As most of you know, I live in a very nice subdivision, with good neighbours and good schools. But I belong out in the country where my neighbours have barns and long laneways; where I can see my horses out the window, which I keep closed in the summer to keep the flies out; and where the cold winter wind threatens to yank the screen doors right off the hinges. Part of my plan to move out there into that difficult paradise is to make my horses work for me.
This will be tricky with me not actually owning a horse right now. For the first time in over 30 years I don’t have my own horse. Neither of the mares in my care belong to me. I’m working on a plan for this too.
I’ve hestitated to call myself a riding instructor because I don’t have any paperwork to back it up. All of my students came to me because they knew that I’d been around horses since I could walk, and didn’t care that I had no official qualifications. They were all farm kids who were scared off of the riding stables because it all looked too fancy, too expensive, and dare I say it, too snooty.
Things have changed though. It ain’t the seventies anymore. There are serious new laws coming into effect designed to keep all of us from getting hurt. Our government does not want us to even break a fingernail. The parents of the kids I was teaching didn’t care about legal qualifications, but parents who aren’t familiar with horses care very much. The government does too.
I could have continued to teach riding exactly the way I had been, but there’s that fear that all unlicensed instructors will be forced out of business. Grudgingly I have to admit though that it’s better to go by the rules here. A parent with a horse crazy kid might not know the difference between me, who knows horses, and knows how to avoid a wreck, and someone who took a few lessons, bought a nice old horse, and hung up a “Riding Lessons” shingle in hopes of making a few quick bucks.
So I’m going to get myself all qualified.
We have an organization called the Ontario Equestrian Federation. I am actually very pleased with them, despite my usual mistrust of authority. The OEF has done an excellent job over the last decade or so in uniting all the different groups within the horse industry. There are so many of us, and sadly, our shared love of horses isn’t always enough to have us all get along. By joining the OEF we all have a common communication, representing all breeds and disciplines. Our membership includes great insurance coverage, which in this day and age, any horse business absolutely needs. Actually private owners would be wise to have it as well. Through the OEF we get news about developments in the horse industry, and most importantly, a network of others who are in our line of work and play.
You can read about the The Learn To Ride program here, on the OEF website.
There are 4 Rider levels in the program. I tested and passed Level 1 in December. I can do most of the requirements for the next three but I have a lot of practising and perfecting to do. Almost all advanced riding I’ve done, I’ve learned from watching others and reading and asking questions, so I’ve picked up a lot of bad habits and half baked techniques. I haven’t had a lot of serious training.
Once I achieve my Level 3 Rider, as well as a First Aid course and a Learn To Teach program, I can take the exam for my Instructor’s Certificate. This was my original plan. I might go on to Level 4 Rider, since I’m doing the training anyways, then take the Level 1 Western Coach exam. Being a coach means I could test other riders, take full advantage of the OEF network, and charge a little more for my time. My name will be listed on the website and published in the directory. This means that I’m very extremely available...and I don’t know if my intense need for privacy will allow for that.
I know, I know. You’re thinking I can’t have such a need for privacy if I blog details of my life to anybody with internet access. Well, there’s a difference. I’m not listing my address and phone number here, and I never will. I don’t know how I feel about being that public. I like it when people don’t know where I live.
I liked it when I got asked at church if I’d teach somebody’s kid how to ride. I didn’t charge nearly enough but I learned the huge thrill of teaching a kid how to motivate this 1000lb animal who has a mind of his own. If the kid got him to move one hoof, the look on her face was worth it.
That’s why I want to be a riding instructor. I love horses and I love helping people learn to work with them instead of against them.
My real true motivation for taking this step however is very selfish.
I want to live in the country with my horses. I can’t afford to just sell my house and move out to the sticks and gaze lovingly out the window at my horses as they eat grass and swish flies with their tails. I am not in a financial situation where I can just decide that I’d like to take a leisurely trail ride and not worry about income.
Since I am not a real farmer I have to make my horses, my beautiful lawn ornaments, work for me.
Actually if I was a real farmer I’d have to have a factory job in town to pay for my farming habit but that’s another story...
My parents were a gorgeous young couple of newlyweds when they took over the family farm in the late 60s, a couple of years before I was born.
Because my Grandpa did mixed farming and hadn’t bought dairy quota, my folks decided to get into hogs. On the verge of the 70s, farming was changing. The mixed farm model that worked for a century (more) was disappearing as farmers were specializing. It was relatively easy to set up a barn for pigs, so that’s what they did.
Dad had three tractors, and a crawler, the newest one being of a late 50s vintage.
Yeah, of course they were John Deere. What are ya, new here?
