Take A Break

Recently, I did something I rarely do – I took a vacation. Many times through my 20-plus-year career as a journalist, I’ve managed to take “working vacations,” where I kept working while visiting family in other states. One year, I went to Rillito Park, did a couple of interviews, took pictures and wrote an article while visiting my sister in Tucson, Arizona, during my Christmas “vacation.”

But last week was different. Last week, I took three days off work, boarded a plane and landed in another state with no work plans other than an occasional glance at my email to make sure a headline-grabbing story hadn’t hit the Western performance horse industry in my absence.

It wasn’t a long vacation – five days total, including the weekend –but it was an actual vacation. And I enjoyed every minute of it. On the plane ride home, I wondered why vacations were so elusive for myself, and so many people I know. To answer my questions, I did some research.

A 2008 study found that the United States ranks far below our European counterparts when it comes to paid vacation time and sick days. In “The Right To Vacation: An International Perspective,” published in the International Journal of Health Services, authors Rebecca Ray and John Schmitt found that: “The United States is the only advanced economy that does not guarantee its workers any paid vacation time and is one of only a few rich countries that do not require employers to offer at least some paid holidays. In the absence of a legal requirement for paid vacation and paid holidays, about one-fourth of the U.S. workforce has no paid vacation or paid holidays in the course of their work year. The sum of the average paid vacation and paid holidays – 15 in total – offered in the private sector in the United States would not meet even the minimum required by law in 19 other rich countries analyzed here.”

If you work in the agricultural industry, those statistics are probably even worse. Horses and cattle need to be fed and taken care of every day, not just when you feel like it. The daily responsibility of caring for animals is so great that we often use it as a way to teach children responsibility. How many of us were once horse-crazy girls, begging for a pony, or small boys pining for a puppy, only to be told it was a big responsibility and one we had to take seriously? And we did.

Unfortunately, all that responsibility we learn as kids growing up around horses can backfire on us as adults. Companies’ downsizing has made it harder and harder for employees to use the vacation days they do get, and technology has made it far too easy for our jobs to follow us on vacation. If you’re self-employed, as many in the equine industry are, a vacation is a luxury few can afford, as no work means no money to pay the bills.

Unless you have a solid system alreadyin place to care for your horses (and cattle and pets and ranch) in your absence, it can be a major undertaking to just find someone who can ranch sit for you, let alone the training it takes to get them to the point where you actually trust them with the care of your animals. So too many of us just don’t do it. We don’t take a vacation. And that’s not good.

Vacations are an important part of life, and they serve a scientifically proven purpose in keeping us healthy. Research has shown that men who vacation regularly are 32 percent less likely to die from a heart attack; that figure jumps to 50 percent for women. One website, takebackyourtime.org, cites several benefits of vacations, including making you happier. The website states: “Neuroscientists have found that brain structure can actually be altered by chronic exposure to stress hormones contributing to depression and anxiety. Research shows that women who do not take regular vacations were three times more likely to be depressed and anxious.” Other benefits of vacations include relieving stress, helping maintain focus, helping prevent illness, strengthening relationships, increasing work productivity (your boss will like that), improving sleep quality and keeping you thinner.

If you don’t vacation, you run the risk of job burnout, chronic stress – which can cause all sorts of health and mental problems – depression, anxiety and an overall feeling of being unsatisfied with life in general. Who wants that?

Did you know the same thing can be said of your horse?

My first horse was a typical show horse – stalled 24/7 with limited turnout. We rode several times a week, either in a lesson or on our own, working on what we had learned in the lesson. Cross-training – originally developed by athletes to reduce the risk of injury– was not yet a mainstream concept in the horse world. Now we know cross-training can keep a horse mentally sharp and focused on the job at hand by stimulating his brain with novel activities.

I can’t imagine the level of boredom poor “Andy” must have faced daily. At shows, he learned to anticipate cues from me and from the announcer. When he did get to enjoy a turnout in one of the larger paddocks, he was nearly impossible to catch. I imagine he enjoyed the freedom so much he just wasn’t ready to go back in yet. And who can blame him?

The summer before my senior year in high school, my parents bought a house with a small barn and pasture. We brought Andy home for the winter and turned him out to just be a horse. The next spring, when we hauled Andy back to the trainer and started preparing for show season, my trainer was stunned. “It’s a different horse,” she said. “What did you do?” My dad just smiled and said, “We let him be a horse.”

We gave him a vacation. That show season was our best ever, as both he and I benefitted from a winter break that renewed our interest in the show pen that spring. In the many years that have passed since, I’d forgotten the simple lesson I learned from my beloved old gelding – take a break. Put aside the excuses and find the time to take a vacation. And give your horse some time off, too. It’s good for the mind, body and soul, whether you’re a human or a horse.