Horse work before homework

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Two summers ago, Zappa and I galloped up the trail towards Tod Inlet. He gained speed with each stride until we reached the water’s edge. He’d never been to the ocean before, but he was brave for a youngster. I brought him back to a walk and let him sniff at the tide. The thick foam clung to his muzzle, and when he snorted, the froth bobbed away with the ripples. I tapped my heels against his side and he took a tentative step into the icy water. His shod hooves slid on the gravel, but he continued to march forward and soon he was up to his belly. He struck at the water with his front leg repeatedly, splashing like a kid in a bubble bath, gaining momentum with each pummel.

I laughed at his antics, how nothing traditionally scary to a horse seemed to frighten him. I trotted him back to the trail, picked up a canter and directed him to the water again. He jumped in boldly and picked up speed as we travelled down the shore. I beamed proudly, patted his neck and pointed him towards home, towards the news that he was being put up for sale. This was the risk I’d taken with riding a horse I didn’t own, but I wasn’t prepared for the reality that he could be taken away from me.

UNIVERSITY AND HORSES: IMPOSSIBLE TO MIX?

Many horse-owning students sell their beloved animals when they make the decision to pursue post-secondary education. University is expensive and leaves little room in most students’ budgets to spend money on an animal that effectively eats every paycheque. Horse owners throw money into an ever-deepening and expanding pit filled with veterinary bills, boarding dues, shoeing costs, show fees and feed store purchases.
These costs, piled on top of paying for rent, groceries, a cell phone, textbooks, tuition and the occasional party night, add up quickly. Beyond being a financial burden, horses are a great responsibility; you can’t just turn a horse loose if it doesn’t work out.

As Sarah Hughes, my roommate and the owner of three horses says, “You either have money or horses. You do not have both!”

THE PROSPECT OF PURCHASING

From childhood to my early 20s, I wanted a horse more than anything. On every Christmas and birthday wish list, “horse” always appeared at the top, followed by “a real one” in brackets, just in case my parents thought a toy would suffice. I began riding once a week on lesson horses when I was seven years old. In high school, I rode three days a week, competed in the occasional show and spent every spare moment at the barn. Moving to Victoria for university did little to discourage my passion. Within two months of the move, I’d found a horse to ride.

Halfway through third year, I was approached to train a young horse, Zappa, for his wealthy owners. The situation was near-perfect for a student rider: I could ride Zappa as much as I wanted, for free, as long as I continued his schooling. The only hitch: he wasn’t my horse.

When I cried to Hughes about how this horse — the one I’d spent a year and half working with, the one who came in first place at the very first show I’d taken him to, the one who ran to his stall door and whinnied when he heard my car pull up at the barn — was for sale, she came up with a proposal I couldn’t ignore. It was simple: buy Zappa and move him to her parents’ farm in North Saanich.

She made it sound so simple. As a horse-crazy 16-year-old, Hughes had been determined to own a horse. She saved her allowance and purchased an ex-Thoroughbred-racer for $1 500 (which is considered inexpensive in the horse world). Since then, she’s added two more horses to the barn. Hughes kept all of her horses while going through university, even when it meant her student loans had to be used to pay for hay and unexpected vet bills.

I began to envision my life as Zappa’s owner, not just his rider, when the practical side of my brain jumped in to warn me that this was terrible idea. I was still in university and a couple years away from graduating. I had a job but only worked three shifts a week in the school year, earning about $1 000 a month. I already had Karma, my black lab, to provide for, and my bank account yielded minimal savings for any unexpected vet bills. The other side of my brain reminded me I’d waited my whole life for this opportunity.

UVIC’S HORSEY SCHOLARS

I’m not the only horse-crazy student on campus. Allie Keller is a UVic student and horse owner. She says the choice to keep her horse while pursuing her degree was easy, though she did forgo moving away for school in order to be close to the barn.

“I knew that I would go crazy without having a horse. For me, it’s the world’s biggest stress reliever,” she says. She figures her horse, Oscar, costs around $800 a month to keep, more than her rent. Without financial help from her parents she wouldn’t be able to afford to keep him and go to school at the same time. While Keller feels all the work and responsibility is worth it, she still doesn’t recommend horse ownership to university students.

