2021 marks my 7th consecutive year of going to Aiken, SC, for the winter. I've spent three other winters here as well during different working student positions. I will start by saying that it is a huge privilege to escape the cold winter months with your horse in tow. On the flip side, it is a logistical nightmare, and the mere thought of it haunts me for at least the whole month before the departure date.
Every year I think it's going to get easier, that I have solved the puzzle, and now I know exactly how to make things more efficient and less stressful. Spoiler alert, this is an elusive dream that unfortunately never comes to fruition. With years of practice, I can safely say that there is a range of emotional stages that are inescapable throughout the process of getting to your winter location. I am also confident that knowledge is power, and if you go into it, knowing what lies ahead, you will be prepared and feel supported in knowing that you are not alone in this experience.
For the lucky bunch who heads south for the winter months, you have either made the great migration or will be doing it in the near future. For those of you who have to endure the cold winter weather, I'm sorry, but maybe someday you will be able to head south, in which case you will be mentally prepared! The seven stages listed below are here to shed light and hopefully a bit of humor on the roller coaster of emotions that comes with moving yourself and horses to a warmer climate.
Stage 1: Excitement
Let me paint you a picture. The fall competition season is over, your horses have had some downtime, you start bringing them back into work, you're having fun because the pressure is off with your next show being what seems like forever away, life is good. Then one day, you wake up to go to the barn, step outside, and are immediately hit with a bone-chilling cold that cuts right to your core. You give yourself a quick pep talk as a reminder that you are resilient, add more layers, and head to the barn. Once there, you question your life choices, like why didn't I get a "real" job in an office with climate control?! Then you remember only X (fill in your number) days before I leave this frozen tundra. You are excited; embrace it because it's going to be a long ride!
Stage 2: Overwhelm
After the excitement starts to wear off and reality kicks in, you suddenly realize what a logistical nightmare it is to move a whole barn to a new location. The endless list of questions that run through your mind is so incredibly draining that you don't even know how to begin answering them. How are all of the horses going to get there? Where are all of their two-legged caregivers going to stay? Should we buy hay up north and ship it south in the hopes of saving money? How many tack trunks and storage boxes are we going to need to get everything down, and do we have room for them in the trailer? What about my stuff? I have needs too!
Stage 3: Calm Before the Storm
You're feeling better because you have answered most if not all of the previously daunting questions. You have packed what you can. There's a plan of how everything else will be organized and loaded the night before. There's really not that much left to do. You can take a breath because you've got this under control. How silly to have been so worked up before. Everything is going to be okay!
Stage 4: Anxiety to the Extreme
A sudden change in plans shatters your formerly tranquil state. Examples include another horse and/or person becoming a last-minute addition, an unexpected truck or trailer issue, bad weather forecasted for your departure date, tension between people in the barn about the southern living arrangements; the options are endless. Now, you need to reshape your plans to make it all work. Oh, and this usually occurs within 24 to 48 hours before you are about to leave. So good luck getting any quality sleep before your long drive. During all of this, you think, why am I even doing this? Is it really worth all of the hassle? For a split second, you think you know what it's not, and I am canceling this whole endeavor. I'm metaphorically turning this car around. Is everybody happy now?!
Stage 5: Relief
Cut to the morning of the great migration. This usually starts at some ungodly hour, like 2 or 3 am in order to get to your final destination in time to get the horses settled in before dinner. All of the anxiety you felt only hours before slowly melts away after the horses are loaded, and you are on the road. It's the same feeling you get at a show where the build-up to the actual event with all of the planning, overthinking, and unease about the unknown outcome can be almost crippling. But then you get on your horse, and a sense of calm takes over. Now all that's left to do is what you've been training for this whole time. It's your time to shine!
Stage 6: Exhaustion
You have arrived! Hopefully, it's been an uneventful trip, and the passengers all traveled well. Now the fun begins. Prepare the stalls, unload the horses, figure out how to undo the Tetris matrix that is your tack room, put things in the general vicinity of where you will want them in the barn, do another check on the horses, maybe turn them out, etc. By the way, you've been up since well before the crack of dawn, probably had less than ideal nutrition during your drive (I'm a sucker for Goldfish and Reese's Pieces on road trips), and have managed to stay at a high functioning level for days to get this marathon done. You have used up all of your reserves, and there's no more gas in the tank. Pat yourself on the back and get yourself into a horizontal position ASAP!
Stage 7: Gratitude
Before you pass the F out, you take a minute and think, I am so fortunate to be able to do this. How many people get to pick up and go south for the winter to train and compete for an elite sport? How lucky that I have a horse to make this trip worthwhile and people who support us to make this crazy life happen! How awesome that I get to do what I love every day! The thoughts keep washing over you until you contentedly slip into a much-deserved sleep. How wonderful life is!
Hindsight is always 20/20, and now that I am settled into my home away from home for the winter, I can look back at the emotional roller coaster I was on with a sense of fondness. However, at the time, all I wanted to do was get off the damn ride. For those of you who have experienced this, I commend your bravery. And for those of you who are about to buy your ticket, godspeed. Embracing all of the emotions, even the uncomfortable ones, leads to a more fulfilling life in the long run. So hang on and enjoy the ride!