He still has two of them. One is his working tractor, which he uses daily; the other one is in the barn, waiting for me.
Our truck was old too. He still has it. We had an old manure spreader, an old gravity bin, an old dump truck and an old mix mill. Our hay elevator was old too. We still have it.
He could fix all of our old stuff. It was clunky and slow, but if it broke in the middle of the field, he could fix it and be back to work in a matter of hours.
So they were off and at it. My daddy went out to the barn in the morning and was back in when my sister and I got ready for school. My mommy cooked great meals, played with us, took care of us and didn’t let us bring cats into the house. Well maybe just once.
Dad really worked his butt off. Not only did he chore in the barn twice a day, he also ran a small autobody shop in the back yard. At first he drove truck for a feed mill. After supper he’d have a mint tea, with mint that my mom grew, and my sister and I sat on his lap and twisted his beard until he had to go back out to the barn. This is how the 70s worked out for us.
We were the classic broke but happy. We didn’t have loads of clothes or toys, we never took vacations, we ate a restaurant meal about twice a year at Mcdonalds, but we never starved. For many years we drove around in our old Ford truck because it’s all we had, and my sister and I took turns sitting on mom’s lap because there was only room for three in the cab.
Farming was evolving and changing. The pressure was on to expand and run a tight business. We weren’t supposed to get our milk from our neighbour’s cooler anymore: we were supposed to go buy it from the store like everybody else did. We still bought if from our neighbour. Other farmers were buying huge machinery that they weren't fixing themselves anymore.
My parents were in deep. They decided to take out a big bank loan and renovate the barn. The plan was to do it bigger and better. Take the chance.
Then the 80s happened. Interest rates went up. Hog prices went down. Feed prices went up, but my Dad was selling pigs for the same price that his dad had thirty years earlier.
My mom took a job in town. She’d been running a farm, and raising two kids, and canning a garden every fall. She ended up washing dishes for four hours a day, then coming home and doing all those jobs as well.
You know how if a guy takes a chance, and succeeds, he’s a visionary? If he takes a chance but it doesn’t work out so well for him, then what do you call him?
And what if a hundred other guys took the same kind of chance at the same time, and all of them failed? Are they all failures?
With rising choking debts, and a barn full of animals that ate more than they were worth, my mom and dad had to get out. My memories of that time are not clear. I think I fuzzed a lot of it out, but I do know that it was an extremely stressful time.
We went from being broke but happy to being painfully broke and tense.
The whole time, there were two little black ponies in the pasture, eating free grass and being adored. We paid the farrier with a pig to turn into chops and ham. We weren’t supposed to do that either. But we did.
My parents worked out a deal with the cousin next door to buy the farm but allow them to stay living on it. They will never have to leave that place for their entire lives, but they don’t own it. I won’t be able to inherit it or buy it from them. The two joined properties have since been sold but the chances of buying our farm back are damn near impossible. I’m not counting on it. I still think about it but I can’t see it happening in real life.
Even at the time, in my early teens, I knew that my folks got out lucky. They got to stay there.
They didn’t feel very lucky at the time. My father went through some huge difficulties, which my mother had a hard time dealing with. He was moody and quiet. But even then we were aware that other guys had it worse. Some drank themselves into numbness. Some hung themselves off the barn rafters. My dad is still alive. My mom is still married to him.
They are still living on the property that I grew up on, and that my dad grew up on, and his mother before him.
They’re content out there. The shock has dulled in twenty years but the pain lingers. It’s not easy to financially recover from an ordeal like that, and emotionally it takes even longer.
I know how hard it is to leave the fields and barnyards and move into town. I’ve been there for most of the last fifteen years and have never adjusted to it. I really don't think my dad would have survived it. I see him pacing when he comes to visit me. I pace the front window regularly but the difference is, I moved here for love, so that my man could live close to work, and not because I had to move here after losing my farm.
My mom used to think maybe she could live in town, at least in winter. Since then she’s figured out that winter is a bitch no matter where you live, so she might as well be looking at horses and fields and barns instead of somebody else’s kitchen window.
Which brings us back to the horses.
All that barn, and only a couple of horses and a barn cat! When I married for love and got swept off to the Somewhat Biggish City, they insisted on keeping my horse around. I pay for hay, Dad has a critter to care for, and Mom has somebody pretty to look at. Now that I’m threatening to take the horses to my own farm, when I get it, they’re thinking of what to put in the barn to replace the horses. Donkeys? Llamas? Alpacas? Goats? Miniature horses? They need some critters out there.
Some of us just can’t be happy until we have wide open spaces and critters and cold winds, mud, flies, and well water. That’s my plan.
Some of these photos were taken by my 12 year old daughter.