“The number of times that I have had to turn down social activities, or cram for an exam last-minute because [Oscar] needed his feet done or he got stuck in the fence, is way too high. Unless you are well financially supported, own a car and don’t need to get straight As, I think owning a horse is crazy.”

UVic English student Emily Penn bought her first horse, Chase, when she was 15 years old with money she’d slowly saved up. Now she’s 21, and while she’s in school, she still works six days a week to cover the costs of her horse.

“On school days I’ll have class in the mornings, work 1–6 p.m. and then ride after that. Then, I’ll do homework ’til it’s time to go to bed.”

Saturdays are spent working and Sundays have thus far remained free for riding.

TAKING THE PLUNGE

A week after Zappa’s owners told me he was for sale, Zappa stood quietly in the cross-ties of the barn, his hind leg cocked while he rested. His dapple-grey hide was streaked with dried sweat from our ride, and his white eyelashes drooped. I stroked his whiskers, and he began to lick my palm methodically with his rough tongue. I’d never met a horse who would lick a person’s hand with as much dedication. I wiped my tears away with the back of my hands and thought about the chances of finding another horse like him.

I decided to take Hughes’ advice; that night I emailed Zappa’s owners and asked about the possibility of free leasing or buying him off of them. A few days later, on my birthday, I received an email — and the best birthday present ever — from Zappa’s owners. He was now mine on a free lease that turned into ownership a year later. At 23, I finally had my first horse.

My parents once bought me a t-shirt with “Eat. Sleep. Ride Horses.” emblazoned across the front. If someone asked me to sum up my life right now, that would be it. These days, I barely have time to eat more than a can of soup for dinner. And sleep? It’s overrated — I’m lucky if I snatch more than six hours under the covers. But ride horses? Yep. My horse. Every day. Rain or shine.

I moved out of the city at the same time I learned how to drive a truck and trailer. I transferred Zappa to his new home, and I moved in with Hughes on a nearby farm.

To cover the costs of my new lifestyle, I decided to work full time while in school. I enrolled in four classes but quickly dropped one — where would the time to read and write papers come from in a day filled with horse work and job work?

I purchased equine mortality and veterinary insurance to cover Zappa so that in the event of a major accident or colic (a gastrointestinal ailment that can be fatal) that might call for $10 000 surgery, I won’t be out thousands and thousands of dollars — just hundreds and hundreds to pay the deductible.

Every six weeks, my farrier visits the barn to trim and shoe Zappa’s feet. His pedicures set me back $123, which means each of his feet cost more than a much-needed manicure would for my own dirty, broken fingernails.

Hughes and I share the chores at the little barn her dad built for her when she was 16. Running the small barn means we muck the stalls, set up the electric fencing, do the feedings and turn the horses loose in the fields each day. We are, essentially, the hired help, which means we have to be at the farm every day, even if there was a party the night before.

I usually muck in the mornings, when the heavy mist still cloaks the farm. I slide the creaky doors open and the four horses all nicker and huff their morning greetings, poking their heads over the stall doors. They dive into their hay and crunch the coarse stalks in a constant rhythm. Occasionally, they pause to douse their noses in a water bucket or to prick their ears at a distant sound. Each morning, the resident goose elongates her body, puffs her chest out and flaps her wings ecstatically before joining Zappa at his grain bucket. The two eat side by side, Goosey picking up the smatterings of grain that fall from Zappa’s mouth.

After their breakfast, I turn the horses out in the big field. I like to lean on the fence and watch them gallop around in their little herd. They buck and squeal, snort and stamp. Sometimes they rear up at each other, ears pinned back in mock threat, and spar like stallions defending their mares in the wild. At other times they stand head-to-tail and swish the flies off each other’s faces.

ALTERNATIVES TO OWNING

For many students who enjoy riding or have owned a horse in the past, leasing is a great and more inexpensive way to stay involved with horses and riding. A two-day-a-week lease costs around $200 a month, and at the end of the day, beyond taking any lessons, this is all that the leaser is obliged to pay. If the horse suddenly has medical issues, it’s up to the owner to cover those costs.

