It seems like these days we look at each other’s lives through the lens of a highlight reel. We get to see the incredible trips, the best jumps, and the moments that we’re proud enough of to put on social media. What we don’t talk about is how much pressure this adds to athletes on both ends of the news feed.
Riders, whether professional or not, are made to feel like they ‘have to’ post something that makes them look cool and successful. Then, as we consume this content, we’re stuck with the disillusioned perception that the sport is easy and that if you’re not succeeding, then maybe you aren’t cut out for it. I would like to take this opportunity to go ‘between the ears’ of some of the riders that make up our Eventing Nation and work to understand some of the real challenges this industry presents.
On this edition of “Between the Ears”, I caught up with Laura Crump Anderson of Hidden Heights Fitness (who also writes fitness columns here on EN — check them out here). Laura is a lifelong equestrian who is the author of Ultimate Exercise Routines for Riders: Fitness that Fits a Horse Crazy Life. You may recognize her name from the various blog posts that she has crafted on this very site. If you’ve been keeping up with the series, this edition is going to be a bit different, as Laura and I focused on the intersection between physical and mental health and the journey of managing both.
Can you tell me a little bit about yourself and your career?
Having an equestrian for a mom, the joke is that I started riding when I was negative nine months old. Growing up, I did hunter jumpers and a lot of trail riding and I found the sport of eventing through pony club when I was 12. By age 14, I was so much of a ‘barn rat’ that I ended up with a severe overuse injury to my back and my orthopedic surgeon told me I had the spine of a ninety-year-old.
I had to stop riding for six months but was able to find my way back in the saddle through physical therapy. That experience helped shape my life as a fitness professional and I have since made it my mission to help riders realize how important it is to treat ourselves like the athletes we expect our horses to be.
So the physical health journey started because of your injury — can you tell me about your mental health journey as well?
This is a bit of a long and convoluted story, but when I was in college, I was locked in an elevator for about 12 hours. I had forgotten my student ID to open the doors and the emergency button was disconnected. I had gone in around 8 p.m. and wasn’t let out until a janitor let me out in the morning. I was trapped, and I didn’t know when I was going to be let out. That feeling of being trapped has continued to be a mental trigger for me, even today.
Horses have always been my way out of that. Always brought me joy and quieted my mind. But the year I got trapped in the elevator, I hadn’t been able to bring my horses to school with me, and one of the biggest things that made me feel really good and really in control was exercise. I then had a two-fold perspective of fitness. I already knew I needed to cross-train to keep my body strong enough to enjoy my time in the saddle and I was beginning to learn the effect that physical activity could also have on my mind as well.
When I got back to a place where I could have my horses with me again, I realized what a hugely positive influence they could have on my mental health. Not just from the connection and getting to do what I love perspective, but also from a stabilization perspective. I did all their care, so I had a responsibility to them that was outside myself, an obligation to keep moving forward.
More recently, I’ve been struggling with some pretty intense panic attacks, usually when I’m feeling trapped or feeling like I have too much on my plate. Finances play a huge role as well. I love my horses, and when I feel like I don’t have enough money to afford them or afford the things that they need, I start to spiral.
The pandemic amplified things for me because of how unstable the face-to-face health industry was, and there were a lot of transitions going on in my life. I constantly feel stuck in this paradox where horses are a positive influence to my mental health and yet a potential trigger for panic. I don’t compete even though I want to, because I find it hard to justify the expense. I remember when I was 14 or 15 and saved up money for an entry fee just to lose the money when the event got rained out. I don’t fault organizers for not being able to provide refunds, but that uncertainty isn’t something that I’m ready to cope with.
My mental health journey has included horses and fitness, but it has also included many mental health professionals helping me find the right coping mechanisms to manage the panic that I feel. I am grateful to my horses for grounding me throughout the process and providing motivation on even the toughest days.
As an amateur equestrian and fitness professional, do you ever experience burnout?
One of the biggest times I experienced burnout was in 2019. I was working for a fitness company and it was doing very well. I had just acquired a mobile gym, so the specialized equipment that we used for strength training was able to go to the barns and work with riders. I was working easily seventy to eighty hours a week. I barely saw my husband. I had a realisation that the lifestyle was unsustainable, and I had to remove myself from that business. It was a very hard decision to make. It was the hardest decision I’ve made professionally in a long time, but I was at a point where I had to do a hard reset.
I had to step away from something that was successful in order to create something that was sustainable, which ended up working out in my favor because then the pandemic hit and I was able to have a job in health care for a bit while the personal fitness industry was unstable. Now, I’ve made my way back to my new business and I know I needed things to fall apart to get to where I am, and I realize that working hard is important, but not at the cost of being burnt out.
What advice would you give to someone in the industry that’s facing adversity?
Don’t quit, but try slowing down. Find what brings you joy. Focus on the aspects of your job or sport that make it worth it. Don’t chase the wrong things, because that’s how you end up building a life that isn’t desirable anymore. Whether you’re an equestrian professional or you’re just riding as a hobby, you ultimately need to be doing it for the right reasons, so don’t lose sight of that.
What do you what do you do on a day when you don’t feel motivated to work out?
If it’s a day where I don’t want to even get out of bed, and I’m supposed to do a workout, I make sure I at least go for a walk. I get out, I put my sneakers on, and I go walk. I commit to at least walking a short loop, and usually that will get me in the zone to walk a bit longer. The thing is, if I feel like I have to do strength on that day, I’m never going to do it. But I can always start small, and small pieces of consistency are better than nothing at all. Walking gets my body moving and gets me out of my head. I’ll either listen to some pump-up music or go with my husband and I’ll get to have a conversation with him and it becomes a connection process as well.
Mental Health is a complex subject. If you or someone you know is struggling with a mental health concern, please know that there is help available. Horses ARE a great way to relieve stress, but they are not a substitute for professional guidance. Call or text 988 for crisis support.