If you struggle to balance your work life with time at the barn, Helen Voss understands. As the sales and marketing manager and national accounts coordinator for Horseshoe Greetings, she keeps a busy daily schedule. But she’s serious about her riding, too, and like many working amateur equestrians she has had to do some careful planning to make horses a priority in her schedule.
Based in Kentucky, Voss trains at Ashland Farms and is in her third year competing at USEF competitions in the 3’3” amateur owner and adult hunter divisions. She currently owns three horses: Cantina, the nine-year-old Trakehner gelding she calls “my heart horse, me in horse form”; Nashville, a four-year-old Dutch warmblood she bought in March 2021; and her 30-year-old retiree, Brussels, a Belgian warmblood.
With two horses in active training, Voss acknowledged that a flexible work environment is key to balancing her career with her sporting life and noted that she was privileged to be able to change jobs to work for Horseshoe Greetings, her family’s company. But she still has to plan carefully to meet the challenges of fitting horse hours into her work week. We sat down with her to find out how she made the transition back to riding and to get her tips for striking a balance that allows her to succeed in her career and in the show ring.
This is such a common problem for amateur equestrians. A lot of overstretched workers with horses must wonder sometimes, “Is it really possible to balance your work and horse lives?”
It definitely takes some getting used to! For me, it was a little bumpy at first trying to figure out how I could work a full time job but also leave during the day to go ride and get some practice time in, then compete on the weekends. It was a struggle at first. I had to learn how to have a clear mindset and realize that it was going to take some time, dedication, and focus and some extreme planning ahead to make sure I had everything squared away for my work week and for my plan with the horses that week.
It is a balancing act. You don’t want to be distracted thinking about the horses while you’re in the office, but when you’re riding or showing, you also don’t want to be thinking, “Oh, I didn’t get this thing finished at work this week.”
It takes a lot of clear communication with my barn, with my family, and also with my office. I had to work with them to set realistic expectations about how I would be able to spend time riding while also finishing up all my tasks and making sure everything was taken care of when I left the office.
It’s hard, because you don’t want to feel bad that you’re leaving one part of your life to take care of another part, but it’s important to be able to know that when you’re focusing on something, that’s what you’re going to give your attention to.
I wouldn’t be able to ride and compete without my job, so I have to make them work together. I’m lucky that the job I have gives me the flexibility to compete and ride when I can, but it’s also on me to be realistic that I don’t get to spend six hours a day at the barn, have five horses to ride, or show every single weekend.
It was important to start by being very realistic with my goals with myself first, so I’m not letting myself down or letting anyone else involved in this process down.
How important is it to have a flexible schedule when you’re trying to make this balance work?
In my case, I believe I truly would not be able to do what I do without the flexible schedule. I know it’s such a privilege to be able to come in an hour later in the morning or leave an hour earlier in the evening to go ride. So many people don’t have that flexibility. But for me my favorite part of riding and the key to my success in the show ring is having that relationship and partnership with a horse. If I’m not able to go out and ride and practice, to spend time with them and bond, then there’s no connection there—and that would really take the joy out of it.
I really wouldn’t want to just show up on a weekend, hop on and ride, then leave and not see them again until the next competition. My favorite part is going out to the barn, grooming the horses, feeding them treats and hearing them nicker when I walk in the barn and say their names. That, for me, is the part of the sport that I love so much, and I don’t think you find anything like that in any other sport.
I can do a lot of my job remotely from my laptop, and that has been very nice, especially during COVID. My previous jobs were the standard 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. sitting at a desk. I wasn’t able to leave, so that’s why riding was out of the picture for a few years. But when COVID hit and I took this role at the family business, it was a lot of remote work. There was a lot that I could do in big chunks of time but then have those free hours to go ride and practice and get back into the sport.
It was such an odd time to have it come back into my life during the pandemic, and I did go through a period of guilt at a time when there has been so much suffering and people have lost so much. I would think, “Do I really have to ride?” but at the same time it did help me so much during such an uncertain time in the world.
Did you find that that flexibility also helped your work life?
