What do event riders struggle with the most in terms of mental health? It’s no secret that the inextricable reach of the internet and social media has made everyone just a bit more miserable. Comparison being the thief of joy and all, this element can pile on to the mountain of worries we all carry at any given moment.
I spoke at length with Sarah Carlan, MSW, a licensed social worker and transformational coach, about the nuances of being an equestrian and how the sport affects our view of ourselves. Truth be told, I left the conversation feeling a little less alone.
In her work with not only equestrian athletes but also individuals from varying backgrounds who passionately pursue their endeavors, Sarah has observed several commonalities among riders. An eventer herself, she understands the mental demands of the sport – and she wants everyone reading this to know that they aren’t alone in the insecurity they feel. Indeed, it’s true that we all feel these at some point along the way.
“To use a horse as an analogy, if our horses are worried about life or spooky or have ulcers, it doesn’t matter how perfectly we get them to the base of the fence – they’re not going to really be able to demonstrate their greatness,” she explained. “And so we have to take care of those fundamental pieces before we really expect them to perform at their peak.”
The same concept applies to us as riders. What does Sarah work with riders the most on? Let’s dive in:
Equestrians often feel diminished when explaining their sport to “non-horse folk”.
“Horse people struggle with the difficulty of explaining to the general population why we do what we do. It is a very privileged sport. But a lot of us figure out how to scrape it together, and the amount of sacrifice it takes is tremendous.
Yet people see it as an elite, privileged sport. What they don’t see is what drives most of us to be there. At our core, especially the amateurs working full-time and riding at night, taking their one vacation week to go to a show, we are willing to sacrifice just about anything. It’s hard for others to understand why we do that, and that can feel us leaving unseen.
That’s why horse people can’t stop talking about horses when they’re with each other! Because they feel seen. It’s such a core passion, it’s in our DNA, so to have other people get it is really incredible.”
Many riders have grown accustomed to self-criticism as a form of “toughness”.
“Think of the early coaches you might have had that screamed and yelled. Now think of how that might affect you now. How do you approach improvement? Through curiosity, or through self-flagellation?
We are taught that if we aren’t super hard on ourselves, we aren’t going to make it. We beat ourselves up, and then nerves arise from these expectations of doing well. While there is such a thing as the other side of the coin – too much positivity with too little accountability – there is a huge difference between accountability and self-flagellation, but many riders don’t seem to understand the distinction.”
The performance of an eventer is impacted by many variables, making for a mental rollercoaster.
“We as riders are very performance oriented, and our evaluation of our performance is impacted, especially in eventing, by so many variables that if we don’t have a very good, stable ego, it can knock us off so easily.
You can go to a hunter/jumper show and your chances of getting a few ribbons – a few chances to get it right – are pretty high. But at an event, one mistake might ruin your entire weekend, and you don’t get another chance to do it. Imagine the pressure this creates!”
Mindfulness. It’s likely a term you’ve heard or read about at some point – but how does it play into our riding (and our everyday lives)? This is a topic we’ll be diving into with Sarah in the coming weeks – and she wants to answer your questions, too! In an effort to create a more open dialog around the topic of mental health (destigmatizing for the win!), we’ll be working with Sarah to answer reader-submitted questions and explore the concepts of mindfulness and mental health in equestrian sports.
Do you have a question you’d like Sarah to answer in a future column? Please tip me by emailing [email protected]. Questions can be provided anonymously.