What is it like to be a working student with a chronic illness?

For the past 3 months, I was a working student, working for Cressbrook Stables in the middle of Alabama. It was the best and, yet the most challenging experience I ever had. I left Massachusetts at the end of June and planned to stay there for 6 months, returning after HITS Ocala. Obviously, that didn’t work out.

Being a working student may seem like a dream job for an equestrian looking to make a career. The opportunity to be around horses 24/7, on the road competing at some of the tops shows in the country. Don’t get me wrong. It’s amazing opportunity, but it’s a lot of hard work for anyone, whether one has a disability or is abled bodied

Photo credit: Sportfot

On days we weren’t showing, I would start out by bringing the horses in for the day, give them grain and hay as well as make up their dinner. Due the hot temperatures and high humidity in the summer, horses were turned out at night. We would then clean the stalls and automatic waterers. Depending who needed to be worked, I could ride up to 3 or 4 horses a day. But typically it was more like 1 or 2. Usually we’d give them their afternoon hay around 12 or 1. Around that time I would also look around to see what else needed to be done like clean tack, sweep, etc. At 5 we give the horses dinner, then turn them out for the night and make up their breakfast for the next day. This is what a typical day would look like when autoimmune flareups were minimal. I take a lot of medication (as in an upwards of 40 pills per day) in order to manage my symptoms. At the moment, there isn’t a treatment out there that has been able to provide long-term remission or a cure. Therefore, its extremely important that I take my medication regularly, get enough sleep, and eat healthy. Those become luxuries as a working student, and yet are essential to be able to produce quality work.

Reliability and consistency are key ingredients to being a working student. And yet those are the two things that are the most unpredictable with a chronic illness. Often with chronic illnesses, we are seen as lazy or unmotivated when in reality we are just as hardworking as everyone else, if not more so due to determination to not letting a disability get in the way of living our lives. That being said, I do not recommend being a working student with an active chronic illness. If you do decide you want to be a working student, it’s important you make sure whomever you work for knows about your health issues, and most importantly understands the unpredictable nature of chronic illness. The reality is, a working student position is likely not realistic as most trainers rely on consistency from the people they hire, which is often out of their control. This can put equestrians without unlimited funds in a tough position, as being a working student is often the only way to have access to quality horses and trainers that will help the rider progress. US Equestrian needs to make this sport more accessible to those with disabilities who otherwise wouldn’t have the funds to compete in this sport

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