Home Alone

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Who is less trouble to deal with:?a horse or a spouse??On the one hand, husbands and wives are usually less expensive to shoe than horses, and they can apologize when they step on your toes. On the other hand, horses don’t come with in-laws, and if they don’t work out, you can sell them.

For some of us, relationships with horses can override (pun intended) those with spouses. And when horses take priority, some spouses are not too happy. The balancing act between horses and spouses often requires the skill of a high-wire artist.

Support for Your Sport

Horse-husbands, how many times have you thought, “To get her attention, I should just get down on all fours and put a saddle on my back and whinny.” You’ve got lots of company.

Ray Horn is okay with being second to equines in his marriage to wife Susan, and the two remain totally devoted. They own River’s Edge Farm, LLC, in Bethany, Conn., where she teaches hunters, jumpers and equitation.

“When my husband—an unusual specimen—is asked if he loves horses, he politely says, ‘No, but I do love my wife!’ And when I was asked recently about going into this business, my reply was, ‘Marry a saint and work like a slave!’” Susan, a horse person for 22 years, treasures Ray’s support at her 11 annual shows. He does parking; their son waters the ring. The two partners try for Monday lunches together, and on Fridays when she’s home, “We sit in the house and watch TV.”

One reason their relationship works is that Ray values the lifestyle. “It affords me an opportunity to live in a place I could never otherwise imagine, and our children have this gift, too. As for the two of us, we are around each other a lot, but whether we connect, that’s a different story,” he laughs. “Her work schedule challenges us to be creative in making time together.”

Horses can strain relationships for your customers, too. Top Grand Prix jumper rider and trainer Mark Leone of Ri-Arm Farm in Oakland, N.J., describes the typical scenario: “Most of our rider-wives are really involved. Husbands are supportive, but really have no interest or attraction toward the sport.” Many of his lady riders do the major circuits and “once in a blue moon the husband comes reluctantly,” observes Leone.

But is that all bad??Many couples enjoy having time to do their own things. One of Leone’s highly-motivated clients is vivacious Jill Pami of Glenrock, N.J., an executive in hardware sales and support. Jill rides at lunchtime five days a week and works eight to six. Her husband, Robert, is into motorcycles and deep-sea fishing. “He loves that I ride, never complains,” says Jill. Robert comes to Vermont, Lake Placid or Florida, but isn’t expected to be constantly at her stall.

When showing is every weekend, “I feel guilty toward summer’s end,” admits Jill. But if it came down to a definitive choice between horse and husband, Jill says her spouse “knows better than to put me in that position. He wouldn’t like me after I made the decision to sell the horse, because I’d be one miserable person. He’d have to go back and get him!”

Where’s That Utopia?

For horse farm owners, the balancing act often requires a similar respect for each partner’s business priorities. Jo Ellard of EE Ranches, Inc., oversees two cutting horse ranches in Texas—one in Pilot Point, and another with a stallion station in Whitesboro. The family also owns two cattle ranches in Kansas and Mississippi, which husband Bill manages. Both usually operate out of their Dallas home, but each maintains his or her own career. When she has “spare time,” she shows in the Non Pro division.

Two ships passing in the night? Sometimes. “I rarely spend more than three nights in the same location; I live out of my car,” confesses Jo. The two partners follow very specific schedules, which include making time to be together.

But not, for the most part, at horse shows. “Bill’s not a spectator. He can’t stand around and watch a cutting. He will come to the Finals,” says Jo, but otherwise he’s home taking care of never-ending business.

“Sure, we’d like more leisure time, to travel more, but work never stops,” says Jo. “I think highly motivated, successful businessmen appreciate women with their own sense of self, who are more than just an armpiece. They really want us to win, are sympathetic when we lose, and yes, sometimes they get tired of the cash outflow!”

No one would argue that riding at the Olympic level requires commitment of the highest order. Just ask Debbie McDonald of Hailey, Idaho. Her husband, Bob, is also in the business and trains hunters and jumpers. Their private and professional lives are intertwined in a way most married couples can only dream of. “He taught me how to ride,” says Debbie.

Besides their careers, the two are currently remodeling their entire home. And with a son in college, life is full. “We’re all a team; I can’t do it without them. Sure, Bob and I work at the relationship, because at this level, so much of your life does revolve around you, and it can be difficult for someone else in the family…there’s no getting around that.” Endless hours of practice, days and weeks of travel—much of it in Europe—are required when you’re Debbie McDonald. “It’s something that must be done, yet I can’t say that I live for it,” she says. She appreciates her family’s support and understands that horses aren’t the only thing of value in her life.

Still, there’s little time for just being a couple right now. “We both feel badly about it, but we have to look further ahead than that,” says Debbie. While millions dream of being her, she’s wise enough to know that someday in a new life stage, there will be moments to spend with Bob without the current unrelenting pressures.

Partnering Issues and Solutions

Not all spouses are so understanding. A female rider whose guy isn’t horsey may face one or all of three major issues, says psychotherapist John James, Ph.D., an equestrian psychology coach in Lafayette, Calif., and coordinator of sports psychology at St. Mary’s College of California in Moraga. His newest book, “What You See is What You Get,” is specifically for equestrians.

One of those issues is the male mindset. “Some men believe, even if they’re ‘liberated,’ that they are ‘head of the household,’ so sharing leadership or being supportive can feel strange, causing them to ask, ‘Am I weak, a wimp?’” James says.

A husband may also want closeness, and see little opportunity for it, says James. Not all husbands fit the stereotype of the self-satisfied, independent macho man. Instead, James cites psychologist Carol Gilligan and her book, “In a Different Voice: Psychological Theory and Women’s Development.” “She writes that women want to be more independent as they age,” according to James, “while men want more connection. A woman whose life is arranged around a horse is enjoying her independence. Ultimately, both partners must ask how close they really want to be.

“The spouse of a woman reveling in equestrian passion may be jealous of her joy,” James continues. “He thinks, ‘What I’m doing is not as much fun. What do I do?’ Men may try to influence their partners and get frustrated—instead of making it collaborative—when they can’t alter the relationship’s path.”

The second challenge is time. “Spouses get lonely and feel abandoned; perhaps work goes badly or they’ve made a career change and they need someone to talk to,” James says.

The third (and most common) issue is usually money. “How does a family justify the expense? Most couples can’t discuss money easily, and it can be hard to find a resolution. People explode quickly, exaggerate, get into opposite corners of the ring rather than being a team,” he says.

James proposes a simple solution: adapt. Otherwise, partners may split if differences are irreconcilable.

There are several ways to avoid that fate. “Adjustment—the partner’s participation in the sport, even as a spectator—can work wonders. ‘If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em,” he says. The opposite can also be effective. James counsels that couples need to give each other quality time apart, not just together.

In either case, each partner should take an interest in the work and pastimes of the other. And couples should talk about other interests they each share. As well, plan on social events, things where the couple can have fun together. Accept the fact that life can’t be all horses, all the time, even for the most devoted horsewoman.

When things get tense, pat a soft muzzle, and remember: No one said it would be easy. But love for horse—and spouse—can conquer all.