This past year, Penn chose to lease her horse Chase out for two days a week in order to help with expenses. Although she now can’t ride as often, she has more time for homework on the days her leaser rides.

Many colleges and universities, including UVic, have riding clubs. The UVic Equestrian Club has a membership of around 20 riders at any given time, with about 10–12 of the members competing in shows. Keller acts as the Social and Fundraising Chair of the club, helping to organize events like movie nights and even vaulting sessions (gymnastics on horseback). Although Keller has her own horse, many of the members do not; when they compete, it’s on borrowed horses, which adds a level of difficulty to the competitions.

“Most people come from a hunter-jumper background or just love horses and want some horsey people to hang out with,” says Keller.

NOT ALL FUN AND GYMKHANA GAMES

Like Penn, I have had days when the horse work overwhelms me and I skitter from home to barn to school to work, then back to the barn.

A couple weeks ago after my night class ended, it was dark and rainy by the time I drove up to the barn. I squelched out to the far field to bring in the horses, cursing with each slippery step. When the horses heard me, they thundered to the gate in a cloud of spraying mud. I hustled them to the barn for dinner, a horse prancing on either side of me, unable to contain their excitement.

My own stomach complained as I scooped out four portions of grain into rubber feed tubs. I measured out a precise mix of supplements to add to the grain and then repeated the whole process so their breakfasts would be ready to go in the morning.

Then I discovered there was no hay left in the feed room. All I wanted was to go home, eat and sleep. Instead, I grabbed the wheelbarrow, which has had a flat tire for the last five months, and headed up the hill to the hayloft.

By now I looked like a drowned scarecrow—pieces of soggy hay clung to my clothes and poked out in all directions. I thought about the few hours of homework waiting for me at home in a stack on my desk, about what I could make for dinner since my fridge was empty and I hadn’t done the dishes in a few days. As I trudged down the driveway, the bale of hay teetering precariously on the front of the wheelbarrow, I reflected on my old life and how I never would have let dishes remain dirty for more than one night. Never. I missed having my boyfriend at the end of the block. I wanted to watch a movie and not feel guilty for abandoning my homework. And I wished I could take off for a weekend without having to organize a farm-sitter.

Horses can live into their 30s. Zappa had just turned six. Had I committed to a life of living pay cheque to pay cheque? A life of scrambling from one job to the next? This wasn’t how I’d envisioned horse ownership in my dreams as a kid. In those dreams, there were stable hands and automatic waterers. Rolling emerald pastures with white fences that the horses never chewed on or broke through. And there was always an endless supply of money.

The next morning, the only reminder of the rain from the night before was the occasional drip of water falling from the tree branches into the wheelbarrow. The sun twinkled through the cracks in the barn’s siding, and the birds in the loft trilled and zipped in and out of their nests. Zappa greeted me with a throaty nicker and gently lipped at my hands in search of treats. I tacked him up and we took off for a trail ride before work. We clip-clopped down the driveway, his quick footsteps echoing his anticipation. I breathed in the farm smells: the sweetness of the apples ripening in the orchard, the occasional whiff of manure and the sharp sting of salt spray from the ocean. I pushed homework stresses to the back of my mind; it could wait another few hours. I’d get to it eventually. I nudged Zappa forward into a rocking canter and we took off up the grassy hill. The wind stung my eyes and halted my breath as his legs ate up the ground with each lengthening stride. I leaned forward and gave him his head. He stretched out into a gallop, legs churning the ground into a blur beneath us. All thoughts of homework and deadlines disappeared, and my head felt as light and clear as the morning.

My horse ate my paycheque:

Approximate monthly
breakdown of horse expenses

Board = $350 (co-op board — where the owner does some of the chores and/or provides the horse’s feed at their own expense)
Hay = $120
Feed = $40
Shoes = $123 (just front shoes, every 6–8 weeks)
Vet = $50 (don’t need this service monthly, but averages out to this figure)
Lessons = $160
Insurance = $30

Monthly total: $873

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