Outside the Box: This horse trainer and country music singer is living her childhood dream
Kimberly Burke has always had two passions: music and riding horses. “If you’d asked me at 3 years old, what did I want to do when I grew up? I would answer: ‘I want to be a singer and a cowgirl,’” she said. “It’s in my baby book.”
Burke, 49, who lives in Boyce, Virginia on a 62-acre farm with an 18-stall barn, is living her childhood dream jobs.
How many of us can say that?
On one hand, she is running her own successful equine business. She’s an accomplished trainer and show competitor at the A-level, or top echelon, of the hunter-jumper world in the southeastern U.S.
And on the other, she is kicking up a career in country music.
Burke had a taste of what performing in the razzle-dazzle heart of Nashville might be like prior to the pandemic when she and her son traveled to the Music City, and she took the stage to play an original song at the legendary Bluebird Cafe.
“All the history of that place,” she said. “It was cool. I’ve been performing for fun over the years in lots of different kinds of bands from a bluegrass band to a nine-piece funk band to by myself with an acoustic guitar. I’m comfortable on stage and playing, but all of a sudden it was the Bluebird, and my knees were knocking a little. You feel the power of the Bluebird. It was a big experience for me because I felt I’m supposed to be doing this.”
During the pandemic, she dipped back into writing and recording country music and performing outdoors at local venues in the Virginia countryside to a growing fan base.
“I’m not getting any younger, and I really want to pursue more of the music,” Burke said. “I’m in that process right now of trying to figure out how to balance both.”
Burke studied classical voice in college and sang opera. But after college, she landed a job on a horse farm and that led her down a different trail. “The horses were an easier career in many ways,” she said. “I started my own business 22 years ago. My son, now 18, rode, and he was able to come with me to the shows, so I could be the kind of mom that I wanted to be.”
Her love and respect for horses has clung to her since she took her first walk atop a horse as a toddler. “Horses are amazing animals,” Burke said. “There have been studies recently about a horse’s heart and the energy that emanates out of a horse is something humans feel that. That’s why they’re good therapy animals. There’s real magic of having a partnership with horses. Fortunately, I’ve been able to turn that into a profession.”
That said, the music has always been something that “I have regretted not pursuing on a bigger level,” she said. “It’s just a huge part of who I am. But horses are all consuming–a seven day a week commitment.”
For Burke, music has always been her “emotional release,” she said. “I’ve composed music since I was in my teens. I write when things are really affecting me emotionally. The great thing about songs is they are a frozen moment in time to me, and they might mean something else to the person listening. I think it’s therapy, too, like horses. And we have needed that in the past year or so.”
Here’s what I love about Burke’s story. Yes, she is still moving through the initial stages of ramping up her second act, but it’s noteworthy because she is reimagining her working life. That’s a concept that should supplant the focus on “The Great Resignation” that keeps making headlines.
Let’s call it “The Great Reimagination.” So much for all the hand-wringing over the unhappy workers leaving their jobs. In my research, workers tossed under the Great Resignation umbrella–some 4.4 million workers exited in September alone, according to the most recent report from The Bureau of Labor Statistics–are not saying take this job and shove it. They’re on a quest for a better life. It has nothing to do with “giving up” — one of the top meanings of the word “resignation”.
This is a career pivot for Burke. That’s precisely what many people who are leaving their jobs are also seeking. No, she isn’t stepping away from her equestrian career, which still has meaning for her, bur she is stepping in and up and forward with grit in a new track, a second act with purpose and heart that ideally will coexist with her horse world.
The pandemic pause spurred her to a new beginning, new opportunities, but those who succeed at second acts never make rash moves. This new venture didn’t happen overnight, or when the Covid shutdown began.
A return to her music roots had been stirring. Burke began re-exploring her songwriting in a professional way four years ago when her father died.
“It suddenly was important for me to do,” she said. “A sense of mortality kicked in. I’m sure a lot of people feel that kind of what’s your calling at times like that,” she said.
From my research of career transitions, she’s spot on. Most people who start a second act at midlife are driven by some kind of big life shift, or crisis, and it might be a health calamity of their own, or the loss of someone they love.
“That’s when I started to feel like it’s now, or never — I need to step this up,” Burke said. “Then Covid hit, and musicians weren’t playing, and I was like, OK, now might not be the time to try to play inside a lot of places. But I focused on writing music and practicing and, now I’m ready.”
To me, stories like Burke’s are spotlights on how the pandemic motivated people to do that inner soul searching about what matters to them, what they value, how they like to spend their time, and what dreams they want to realize. Those dreams were often set aside while kids were being raised and mortgages paid down, or the march of time simply trapped them in a lane they were afraid to depart.
A recent survey by Catalyst revealed that of the roughly 50% of employed Americans who intend to make career changes because of the COVID-19 pandemic, about a third are interested in changing industries. And 22% are planning to quit their current job and start their own business.
“I may be a little old to be a rock star,” Burke said. “But I’m not trying to be a rock star. I’m trying to be a singer-song writer. I like to perform.”
Right now, she is on the cusp of recording her second album, but Burke is fully aware that her music expedition is in the early days. That said, “if somebody came to me tomorrow and said, ‘Hey, we like what you’re doing, are you ready to make this happen? The answer would be, yes. I have enough of a support system as far as my family is concerned that we’ll make it work.”
One benefit of chasing her second dream job: “I thought a lot about this in the past year,” Burke said. “It sets an example for my son to be true to yourself and to pursue anything that you have passion for. The most important job I will ever have is being his mother. And so, it’s important to practice what you preach.”
Kerry Hannon is a jobs expert, workplace futurist and strategist on entrepreneurship, personal finance, and retirement. Kerry is the author of more than a dozen books, including Great Pajama Jobs: Your Complete Guide to Working From Home, Never Too Old To Get Rich: The Entrepreneurs Guide To Starting a Business Mid-Life. Her forthcoming book is In Control at 50+: How to Succeed in The New World of Work. Follow her on Twitter @kerryhannon.