A couple of years ago, as my husband and I were walking through our nearly complete barn that we’d had built on our property after years of talking and planning and loan-acquiring, he said, “We should name each stall after a college we won’t be able to afford to send our kids to because we built the barn. This one will be Princeton. That one, Stanford. The wash stall can be Harvard.” I laughed, but couldn’t help but wonder if, someday, my children might not think it’s so funny.
Like most people who own horses and whose last name isn’t Gates or Trump, there never seems to be enough money. We spend our days looking at our checking account balance, wondering if we can will more money into it simply by staring at it. We ask our accountants if we can claim our horses as a tax write-off. “Can’t they qualify as dependents?” we say, as they roll their eyes and take another swig from the flask they have hidden in their desk drawer (which we secretly think would be a really nice hunting flask and wonder how much it cost). We obsessively watch hay prices. We stalk sales at tack stores like vultures circling a carcass. When our friend throws out a halter because it’s torn and the leather is frayed, we say, “I’ll take it!” and find a roll of duct tape. Problem solved. We’re the dumpster divers of the equestrian world.
Those of us who live in the horse world know: For every magazine article featuring an equestrian wearing a bespoke cubbing jacket and boots, who splits her time between Manhattan and Wellington—where she has a horse property valued at the equivalent of Guatemala’s GDP—there are hundreds of the rest of us, whose breeches have holes and whose gate latches are made of baling wire.
Those of us in the latter camp do everything we can to sustain our horse habit. This can be hard when you’re married to a non-horsey partner, forcing every purchase into a negotiation (“Hey honey, instead of going on vacation this year, wouldn’t you rather put new tires on the horse trailer and get a new transmission for the truck?”). It’s even harder when you have kids. All of a sudden, your financial decisions have broad repercussions. Do you buy a new saddle or send your child to sleep-away camp? Do you take the family out for dinner and a movie or have your horse’s teeth floated? Do you got to a horse show or buy your kids new clothes for the school year because they have the audacity to keep growing?
When you’re a parent, every penny you spend on your horse is a penny you’re not spending on your children. This can be a good thing. After all, aren’t kids today given too much? Don’t we need a little more “you want it—you work for it” ethic instilled into our youth? This is what I tell myself, but then I think about things like, I don’t know, college, and wonder whether I should’ve jettisoned my horse habit long ago and instead saved all that money.
But then I think, if I’d done that, what message would I have sent my kids? If I didn’t have horses in my life, I would be a miserable human being and a terrible mother. Terrible. Imagine Mommie Dearest with a Xanax addiction… and then make her meaner. Horses are the place I go to refuel and regenerate. The place I go to feed my soul. When I’m in a bad mood, my husband kindly suggests that I go for a ride (God bless him) because he knows it’s the one surefire way to put a smile on my face again.
My hope is that, by having horses in my life, I’m showing my kids that it’s possible to nurture and passionately engage the things we love—including, but not limited to, our children. Every day, when I walk out my back door and up the driveway to my barn, and see the happy, curious faces of my two horses hanging their heads over their stalls, nickering for treats, there’s never a moment I don’t think, “This is worth every penny.” We’ll figure out college later.
Laura Mullane is a frequent contributor to Covertside and author of Swimming for Shore: Memoirs of a Reluctant Mother, available on Amazon.com.