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Author: Stephani Hren

Coming into Focus

Coming into Focus

Two weeks ago, I found myself staring at my reflection in the mirror in the barn’s bathroom. That morning I’d picked out a cute outfit for my photoshoota black strapless dress with tiny pink birds on it, black leggings, and my tall bootsbut now that I was wearing it I couldn’t take my eyes off of the tan lines on my shoulders. It felt wrong to be wearing a dress at the barn, like I was trying to jam my feet into shoes that were three sizes too small. I couldn’t recognize my face with all of that skin showing.

I’d shoved a plaid, long sleeve shirt into my backpack just before I’d left the house, just in case. I put it on. My hair is shaggy right nowhalfway through growing out—but my makeup looked nice.

Three years ago I was working in IT, wearing collared shirts and watching my soul shrivel up in the glare on my monitor. My memories of that time are punctuated by episodes of irrational anger, unrealistic expectations, and sudden, overwhelming pits of despair. I bounced back and forth between periods of blind ambition and gnawing apathy. I didn’t know it then, but that wasn’t the person I was supposed to be.

Twelve years ago, Julie Austin was laid off from her graphic design job and found herself working for a local animal shelter, where she fell in love with pet photography. She’s spent the last eight years focusing on her photography career full time. Sometimes the universe aligns itself and the path you’re destined to follow licks you in the face like a shelter dog looking for a new home.

Sometimes you go to the racetrack and bring one of racehorses home with you a year later.

I feel like my future has finally started to take shape. The fog is parting; if I look into the distance I can make out more than vague outlines and fuzzy shadows. The person I’m trying to be and the person I’m supposed to be are converging, my mind and heart are learning how to sync up, and the fractious pieces of my personality are being sanded down and bonded together. My spirit is settling into my bones.

So I wore my plaid shirt, and I listened to the shutter on Julie’s camera chatter alongside us while I told her Raglan’s story. When he bashed his giant head into my stomach I wrapped my arms around his face and held onto him until he managed to wrestle me off again. I laugheda lot. I cursed a little bit, too.

Jamming all of those feelings into the frame of a photograph isn’t just a matter of spinning the dials on the camera and holding your finger down on the shutter release. There’s more to photography than the technical aspects of knowing what all of those numbers mean, just like there’s more to being an equestrian than just riding horses. Passions like these are buried deep, all the way down in the blood that pumps through a person’s body. There’s a pulse to them that thumps alongside the rhythm of our hearts.

Thanks for sharing a piece of your talent with us, Julie. 💕

I Wear My Heart on my Feed

I Wear My Heart on my Feed

In the year that I’ve owned Raglan my Instagram account has blown up. What started as an online photo album that I could look back on when I was feeling nostalgic has become a public spectacle that can easily draw in 100,000+ views. At this point my follower count could fill up the local hockey rink—twice. It’s crazy to think that there’s 20,000 people that routinely look at photos of Raglan’s beautiful face. It’s even crazier when I think about all of the people that have 60k, 100k, or even 100 MILLION followers.

Part of what I love about Instagram is that I can share my journey with other horse people. Over the past year Raglan and I have had occasional lessons/training rides, but 95% of Raglan’s improvements have been a solo endeavor and I’m so proud of us both! To celebrate my anniversary with Raglan, I posted some throwback videos to my feed. One of those videos was a jumping mash up.

In six months, Raglan and I have gone from baby cross rails to 2’0″ courses—with flowers and oxers and the occasional 2’3″ jump thrown in! We’ve only jumped about a dozen times, but over the course of those rides he’s gotten smarter with his feet and I’ve started to let go of my terror and allow my arms to come forward and my upper body to come down over his neck. There’s still a long way to go, but we’re both improving… and then there was our lesson on Friday, of course. 😁

NOBODY CAN STOP ME FROM USING THIS PHOTO AGAIN

I wanted Instagram to be excited with me—and most of my followers were super supportive! But there’s always those few that take it upon themselves to browse around on Instagram looking for posts where they can tell young happy amateur riders some “hard truths”. One of them even called me a “floppy salmon” and said that I was “delusional” if I thought I was making progress.

