Growing Up Battling Self Harm: How One Trainer Makes a Difference for The Next Generation


Kaylee Williams is a 20 year old hunter/jumper and dressage trainer in Southern California. She runs her own non-profit and is very involved in the community while still finishing her college degree. On top of her busy schedule with horses, Kaylee spends a lot of her time helping people at risk for suicide — a passion that roots from her own experience growing up.

During high school, Kaylee Williams was like many of her peers, stressing about grades and relationships. “I was putting so much pressure on myself to get into a prestigious four-year university and get a 4.0, and I was struggling to get along with my parents,” Williams said. Even horseback riding and going to the barn could not alleviate her stress. “I was always the youngest at the barn, and had older girls get all of the riding opportunities. I would work so hard to get the opportunity to train on amazing horses, and would be overlooked by older girls or people with money,” Williams explained, “Eventually, I got burnt out, newer (older) working students would come into the barn and within weeks of being there they would get to ride top USA dressage horses. I was 15-17 years old at the time, and they were 22-23. Eventually, I thought that I wasn’t good enough, was “too big” for the sport, and I took a break from riding.”

Photo courtesy of Kaylee Williams

Although sometimes the relationships she had with her trainer and people at barn impacted her mental health in a negative manner, her horses were always there, providing her with a positive outlet. “In some of my darkest moments, I would go to the barn and just ride my two horses, Pikabee and Cody,” Williams said, “When I was stressed about school, or college acceptance letters, etc. I would take a deep breath, get on bareback, or go for a trail ride. I wasn’t focused on winning my next competition or getting into UCLA, it was just a girl and her horse. It was so important for me to have that bond with my horses, and they really did save me in my darkest moments.”

Already going through a rough time, Williams struggled even more after losing her friend, Diego, to suicide. Diego’s death impacted the entire community. He was a teammate and a friend that would give anything to his friends and family, and the loss was devastating.

Losing Diego was a turning point in Williams’ life, and has shaped her into who she is today. “When I am feeling down, I think of Diego and know that he would be telling me that I am not alone, I matter, and I need to keep myself in the game! Diego has made me so strong and empowered me to share my personal story, having contemplated suicide myself and being able to overcome self-harm,” Williams said.

The loss of Diego and overcoming her own struggles inspired Williams to create a suicide prevention and education non-profit organization, Project 99. “Our mission is to educate teens and the community about the negative consequences of suicide and to show students how one choice can devastate an entire community. Our panel of speakers discusses the topics of how suicide directly affects one’s family and community, resources available to those affected, many other ways of coping and releasing negative emotions. We reassure students that they are not alone in their time of distress. We provide free resources to students as well,” Williams explains about Project 99.

Photo courtesy of Kaylee Williams

As both a professional equestrian and advocate for mental health, Williams reflects back on her own relationships within the horse world as a youth. She wishes that her trainer would have paid closer attention to the warning signs. Even though she occasionally voiced her issues around the barn, her trainer never took anything seriously and even joked about mental health. “One day I was thinking about telling someone that I was cutting and wanted help, and he asked me what was wrong, when I told him his response was ‘hey, that’s not so bad, at least you’re not pregnant’,” Williams recalls. “I wish he would have taken me seriously, and even called my parents.”

Photo courtesy of Kaylee Williams

Now a trainer herself, Williams hopes to help the next generation of riders in a way her trainer did not. “Now that I am a trainer, I make a very strong effort to build a relationship with my students and allow them to talk to me about personal problems. My adult students come to me with relationship issues, medical stresses, personal mental health concerns, etc. Yes, I am their trainer, but I am also a friend or someone they can talk to,” Williams said. She also makes sure she uses positive training methods with her students. “I make corrections, but I also tell my students when something looks good or when they are doing something right. Some trainers just make corrections and don’t say anything when things look good,” she explains.

Being a positive figure in her students life is very important to her as she hope to have a positive impact on them and care for their mental health. Williams makes it a habit to never tell a student that they are not good enough to do something. She sets goals to work towards with a student and gets in done in a positive manner.

She hopes she can voice to other trainers today how important it is to understand what mental health is, and how to deal with it when a student needs help. If she would have had a positive trainer figure during her teenage years, that could have made her journey much better.

Photo courtesy of Kaylee Williams

Because of her past, Williams spreads a message of love and support to everyone she meets whether it’s through training horses or Project 99. “I was at my all-time low, cutting myself and contemplating suicide on a regular basis. One day I woke up and realized that I needed to stop, I have two younger brothers, and I didn’t want them to see me as a negative role model, with self-inflicted scars on my body,” Williams said, “I realized that I needed help, and that made all of the difference. Find something that motivates you to stop and get yourself out of that negative mindset. Everyone matters and everyone has something special. You are not alone, it’s okay to struggle, push yourself and keep fighting.”