June Story-share: Finding passion – Erin Harriott

Our June Story-Share event was themed, ‘Finding passion’. Our three speakers spoke about finding the thing that makes their heart beat faster, and turning that thing into a possible career. Below is a transcript of Erin Harriott’s talk. 

Erin Harriott is an established equestrian coach and competition rider, as well as a talented blogger. Erin rides at a highly competitive level in eventing, and has turned her passion for horses and riding into a varied and exciting career. You can read more about her adventures in eventing on her blog

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As the excitement of the invitation to speak tonight subsided and I had to actually prepare my speech it occurred to me I had to put into words what my heart and soul have always simply known – that equestrian, more specifically equestrian eventing, is my passion. For those of you who don’t know what eventing is, you’re missing out! It’s the elegance and artistic flow to ask your half-tonne teammate to dance with you in the dressage, it’s the ability to judge height, distance and timing with the accuracy of a sniper in the show jumping and as for cross country, it requires blind faith, a whole of lot courage and maybe a touch of stupidity because it’s the only sport that requires your medical information be worn on your arm. To sum eventing up, it’s making all three disciplines of dressage, show jumping and cross country go to plan on the same weekend, and when you account for the fact that my teammate is 500 kilos and has the mentality of a four-year-old child, what could possibly go wrong?

When my eight-year-old self asked, or more to the point, begged for riding lessons, I had no idea that it would be the beginning of the end to my social life, or that it would become an all-consuming, unrelenting but rewarding, lifelong passion.

I don’t remember what I felt my first time on a horse. I remember the facts: her name was Shamoo, she was chestnut, and it was a hot day in February 2000.

It was a gradual love affair that my parents thought I’d get over. When Dad finally caved and agreed to riding lessons his now famous last words were ‘You can have riding lessons but we’re never buying horse’. Shortly after he said those words, a position to junior staff opened at the local riding school. It was basically child slave labour softened by a free riding lesson. Assuming long days at a barn would turn me off horses Dad agreed. ‘Well you can junior staff but you’re not buying a horse’.

In 2005 after ending a lease with a horse due to a bad fall and inexperience coupled with stupidity, I think Mum and Dad believed my horsey phase had come to an end. But somehow my 13th birthday present was a dapple grey gelding, named Jai. Dad was overseas on work so I took Mum to the inspection with me, and before Dad had touched down deal was done. Dad’s words this time were ‘Fine, you can have the horse but we’re never buying a float’. I can’t blame poor Dad for trying to hold his ground but his words were becoming a bit of a joke and shortly after Jai, in similar circumstances where Dad was out of the country, a float appeared in our driveway.

I’m not sure if at this point Dad was just trying to keep face or if he genuinely believed his words but ‘Alright, one horse and a float, but we’re never buying a second horse’. And suddenly all the ‘nevers’ were most like prophecies, as the team of horses expanded, so did the float size, the equipment required and 16 years later it’s been a wild ride. I guess the real question is ‘Hey Dad, we can look at goosenecks, but we’re never buying a truck’.

I’m not sure if it was one of Dad’s many wise pieces of advice or if it’s a Pinterest quote, maybe it’s both but I’m fond of the advice that says, ‘Find three hobbies in life – one to make you money, one to keep you healthy and one to be creative’. I didn’t need three separate hobbies because eventing is the trifecta.

Turning your passion and your hobby into your career is not for the faint hearted. Many come to equestrian with a committed love for their horse, and yes loving your horse is an absolute necessity in my world but it simply isn’t enough. When I look at my idols, those who have turned their passion and love into their careers, they are resilient, strong minded, tenacious, brave people who refuse to quit.

To go from something you do on weekends for fun, to relying on it to make you a sustainable income to live off, is stressful, frustrating and often full of unforeseen roadblocks. Beyond that, you have to love not only the horses but everything that they demand of you, like daily stable muck outs, early mornings, late nights, weekends spent camping in a float at an event instead of at a friend’s party, wedding, or birthday. It’s appreciating the hand cramp from the 20th rosette you just braided into your horse’s mane because it means you made it to the event. It’s understanding the importance of sitting up past your bed time to clean and polish tack. And it’s loving the horse when things aren’t going to plan –  in case you’re wondering how to cause panic in an equestrian, I’ll tell you, two words, – vet bill.

If I had been asked to speak about life lessons taught from the saddle or the unique bond between a rider and their horse I could go on all night, but I’m here to talk about finding your passion, and if it’s possible to make your passion your career, or if it’s even a good idea to mix play with work.

Truthfully, I don’t know, because I’m still trying to make that distinction myself. Some days I really hate it, I’ve uttered those words in moments of disappointment, frustration, heart break. ‘I hate it, I don’t care and I’m over it’. If you intend to turn your passion into your career these are phrases you will become well acquainted with and your family will start to wonder why you’re putting yourself through it. Yet it was uttering, or shouting those words during a recent set back to my long term competition goals, where my dream was splintered moments from achievement, that I had to accept the hardest thing of all:

I don’t hate eventing. I love it, I do care, too much and more than I’ll ever admit, and I’ll never truly be over it, because it’s a deep seeded addiction.