I wish I could say that I laughed the harsh comments off, but I didn’t. I stayed up later than I should have figuring out how to respond, then I went through the next day in a funk. My thoughts were split between “why do people have to be jerks?”, “what if they’re right and I’m a terrible rider?”, and “why can’t I just ignore this and move on?”. I felt weak and discouragedand mad at myself for feeling that way!

On Friday, after my lesson with TrainerM, I should have been happy to share video of our first 2’3″ oxer with my Instafriends. Instead, I was sad. I didn’t want to be berated with more unsolicited “advice”. In the end I just posted a still shot of Raglan and I looking down at the oxer.

Raglan and I had our very first real jump lesson with my trainer this morning 🙌🏻 We even jumped this 2’3″ oxer like it was no big deal 👍🏻 Want to see the video? Too bad 🤷🏻‍♀️ Lately I’ve noticed a lot of negative comments masquerading as “advice” on some of my videos. … I think our online culture makes it easy to forget that the people whose content fills up your Instagram feed are real people with real barn friends and real trainers. They don’t owe you content and they aren’t looking for your approval! … I’m super happy to have people follow along with my journey, but don’t mistake my joy at sharing Raglan with you guys for an invitation to play the part of backseat trainer 🙏🏻

I left comments on the post closed, but over the next few hours a flood of supportive messages landed in my inbox. It was great to have people crawl out of the woodwork to say nice things to me, but all of the positivity didn’t erase the disappointment I’d been feeling all week.

When it comes down to it, I’m an amateur rider. Everything I do—the riding, the blogging, the Instagram account—is for the love of the sport. Three years ago I was suffering through the doldrums of a life I wasn’t supposed to be living; today I am happy again, and it’s all thanks to the horses. It doesn’t matter if my equitation is perfect, because I’m blessed to be riding—and to be able to go over a jump without crumbling into a huddled mass of terror is just an added bonus.

My heart belongs to this beautiful giant dusty happy horse 💓

Sharing my experiences with the online world makes me happy, too. I like being part of a bigger community, even if some members of that community aren’t always kindhearted. I want other equestrians to draw enthusiasm from the times when I’m feeling accomplished and to share their strength of spirit with me on days where I’m feeling down. I don’t want to hide the hard parts of my journey, but I also I don’t want to be punished for being in a perpetual state of “still learning”.

And yet, when I tell people I’m not looking for advice, they act offended; when I delete mean comments, I’m called a coward; when I say that I’m tired of being harassed, I’m labeled as “bitchy”. Why is it so ridiculous for me to expect kindness? We spend so much time making our horses softer and more flexible, so why does everyone keep insisting that I should “grow a thicker skin”?

Another of Julie Austin‘s beautiful photosshouldn’t we all be drawn together by our love for horses?

I just want people in the equestrian community to be nicer. It’s easy. Don’t make other people feel small. Only give advice when asked for it. Stop using insincere cop-outs like “no hate” and “imo” and “not to be rude but”. Aim to uplift instead of discourage. If you see a mean comment, say something.

We should all do our bests to be better equestrians, but more than that we should strive to be better people. None of us will ever be the “picture perfect Instagram rider”that idealized version of an equestrian doesn’t really exist, anywaysbut we should always try to be the kindest person in the barn.

Lesson Recap: We Jumped! :D

Lesson Recap: We Jumped! :D

Right off the bat TrainerM wanted me to close my hip angle more. She said I was riding too upright, like a dressage rider, and that she wanted me to take my seat out of the equation. When I ride a course I should be doing it all in my half seat, which means that Raglan needs to be operating off of leg, hand, and voice only.

We warmed up quickly and then TrainerM had me shorten my reins way way way up and find my two point. She coached me on loosening up my arms so that I could follow more (“row your horse boat!”). TrainerM wants me to put my irons up another hole or two, but the flap of the Devoucoux just can’t accommodate that. We’re both super excited for Raglan and I to find a new saddle!

Very tiny hint of saddle things to come… Expect more on this next week!

TrainerM set up some trot poles with a crossrail oxer at the end. It very quickly became a vertical and then, finally, a 2’3″ oxer. She gave me a really hard job to do: grab mane and do NOTHING.

I’ve been coming out of my two point too early over jumps, so TrainerM wanted me stay down near his neck for a few strides after the oxer. It felt great to just sit up there and let Raglan do his job!

Look how ridiculously beautiful my horse is, I can’t even 😍

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