. It took me a long time to acknowledge this to myself and give myself permission not to go, odd though it sounds.

Having a kid sort of put the icing on an already baked cake, so to speak. Now I had a really good reason not to go. Since then I've realized that, as you say, competing with my horses was a part of my life that had run its course. And that's OK.

Its funny. I let go of training/competing, kept my horses, though I wasn't sure what I wanted to do with them, just knew I always wanted horses (and I loved the horses I had), and soon enough teaching my son to ride and, eventually, trail riding with him became the thing I most enjoyed doing. Sometimes, when you let go of something at the right time, just the right something comes to take its place.

I'm afraid I think that a lot of people really aren't having fun with their horses-they feel scared all the time, or over-pressured. Its an easy trap to fall into, and I think at times I felt that way. I'm really grateful that I spent enough years training/competing that I don't feel like I missed anything, and I'm even more grateful that I don't feel the need to do that now.

Val said...

I love the old photos, too!

I do not think of you as a has-been either. Being in the thick of competition is not necessary to validate your experience as a horse person, at least not to me. I am not focused on competition and never really was. I love riding and trying to improve myself and my horse, but I do not love preparing for a horse show. My horse doesn't either. He is much happier at home.

Dom said...

Gunner looks exactly like I pictured him :)

Laura Crum said...

Val--Well, it sounds like you came more quickly to understand just what you did and didn't want to do than I did. It took me longer to figure it out, I guess. I did realize fairly early in the piece that I enjoyed just cutting cattle for fun, as you see me doing in the photo taken out at the old ranch, better than I liked the official cutting competitions. It took me awhile to let go of the idea that I "ought" to go compete. And the same was true of roping. I hung around with a lot of people who competed every weekend, and I think peer pressure had something to do with it. But I always liked the "practice" est. And I did really enjoy training young horses for many years.

Laura Crum said...

Dom--Yep. "Gunner" in my books is based very closely on my real Gunner. Though his life story is a little different--my Gunner was never injured as is the fictional Gunner. But the story of that injury was the true story of another horse. The fictional Gunner's looks and personality are exactly the same as the real Gunner--as I'm sure you can see (!)