Over the years, I’ve credited being an equestrian with my work ethic, attention to detail, and ability to communicate with non-verbal animals. But it wasn’t until I became a caregiver that I realized that it gave me transferable skills there, too.
When you work around 1,000 pound animals, you learn a thing or two. You realize how little control you actually do have (especially when these herd animals decide otherwise). You understand their moods (and they come to know yours). And you start to notice the bond that develops between human and equine (a relationship that deepens over time). Eventually, a partnership forms and the level of trust between horse and rider is one that I’ve never figured out how to put into words. A good rider is patient, calm, and anticipates the needs of the duo. A good horse is trusting, honest, and knows their rider is part of the team. These skills, whether in the ring or on the road of life, come in handy in many instances.
For years, I felt like I was a good driver because I had navigated riding in many a crowded indoor arena in the winter. I felt like I was a supportive friend because I had learned to really listen to what wasn’t said. And I was a stronger person when I went through my thyroid cancer diagnosis because I had known defeat in the show ring. But when I became a caregiver, the skills I had long forgotten came flooding back to me in a new way.
Being a caregiver has its challenges. Caring for someone with dementia has challenges you never hope to face. When my grandmother first showed signs of cognitive decline, it was hard. But it quickly became dangerous when by 9 am, she would call me multiple times to ask me what she should be doing, having forgotten to eat breakfast and take her medications on her own. I knew then that I needed to get her primary care doctor involved immediately, as she could no longer live alone. I never imagined the avalanche that was on its way, but in those moments, I realized that I needed to change my approach. Rather than grow frustrated by the repeated requests, I found immense compassion, as my grandmother was operating out of a place of fear and the unknown. As with scared horses, my approach needed to be steady and reassuring. Unfortunately, with dementia, what started off as a mild cognitive decline, quickly morphed into something far more serious.
For the past year, I’ve watched as my grandmother gets stuck in the loops her own mind traps her in. Getting her out of that headspace is its own unique challenge, one that is sometimes met with success and other times a hopeless endeavor. But the skills I’ve learned through years of riding—the patience, dedication, and determination to make our partnership work—is what carries me through when I feel I can’t reach her. Whether it’s sitting by her bedside and holding her hand, so she knows I won’t leave her or telling her a story that reframes the one she’s familiar with in her mind, it’s the same approach I’ve used countless times to establish trust and build a rapport with horses.