You know, it really has. I graduated from college in the spring of 2019, so I really only worked in the professional world for about a year until COVID hit, but even in just that year I was getting so burned out. I had two very serious, very high-stress jobs back to back in the National Football League, and it just took such a toll, mentally, emotionally, and physically. It was just such a different lifestyle and work style.
Transitioning into my current role and getting to work remotely honestly made me enjoy work again. It made me really get passionate about what I was doing. And it was so eye-opening to see that I can do something that I love, and I can be productive, and I can make a difference in this company—and I don’t have be sitting at a desk in a cubicle for eight or nine hours a day to do it. A flexible schedule gives me creative freedom and the trust from my co-workers and managers that I’m able to get things done. It really just made me more confident that I could do all these things without having someone constantly watch over me or having such a routine blocking off so much of my schedule.
So having flexibility in my work life has really rejuvenated me and my excitement for my work in such a short amount of time. It’s been a great positive.
It all works together and gets back to my point about having a clear mindset. When I first started riding again while working back in the summer of 2020, I’d come to the barn and, if I’d had a rough day at the office, I’d be riding stiff as a board. My trainer would be like, “You have to breathe! Lower your hands, relax your shoulders. You’ve got to let it go.” That’s really resonated with me. Now, when I’m at the barn, no matter what happened at the office that day or what deadline I have coming up, I’m there to focus on the horses. I’m there to enjoy myself. And when I’m at the office, I know if I don’t get things done at the office, I might not get to go ride that day. So I focus on that. Once I was able to get that mindset of focusing on the task in front of me—whether that’s riding at a horse show or working on a project at my desk—that really helped me de-stress.
What are some of your top tips for helping others achieve this healthful balance between work and horses?
It took me a while to realize that when I was working my job and I had given up riding, I wasn’t really happy. So I sat down and had this conversation with myself and with my family: "I really miss the horses and the riding. I miss having that in my life." When riding came back into my life, there was such a shift in my attitude and my mental health and behavior. It was such a blessing have that back in my life.
I think it is important to have that conversation with yourself and your family and evaluate whether you want to have horses your life and how important it is to you to try to make it work. It’s also important to ask whether you’re able to make it work. Be realistic. I know I’ll never have the luxury of not having a job and being able to be at the barn all day, so I just have make it work.
Set realistic goals for yourself. My goal is not to go out and win every single class or to win every possible championship. My goal is to go out there and do the best I can but have fun. My goal is to make it a relaxing and enjoyable experience that is about me and the horse, not about me and the ribbon or me and the results.
For me, being an amateur is much different from being a junior. As a junior, you can have the stress of all the national finals and of qualifying as a junior, whereas being an amateur really is a breath of fresh air. It’s a more laid-back experience, whether you’re competing or you have horse that you ride when you can. Competing as an amateur and being part of the equestrian community is the most fun I’ve had in years.
If you can be up front and have an open conversation with your workplace, that also helps. I was so nervous to ask my manager about being able to leave. I was so afraid of it being shot down. But once I brought to their attention that I knew I could get all my work done in this amount of time and asked them if I could try this with my schedule and maybe work remote, they were very open to it. That caught me by surprise, and I wish now that I had done it sooner. You never know unless you ask, and the worst they can say is no. If you’re comfortable and able to, having that conversation with your work can be helpful.
Another thing that helped me was also having an open conversation with my boyfriend, too, about how important riding is to me. I wanted his support and didn’t want him to think this was just a quick hobby or some phase that’ll wear out. I wanted him to understand that this is a big passion in my life and truly makes me very happy. Once he understood that and saw it, he said, “All I want is for you to be happy, and if this is what makes you happy I’ll do whatever you’d like me to do and be as supportive as I can.”
I was determined to make this work and have horses back in my life, and I’m such a different person when I have horses in my life.
It was a challenge and an adjustment those first few months, but I’m so glad I made that commitment to prioritize both my work and my horses. I’ve benefitted, my horses have benefitted, and my job has benefitted. It’s been great all the way around.