Anyone who has ever participated in a sport, especially competitively, knows that there’s always pressure that goes along with it.
In order to be successful and win, you have to be disciplined, focused and able to deal with the various pressures from coaches, teams and the competition itself. The horse world is no different.
We experience pressure from our coaches to improve, win, and “up” our game. We experience pressure from our peers or family and friends, especially if they are helping to pay for our athletic hobby or profession.
Even at an amateur level, equestrian sports are highly competitive, and require a tremendous amount of dedication. We feel the pressure to look better than our peers, ride better, have nicer horses, win more ribbons. We even pressure ourselves to ride with the best coaches, go to clinics, and to uphold a certain prestige that we equestrians project to the outside world.
When you become an equestrian professional, the pressures mount. You now have pressures from all sides: your clients, students, peers, coaches, officials, investor owners and sponsors. You are a public face, someone with a reputation to uphold and now you must impress and succeed and WIN to keep this reputation alive.
This is really no different from any other professional sport, but athletes face a unique set of pressures to perform and succeed unlike any other type of occupation. It is these pressures that drove my love, my passion into a dark tunnel that almost made me turn my back on riding altogether.
I wrote an article back in November about depression in the equine industry and other agricultural groups; specifically about networks of support and how we as riders need to raise each other up and be honest about the difficulties we face. A colleague in the industry wrote me a heartfelt thank you for writing the article and from then on I decided that no matter what type of vitriol I faced by writing these articles, I am willing to be vulnerable and expose these topics, even if they only reach one person in need.
While some individuals seem perfectly equipped to handle the stressors and pressure within the horse industry, I am clearly not one of them and there is no shame in that. I beat myself up for a very long time: why wasn’t I like the others who could manage the stress, why would I choke up and have anxiety all the time, especially when interacting with my clients?
I was told by my coaches to “suck it up”, that the industry was tough and I just needed to be tougher. The answer to my anxiety was always to push through it, that if I wanted to succeed at a high level, I needed to gain control of my emotions and hone my mind to become more disciplined.
Succeeding at a high level and having my own training facility was my life-long dream, so of course I would do whatever it took to get there. I read self-help books, did yoga, and even went to therapy with a high-performance sports psychologist to help me get over my performance anxiety.
I kept pushing myself outside of my comfort zone, believing that just a “little bit more” was all it would take for me to get where I needed to be. I was willing to martyr myself, to suffer emotionally and physically if it would get me to my goals. I viewed myself as flawed and weak, that I needed to develop a thick skin and more mental discipline, in order to succeed.
The dark downside
But eventually, I realized that I was wrong.
No amount of therapy or pushing me outside my comfort zone was going to make me a better professional, a better athlete. I was torturing myself by believing that if I suffered just a bit more, I would have a miracle breakthrough and just “get it”.
And believe it or not, I did succeed to a surprising level. I rode in Europe, I rode for multiple Olympians, I started my own training program and had years of success in sales, coaching and showing. But my mental and emotional health struggled along with my growing success.
My performance anxiety grew slightly better with more experience, that is true. But the thought of having to perform and win for others made me anxious and sick. I had to meditate and read self-help books the night before a class to be able to even get myself to the ring. The slightest failure or harsh word from a coach was enough to send me into a spiral of self-deprecation that would last for days and just spur me to sacrifice more and more, in order to become “better.”
In later days, just keeping up with the work load of all of the young horses I had to train and ride, the coaching, and the sacrifices, caused me to wake up every morning with anxious thoughts and I was constantly going through unhealthy bouts of burnout.
It took a long time for me to realize that I was not only becoming unhealthy, my relationship and love of horses was suffering too. I dreaded going to the barn. Even when I bought my dream horse, I lost the desire to ride for the joy of it. Everything became mechanical and a chore.
I wish I could say that my realization about the state of my unhappiness came suddenly, but it took a lot longer than it should have and I suffered a great deal in the process. Losing something you love that much is heart-wrenching, but the thought of losing my love of horses trumped all of that.
Once I realized what I needed to do, it was difficult but I can happily say that my relationship with horses is gradually getting better and better all of the time.
I took away a lot of the pressure on myself. I downsized my business, took fewer clients, and only rode and showed when it was comfortable for me. I work with clients who understand my goals and limits and who support me whole-heartedly. My heart and head feel lighter now and I feel that old joy again when I go to ride. No external pressure, no dark taint on my passion.
I’m not writing this to discourage people from going into the horse industry. There are plenty of thriving professionals who love the pressure and will happily do this for the rest of their lives. I am actually passionate about encouraging youngsters to go into the industry, especially if they feel like they aren’t “good enough” because I can attest to a successful underdog story.
For the rest, please don’t beat yourselves up. Pressure is only good in healthy doses and only if it motivates you in a positive way. Sometimes, we think we want something SO badly, we’re willing to do whatever it takes, even if it’s unhealthy. Know your limitations and own them. Don’t think you just can’t cut it—your mental and physical well-being are way more important than that champion ribbon.
About the Author
Sarah Eder is an avid blogger, horse professional and closet fashionista trying to live a balanced life with her crazy Grand Prix horse and boyfriend in tow.