Horse manure provided me with a shovel full of lessons! I turned 51 with a poop shovel in hand. Not exactly the middle age I had anticipated.
We bought a Spotted Saddle Horse named Jim and visited him daily at our boarding stable. I had long dreamt of owning a horse and welcomed the opportunity to be involved in Jim’s care. Jenni spent hours riding and training Jim, while I helped brush, bathe, and saddle him.
Of course, caring for a horse includes mucking out his stall. Translation: shoveling horse manure — hard, but necessary, work. “Good boy! Here’s your carrot,” Jenni would say as she hugged Jim at the end of each visit, while I eased my sore back into the car for the drive home.
We tended to Jim every day, rain or shine. It was a huge commitment, but my daughter’s confidence and passion for animals was growing.
Our boarding facility was the farm where Jenni’s riding instructor, Rebekah, lived. And when Rebekah decided to move, we opted to move also. Since the new location didn’t yet have fencing, we needed a place for the horse until fences were erected. Some acquaintances of Rebekah’s offered the use of their farm for free. But there was a catch.
The farm’s owner didn’t believe in dragging his fields. Hores manure attracted flies, he said, so he wanted it removed from his property as a condition for free boarding. I had cleaned up after Jim enough that I didn’t think this would be a problem.
Rebekah had three horses and one of Rebekah’s friends had three horses. Counting Jim, that made seven horses on a five-acre tract. Do you know how much poop seven horses produce in one day?
This should not have been a big deal with several owners to do the work, but the other women worked year-round jobs, while I only worked during tax season. We were, unfortunately, in the middle of September. I delved into the cleanup while the others were at work and school. And having obsessive-compulsive tendencies, I couldn’t stop with a reasonable amount of work. And I should have seen that I was disturbing boundaries I’d established for self-care and the care of my family, but I didn’t.
My urgency wouldn’t subside until I had cleaned the entire pasture. This was my daily routine—place muck bucket on rolling cart; line bucket with plastic bag; pull bucket from one pile to another; shovel poop into bucket; drag bucket back to barn; tie bag; lift bag out of bucket (and develop a hernia in the process).
If the bags were the least bit too full, they’d break, sending horse apples in all directions, requiring me to re-shovel previously shoveled poop. Bend, scoop, lift. Bend, scoop, lift. Three or four hours of this felt like the lower-back workout from hell.
Digging in Deeper
After the first week, the other horse owners learned they could stop by the stable after work without the need to shovel a single nugget of horse manure.
“Karen, thanks for clearing the field again. I fed my horses and rode a while, but never would have had time to clean before dark.”
“You’re a gem, Karen!”
I would hear similar words nightly in phone calls from the two women.
This stuff has to be shoveled every single day, I remember thinking. I can still feel the wave of anxiety that clenched my stomach and rendered me incapable of actually saying something. I knew the other women enjoyed taking a ride after a hard day at work. But I wasn’t sure they understood how much work I was doing.
The other ladies’ expressions of gratitude made me feel good, though. And after the many words of thanks, I couldn’t stop my shoveling, no matter how much my lower back hurt.
You may wonder where Jenni was in all of this. She shoveled a number of piles when she went to train and feed Jim every day after school. Her focus was on working with her horse, however, which is what I wanted.
“Why are you doing this, Mom?” she asked many mornings before school, when my worn-out jeans and dirty boots gave the clear signal I was on my way, yet again, to the farm.
I worried the owners of the farm would ask us to leave if their field wasn’t clean, so I continued my morning routine—for three long months.
Why did I nearly slip a disc? Because I couldn’t live with myself if I didn’t do the things I said I’d do. I agreed to keep the field clean. Period. Also, maybe I thought my fellow horse owners would like me more the more I did for them. It’s true that after a few weeks, I had nearly achieved sainthood based on their expressions of love.
Years later, I continue my battle with OCD and a sore lower back. But I did learn some things from this experience. First, I have an intelligent daughter who knows how to set boundaries; I should follow her example. Secondly, I need to not obsess over things. Finally, horse manure is heavy, and shoveling it can make your back hurt for years to come.
And here’s another truth I discovered: if it takes shoveling horse manure for people to like you, you might be better off living as a hermit. Since I also do cross-stitch using wise sayings, maybe I should cross-stitch that bit of wisdom and hang it as a reminder on my wall.
Karen Curran is a horse lover from Tennessee.