As you walk along a shared path of passion and career, the love-hate argument is one you will endure repeatedly, but there are days when you will be reminded of all the reasons you love what you do. For me those moments come in the form of something as small as Declan neighing at me as my car pulls up, and I’m reminded that there is no love so devoted like that of an animal’s. And it’s also the bigger moments – it’s the high percentage dressage test because I’ve worked hard and endlessly to make improvements. I’m reminded to love it when the adrenaline is pumping through my veins crossing the finish line of a thrilling cross country run.

Having worked as a coach throughout my university degree I made a good living off my passion. Coaching equestrian was fun, I learnt to appreciate the diversity of my students and their horses but mostly it kept the horses’ feed bins full and new shoes on their hoofs.

Having campaign horses made for a bit of extra cash but I was also spending money on them. While living at home, studying full time and making money doing something that I not only love, but comes naturally to me, life was looking like I might be wasting my time studying for a criminology degree. Yet I’m now in my fifth month as a university graduate and the harsh and unpleasant reality has set in.

While the coaching was making a pretty penny during my uni days, it certainly isn’t about to make me a house deposit or convince a bank to give me a car loan, and I’m left wondering if it would just be easier to quit. Of course it would be easier – after all I wouldn’t be the first to think my love of horses would automatically give me the skill set to make that love a viable business, but that’s where people get it wrong. Horses may very well be your passion but love isn’t a business plan, and in a sport already mentally, emotionally and physically demanding, the transition from weekend rider to full time professional can be unforgiving for those not prepared to go the distance.

Some days I want to quit, I want to get in my car and drive as far and as fast away from the stable as humanly possible, but then I think, ‘I’ve come this far, I’m so close to getting what I want, what I’ve worked for and what I have sacrificed for’. As I’m on the verge of giving in, I remember the only difference between the elite I strive to be and the beginners I spend my weekends teaching, is the elite have failed more times than the beginners have even tried. So I remember my idols, their struggles to get to the top that when I put in comparison to mine, I have little to complain about. In my idols I see traits of resilience, fierce determination, and an unwavering ability to be patient. Not the ability to wait but the ability to stay positive while waiting, whether it’s for themselves or their noble steeds to recover from injury or waiting to find the horse that will set the path for success.

Currently my eventing coaching and riding makes me enough that I could consider myself a small business operator, but would be a fair stretch to say I’m secure from my coaching income. The quote I started with simply said a hobby to make you money, it never specified it had to be millions. Besides where the money is lacking the healthy lifestyle associated with eventing balances the poverty out. After all, some ignorantly narrow minded individual told me, ‘you’re not a real athlete, the horse does all the work’, to which I simply replied ‘Well, I’ve never seen a fat jockey…’

I guess you’re wondering how eventing complies with the final suggestion from the quote, a hobby to keep you creative. On the surface I have a blog where I write in often excruciating detail about the good, bad and the ugly of this sport that I chose to be addicted to.

Originally I didn’t think the blog would get much attention, but what I found is people are sick of hearing how the same old big name, wonagain. They want to know it’s not just them struggling to find the right way to communicate with their horse, they appreciate and sympathise knowing it’s not just them seeing the vet more frequently than they do their own family.

Beyond the blog, eventing challenges my creativity every day. And creatively budgeting my bank account is just the beginning. Most of you tonight have never taught a beginner group riding lesson, sp let me paint the picture for you: anywhere between four to seven small children morph into Snow White’s seven dwarfs. You have sleepy, grumpy, dopey, happy, bashful, at some point they’ll all make an appearance. Now navigate those seven kids around an arena on horses who if named by behaviour traits would be cranky, speedy, sloth, glue (relax, I’m kidding). While calling orders at these children in a dusty hot arena on how to keep a horse between them and the ground, I yet again find myself wondering, how on earth did this become my passion.

Well, when I asked a good friend for advice on how to explain to people my passion, because I’m aware it seems to have more unappealing traits than appealing, he promptly reminded me ‘What do you mean you don’t know what to say, you are eventing!’.

And I realised that it doesn’t matter what your passion is it should consume you. So as I question in the pouring rain my desire to compete this weekend, I remember why this sport consumes me. I compete in the only sport that has men and women equally valued, where Olympians camp next to amateurs, where team work and communication is taken to an extreme level, and where people who have never met before can be united around a camp fire through a single common denominator – their passion for horses, but more deeply, eventing.

So if it’s your passion, don’t give up on it, not even when it’s hard, or when your bank account begs you too. Don’t accept excuses, especially not the one I hear constantly – you’re not too busy it’s simply a matter of priority, your passion is a priority. And if can offer any advice tonight it’s that when it comes to your passion, never say never.

Image: Photographer: Michael Jackson-Rand company: And Then Imagery

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