Hunter/jumper trainer Kristen Johnston, of Gallop Training in Langley, British Columbia, knows what it is to live with an eating disorder. Hers started when she was just eight years old and continued into her 20s. Here she shares her experience and how it’s shaped her as a trainer, mother and human, as told to Carley Sparks.

The first time I remember feeling uncomfortable with my body, I was in Grade 3.

Some of my classmates teased me for being what they considered chubby, so from a very young age I learned to be ashamed of how I looked.

At eight, I started hiding in my room to eat so no one would see me.

By 12, I was counting calories and restricting how much I ate. I kept a food diary where I’d document everything that I was eating in meticulous detail. Initially, I thought it was a diet. My mom, in trying to help me, suggested I try Weight Watchers and various other programs. I did. But it only made me feel worse about myself.

Eventually, I just stopped eating. I’d skip breakfast—I never ate a big breakfast anyway—and I’d go through the whole day without eating anything. When I started to lose weight, people would comment on how good I looked and that made me feel good. For a moment or two.

The thing about starving yourself is that food is constantly on your mind. It’s preoccupying. And, after a while, people start to notice you’re not eating. There are only so many meals you can skip before it becomes a hard fact to hide. When my mom started paying attention to when and how much I ate, I took to throwing up instead. With bulimia, you can look like you’re eating normally and you get to taste food without having to consume the calories.

Hiding the physical effects isn’t as easy. I felt tired and moody and weak. One afternoon when I was about 14, I was riding my hunter, Lady, when I started to feel sick. I got off and passed out in the ring. No one ever found me. I came to lying in the outdoor ring with my horse standing 10 feet away.

I never told anyone about it.

By high school, I was throwing up all the time. People would say, “You look great. You’re losing weight.” Meanwhile, I was busy running to the bathroom. It was awful.

And it made me feel awful. Ashamed. Why couldn’t I just be normal? The only part that gave me any satisfaction was other people’s reaction to when I had gotten slimmer. Had people not complimented me on it, I wonder if I would have continued?

At the barn, many of the bad feelings I had about body size and image were reinforced. I’d put my riding pants on and think, “Ugh, I look horrible.” When I look back at pictures of when I was 15, 16, 17, I wasn’t fat—at all. But competing in the equitation classes, there’s a lot of pressure to look a certain way. If you were a little bit overweight, you could pick up diet pills at the horse show tack shop.

My issues with food continued right into my 20s—not as severely, but it’s a hard habit to shake and I never got treatment. In the end, it was up to me to get my self-esteem back on track.

Ironically, going to culinary school helped redefine my relationship with food. I love food. Being around likeminded people who appreciated good food helped me learn to enjoy it without the guilt. It taught me to think, does this taste good or am I just eating it? And there was a sense of achievement that came with honing my culinary skills.

It was a slow process, building up my self-esteem, and, ultimately, it wasn’t any one thing that did it. Working hard at school and my career, and finding success and achievement in that, helped me feel good about what I could do. I started running more and I found that was a really good outlet. It took a long time and, like everybody, it’s a work in progress.

Now, I’m a mother and a trainer (I teach some 20 students, most of whom are girls and women). I have a different life and those behaviors are non-existent for me. But it’s shaped me. I’m careful, probably overly careful, never to comment on someone’s body size or shape. Once you’ve been in that headspace, you’re always very conscious of how somebody else could take a comment that might sound innocent to anyone else. You just never know. It might not be the overweight girl who is sensitive about her body.

I’m also attuned to the symptoms of low self esteem. I see it in my students and it’s heartbreaking. Whether it’s food issues or other forms of self-harm, that’s how it starts—the slow degrading of your self worth. You have find a way to cope.

For me, as a girl, horses helped me through a really difficult time. How much worse would it have been if I wasn’t riding? You had to eat something to have the energy to be able to compete. People at the barn were always shoving bananas at me at the back gate. And I’ve watched over and over again what horses have done for the girls that have ridden with me. Without those experiences, they probably wouldn’t be the women they’ve become.

And neither would have I.

Gal-Up Foundation

Kristen Johnston is founder of Gal-Up Equestrian Camps. Offering daylong workshops designed by industry experts in natural horsemanship, psychology and hunter/jumper sport, Gal-Up aims to enhance self-image and confidence in teens via equine-assisted learning, motivational speaking and group self-esteem sessions. To learn more or to get involved with Gal-Up, contact Kristen via her Facebook Page.