We sat down with Sarah Hickner to talk about her book Stories from the Barn Aisle. Born and raised in Mississippi, she followed her dreams to gallop racehorses in Kentucky during college. Now she lives in Virginia with her husband, two kids, a dog and her horse, but Sarah says she’ll always be a Mississippi girl at heart.
How long have you been a writer? What inspired you to write your first book?
Honestly, I had thought writing was a new thing for me. I had a blog about 10 years ago that only lasted a few months, and then about a year ago I picked it back up, wrote Stories from the Barn Aisle, and started freelancing for some magazines and web sites.
But when my book released, my mom said my first grade teacher remembered me claiming I wanted to write a book one day. That’s not a memory I retained, but when I went home to visit family, I found things I wrote in high school and college.
I realized I’ve always been a writer, on some level.
I just never thought it was something I would pursue, because I couldn’t mesh the idea of being a writer with a career in horses.
What drew you to write an equestrian-themed memoir?
The book idea initially started because I had this insane experience in college where I was following my dream of galloping racehorses on the track—and had a bad crash. Then, just a couple weeks later, my personal horse was stolen.
Even though the entire ordeal was over in about a month, it shaped the person I became from that point on.
Anytime I told people about it they would say, “You should write a book!” and I was like, yeah yeah, I don’t have time for that—I’m not a writer. But one day in church, I really felt like God was calling me to write this book. I could only ignore the call for so long before I started that blog 10 years ago, LiveRideLearn.com, which was the beginning of the book.
Then we had kids, and life just got crazy. Last year, before the pandemic even began, I declared it was the year I would follow through with the things I had been talking about for years. First on the list was the memoir.
However, just so readers know, my book Stories from the Barn Aisle is a collection of five short stories from some of my horse experiences. It’s the lead-up to the memoir, and it was something I decided to do for practice for writing and publishing a book. The feedback has been so good that I’m planning to turn it into a little series!
But, first, I’m finishing this memoir. Ha!
How did you get involved with horses in the first place?
Sheer determination! The full story is actually the first of 5 stories in my book, but the quick answer is I was born completely obsessed with horses. My mom has a picture of me before I could even talk pointing at horses. I remember watching westerns in preschool just to see the ponies.
Eventually with the help of my great aunt, I started riding.
What drew you to trying out so many different disciplines? Do you have a favorite?
The first barn I rode at was a barrel racing barn. I didn’t seek out a particular discipline—I just wanted to ride anything with four legs that neighed. I LOVED barrel racing, but we had a fallout with the trainer and I was looking for a new farm to ride at.
Jumping had always looked so fun, so after a few English lessons I moved my barrel horse to the hunter jumper barn.
I took lessons and showed in a hand-me-down English saddle whenever I had the cash.
I was an avid reader and had always dreamed of galloping racehorses like the characters of my favorite books. So when I started looking at colleges, I thought if I go to school in Kentucky (the only place racetracks existed in my mind), I could gallop and go to school.
It took more time than I expected, but I finally transferred to the University of Louisville and started galloping in my junior year.
A few weeks into the semester a girl stood in front of the Equine 101 class and told us she was starting the University of Louisville polo club. If we were interested we should put our names on a sheet she was passing around.
Polo sounded cool, and I figured I’d never have another chance to try it, so I put my name down.
It’s been 15 years since I graduated, and I think I’m still mentally recovering from how busy those two years in Louisville were galloping before school, taking a huge load of classes, keeping my grades up, playing polo, and grooming for some of the local club members—all while riding and training my own horses.
I love adventuring and challenging myself, so I’ve even tried my hand at eventing, team penning, and then at small shows I’ve done all the western classes.
If I had to pick a favorite, it would definitely be polo, although it’s the one that seems the least accessible to me as an adult with a small horse budget. They don’t call it the sport of kings for nothing!
I loved the contact aspect of it. What bothered me most with barrel racing was all the training, money, and waiting at shows for a 16-second run. I went to a barrel race in Kentucky where we didn’t run until 4am. By that point, we were crap. I was exhausted and frustrated with all that waiting for just a few seconds in the ring.
So when polo chuckers lasted 7 minutes, and I usually played all four of them, I could hardly believe it. I’m also the kind of person who is a robot for the first minute or two of play before I loosen up and get in the zone. I was like that for team sports in high school, and it often carries into my riding.
Polo gives me time to work through that first minute or two of nerves—and still have plenty of time to play and have fun.
Jumping is what I chose to pursue after college. Again, all that work and at least I get a few minutes in the ring if I do a three class division. I love the challenge of getting my horse over obstacles and the feel of a perfectly timed big jump. It’s so exhilarating and pushes me out of my comfort zone. It is also extremely prevalent in the area I live in Virginia, so I knew if I wanted to make a living from horses, hunter/jumpers would be a smart direction.
My OTTB was just retired from jumping, so this fall we’re going to try our hand at foxhunting. We’ve done it a couple times, but this year we’re going to try to make it our thing.
