Battle Barn Burnout

The hours equine professionals keep can be grueling. Here are some tips to avoid burnout from a psychologist and several trainers.

You haven’t had a day off in three months and you’re showing every weekend while ribbon-thirsty clients chase year-end points. You teach during the week, ride horses, manage employees, buy and sell horses, coordinate vet and farrier visits, do the billing…and you try to have a personal life. You chose this equine career and now it’s chosen to take over your life.

So, just who’s in charge here, anyway? You are. And here are some tips from trainers to avoid burnout by creating some good boundaries.

Bust the “Rustout”

You know what burnout means: burning the candle at both ends, running endlessly on the hamster wheel and feeling intense pressure. Burnout occurs when we don’t set appropriate boundaries, says licensed clinical psychologist and equestrian Paul Haefner, Ph.D. of Riding Far, LLC, in Leesburg, Va. He wants you to “stop that.”

Now meet “rustout,” defined as doing an uninspiring job that fails to stretch you while you become disinterested and apathetic. You’re dissatisfied with doing the same thing over and over, just going through the motions and you’ve lost energy. Good things happen to others, but not you. What’s wrong here?

No matter which challenge afflicts you, it’s time for a change. You may be perplexed, having worked so hard to build your business and suddenly, because you didn’t think ahead, you’ve reached what Dr. Haefner calls “a natural transition point in your life.”

He hopes you’ll reconnect with what got you into horses in the first place and find something different and fun to do—maybe try a new discipline. Maybe do something related, like pursuing studies in how people learn. Maybe explore different styles and traditions of horsemanship. Maybe (now take a breath here) do something completely outside of horses, like a new, unrelated hobby. These are all great ways to get out of a rut.

Additionally, if you are feeling that you’ve been forced to compromise your ethics to stay ahead, Haefner reminds you to exercise your inner voice and become active in your associations—they’re here to help.

Mend Your Fences

Boundary issues may originate from you as a young professional, when you had to be all things to all people. You wouldn’t miss any opportunity and now perhaps you’ve established a pattern.

Ask yourself: How much can I reasonably do? And if that doesn’t include working seven days a week, don’t. Otherwise you may come to resent a life that includes no free time. Nurture self-awareness, Haefner says, even if it means attending fewer “A” shows or setting the bar lower in terms of time commitment and income.

Find someone to share with. “Horse professionals can be so protective of their businesses, when partnerships lighten everyone’s loads,” says Dr. Haefner.

Sure, the economy does figure into this scenario of work till you drop. “It has a huge impact on your psychology, how you approach business, how much freedom you have to take risks,” he says. “You feel your livelihood and income are threatened by external factors beyond your control.”

Tips From Trainers

Below, your peers share tactics on keeping their attitudes, outlooks and careers fresh.

“Continuing education is paramount or the job becomes tiring and mundane,” says Susan Doner of sport horse breeding facility Little Bull Run Farm in Catharpin, Va. “It allows you to also take time for yourself and that reward is critical. In any career that one started out loving, it’s important not fall into the trap of working in a vacuum. When that happens the learning curve is lost, boredom and burnout ensues…and the passion can die. Sometimes you have to take a step back and figure out what you are doing (or what you changed) that made your passion a pain. Then redirect!”

“I make sure I take a day off each week from doing anything,” says hunt-seat instructor Amy Gurney of Four Star Equestrian in Hanson, Mass. “No house cleaning, cooking, shopping (unless I want to), errands, anything that involves work in any way shape or form. I refuse to solve mine or anyone else’s problems for that day. I still love what I do after 20 years so it must be working!”

“Stay focused on the horses—that is why we do this after all.” That’s from Becky Seizert, whose focus is dressage in Chanhassen, Minn. She also says to “stay away from the distractions like judgment and chin-wagging that equestrian sports seem to draw in like a magnet. That’s the stuff that saps your energy. If you train for the benefit of the horse, and teach your students to ride for the benefit of the horse, it is beyond rewarding. Remembering that this is exactly what I would do with my days, whether I got paid for it or not, is also helpful.”

“If you live at the farm, I think having a closed barn day is about the only way you’ll be able to pull it off.” So says Jill Brennan McConaughy Denver, Colo., where she teaches the English disciplines. “[When I had my own barn] I was never able to get my clients and boarders to agree to a closed day. Sadly, there were a few that didn’t respect the idea of a day off for me, and because I lived there, there would be knocks on the door almost every single day off by those few clients who just didn’t get how intrusive a complaint about a poorly-working hose nozzle can be on my one day off. The small things can burn you out if you feel the need to give them the same amount of effort as the big things.”

“I eat this stuff for breakfast, that’s how [I prevent burnout]!” says Tasida Kulikowski, dressage aficionado, of Consensus Equus in Raleigh, N.C. “When doing something that makes your soul happy, you leave the world a better place with the work that you do, and every day is joyous and rewarding. Also having a mentor support system helps when you wake up thinking everything I just wrote above is [a fantasy.]

“I’ve created a niche for myself,” she continues. “Not just continued education as a rider, but by constantly taking courses specific to coaching, teaching, communication, and psychology. It gives me new tools for my toolbox and keeps me connected to why I love teaching so much.”

You really can turn burnout and rustout outside in—so you teach, train and show with the flow.






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