I’m sure there will be lots of adrenaline fueled hilarious stories from that to write about in future blog posts and books!
What are the greatest lessons you feel horses have taught you?
Gosh, horses have taught me almost every lesson I’ve learned!
I even started a podcast to talk about the lessons called LiveRideLearn. I think the one that has shocked me the most is that it’s helped me be a better mom. It took me a while, but I had to learn that when a horse is naughty, discipline fairly, then release the negative emotion.
The event has happened, there were repercussions, now move on positively expecting the best. In a nutshell, it’s forgiveness and positive expectancy.
I do a lot of personal development work in my sales career, and I love how there’s so much crossover. Another thing I learned is the importance of saying exactly what you want. Since college I’ve mostly ridden Thoroughbreds off the track. Some of those can get really racy at the trot and I remember being at my wits end so frustrated, basically begging them with my hands, seat, anything and everything to SLOW DOWN!
Then I learned that I couldn’t give some vague wish to the horse. “Slow down” could mean slow for just a second, walk, stop, sit trot, just a shade of slowing down that I can’t even feel. Instead, I need to give a clear command: “Trot at this speed.”
Even though my hands and seat are doing basically the same thing, my energy is different and they respond better.
And on top of that, sometimes horses get worked up over things. We all need to take a deep breathe and redirect—like how you redirect a toddler. Focus on something different, like transitions, or lateral movement, instead of simply trotting. Giving them something more complex to work on takes their mind off what made them into a frenzy.
All of that has transferred into motherhood—interacting with my kids—and also self coaching myself. How often do we get worked up over something that we can’t control? Whether it’s someone else’s actions, or something crazy like a worldwide pandemic.
When I have the presence of mind to do it, I take a deep breathe, and focus on something I can control. Maybe I can’t change the worldwide pandemic, but I can make the best of it by visiting my horse, or writing a chapter in my next book, or maybe by cooking my family a great meal or sitting with the kids to be fully present with them.
We love this line describing your book: “It turns out that horses cause a lot of trouble.” How do you feel that these misadventures have shaped your life outside of the saddle?
Horses have also taught me perseverance. I didn’t grow up with a big horse budget, and now that I’m an adult, it’s still pretty limited. I’ve learned that if I really want something, I’ve got to pursue it and be absolutely determined to make it happen.
Being wishy washy means I’ll end up folding laundry at the house and not out adventuring with my horse! That perseverance has helped me in my sales career and in parenting.
On the flip side, I’ve also had to learn to be content at times. It doesn’t matter how determined I am, if my horse’s back is hurting, we’re not going to the show or doing the jumping clinic. I’ve learned to appreciate a trail ride, when in the past trail rides felt like a long and boring waste of time.
It was a steep learning curve for that one, but it’s made me love my entire life more. We just got back from vacation, and to be honest, I’m so content with my life that I don’t have that driving need to leave town. In fact, I couldn’t wait to get back home.
What would you tell someone who wants to start their journey with horses, but feels held back by their circumstances (financial or otherwise)?
If you want it badly enough, just do it. For most people, horses are really inconvenient. (I think most dreams are!) If it wasn’t inconvenient, it would already be your reality—not your dream. If budget is holding you back, offer to work for lessons.
The first four barns may turn you down, but eventually you’ll find someone who recognizes that hunger for horses and remembers what it was like. They’ll give you a chance.
We all started out clueless around horses, so don’t be ashamed of that.
If you’re willing to learn, seasoned horsemen and women will love it. My first hunter/jumper trainer love/hated me. I made her almost no money, but she saw my hunger and gave me an old lesson saddle and occasionally would pop in the ring and give me a lesson. She saw the hours I logged at the barn and my willingness to grab a pitchfork. There’s something in the depth of a horse-hungry person that responds to another.
If it’s fear that holds you back, just think—what if you lost your health tomorrow and no longer can ride, and you missed that chance? Change the what if’s that hold you back—What if I get hurt? What if he bites me? What if I fall?—into what if’s that drive you forward.
What if riding is everything my heart needs right now? What if this is the piece I’ve been missing?
One of my good friends took lessons in junior high and has trail ridden with me once a year for years. Last year, I could see she needed something for herself. She came out for her yearly trail ride, and a couple weeks later, I gave her a riding lesson for her birthday gift.
I was really strategic—I knew if I could get her to the barn a few times back to back, she would become a barn rat with me. It worked! She sends me texts now saying sometimes she can’t sleep she’s so excited about coming to the barn the next day!
Right now my horse is dealing with some health issues and she’s been sending me texts with solutions to help him while she’s supposed to be working. At 40 years old, she’s a giddy horse loving girl. I literally tear up thinking about it.
It’s more than money or an animal—horses are a part of our soul.
Dive in, give it a shot, and if you hate it, you can always stop. But please don’t avoid horses for fear or cost. Do what it takes to get some horses in your life, and maybe you’ll be like my friend—so full of joy and excitement that you can’t sleep!
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