BY JENNY SWANSON
Mental health needs a more open and diverse discussion with the professionals in our industry that juniors and amateurs regard as leaders. As a mental health professional, I have recently spent a majority of my time working on mental skills with riders of all ages. I have spent a majority of my time recently working with riders of all ages on their mental skills. With a background in clinical social work and a specialty in trauma practice and sport performance, I work with riders to improve their performance and overall success in the ring.
It’s something I relate to personally. As a junior, I had some tough experiences riding. Competition anxiety was a hindrance for me and a bad fall left me in a back brace for three months of my junior career. Utilizing various cognitive behavioral strategies and other forms of mental coaching from professionals, I was able to overcome a lot of my own struggles with competition anxiety.
Recently, I spoke with Greg Prince, the owner and head trainer of Woodridge Farm out of Sherborn, Massachusetts. Greg has a long career of show success at our nation’s biggest shows, including the Grand Prix ring. In addition, he has guided multiple riders to top placings at USEF Medal Finals, Washington International Horse Show, USET Talent Search Finals, and New England Equitation Championships and serves as an active member in Zone 1 as the Young Riders/Prix de States team coordinator.
My trainer as a junior, Greg was pivotal in my journey to seek professional help from a sports psychologist. I wanted to ask him, how he talks to his clients about mental health?
Jenny: What does mental health mean to you?
Greg: In general, mental health means to me that you can handle situations that are difficult and stressful without letting it completely undo you. When something puts you in a situation where you can’t handle what is happening in the moment anymore, that is stress and is a mental performance issue. Because so much of what we do is deal with utterly ridiculous situations, things happen out of the blue and you have to be able to manage and deal with those situations without letting it ruin your ride. I think for me a lot of it is, “Can I deal with this stress?” and not let the pressure get to me. Can I manage that and work with that stress?
And have the skills and tools to be able to manage that.
You were pivotal for me when I was a junior riding with you, speaking first with my mom about this and then discussing with me how you thought I would benefit forms meeting a therapist and/or sports psychologist. How do you, as the trainer, bring up those conversations?
Well you know, it’s interesting. I have gotten better at it over the years and I have waited less and less time on those things now. I basically bring those things (seeing a sport psychologist) up in early stages. It comes up very early. My initial pitch is very simple. You have the best farrier, the best vets, the best trainers, the best horses, you buy the best clothes and you go to the best shows. Why on earth would you not have the best mental coach to help you deal with that aspect of it? As much as I like to help people with that, it is not what I learned, it’s not my profession. I can do the horse’s mental health!
As much as I try to be sympathetic as to what people are thinking and what works best for them, I’m an amateur at all that. If you want it done right, you have to go to an actual professional that knows what they are talking about. Part of my opening statement when I bring up mental health or seeing a mental coach with a client is starting off with: There is no great Olympian or professional sports player that does not have a mental coach. Every top football player, soccer player, hockey player, you name it they have a sports psychologist. I do not care how “macho” the sport is.
Absolutely. It is all part of their team. It does not even have to be professional, it can be amateurs at any level of a sport too.
Right. 100%. Especially when any parent tries to ask me “Can’t they just power through it” and I respond with “nice try.” You know, it is just not that simple.
I also heard you say that from a training point of view, you notice characteristics in some riders versus others that affects how long they may ride. What are some of those characteristics?
To not answer your question, what fascinates me the most is that the people who stick with the sport are the ones that never in a million years should. There were so many reasons I should have done something else. I did not grow up doing hunter/jumpers. I did 3-day eventing. I did not know really what I was doing when I was starting out (with show jumping). As an 18, 19 year old doing this, it is hard to break into this business. I think the people who stay in it are what makes this business so unique. They stay because they just really love it, and it’s what they want to do. There is no definite answer about that. The gut instinct is that this kid has worked in it for a while. They are not going to quit tomorrow. Those are the ones that deserve to hear it.
It sounds like what you’re describing is intrinsic motivation. That piece where you are doing “it”—coming to the barn, working and riding every day. All the things that come along with the sport. To then, in turn, feel proud, accomplished feelings. A rider that says “I get so much gratification from myself by doing this.” It is not just about the extrinsic factors, the ribbons or trophies. It is internal motivation.
Well, you are absolutely right. I have a working student right now who is truly a remarkable person. I told her a year ago that you are going to go through a rough year. You are going to get started with this and it is going to get harder. You are going to think “I should be doing better” or “why is it taking so long.”
Yes! So many younger riders or even amateurs who have been in the sport for some time get frustrated with those feelings.
es, and sure enough a year later she has learned a ton but is not winning. And she feels like her hard work hasn’t paid off. I told her she has worked her butt off and learned a lot and I made her repeat it back to me.
I said to her that it’s true. You have learned a ton, but you do not have enough experience yet. It is going to take longer and you will get frustrated with that. Getting frustrated, that is the biggest part. The biggest part about that is that it will affect your riding. It will adversely affect your riding. That frustration will kill you. You will walk into the ring, think it is not going your way and that tension and frustration will build. That is the downfall and that is where things start to go awry when you let it affect your performance.
Yes, that is a great point. You need experience dealing with frustration.
When you can get that figured out, you’ll have it made. You have to let go of what other people are thinking about you. Where you think you “should” be and look the other way. That is where so many of them (young riders) get into trouble. It is hard to say that to a parent or any rider really. It is the nature of the sport to look at the results of everyone else and then compare the results of everyone else to your own. They (parents, riders) do not understand why they are not getting those results. It is so hard and no one is immune to it. We all experience it. But, if you can think about it and handle it, then those are the ones who can progress.
That is so true. It also sounds like you have experience with that, with your own frustration. How do you handle that?
For me, that was something I had to deal with early on. When things did not go right or my way, it was just something I had to learn to deal with. I would get frustrated, and not just with riding. But it manifested itself in riding. Feeling frustrated will manifest itself in your riding, always! Everyone knows that. But not everybody can fix it. You can’t fight it, you have to deal with it.
Deal with it or cope with it. It doesn’t help any emotion to fight it, including frustration.
You also cannot fix it all at once. Choose one issue at a time. That is such an important part of riding to me. Instead of trying to fix it all at once and throwing it all out the window. To me, I teach that constantly. What is the first problem we have to fix here?
Yeah, definitely. Just breaking it down. What are things you have control over at this moment?
That is hugely important with horses. You cannot fix everything all at once.
Where do you think mental health is in the industry right now? Do you think it is still something that is taboo and not talked about?
I think it’s better accepted. Some people might buy into it more than others. It is accepted more, but it is not bought into as much as it should be. There is still work to be done.
I agree and I am sure that is true for all sports in terms of mental health. It is not always the different coach you need, a new horse, or new golf club. The mind and body are so connected you cannot get to the level you want to without acknowledging both.
Thank you so much for taking the time to chat and being so open to discussion, I appreciate your input and I am sure others will too!
There is so much to discuss when it comes to riding and mental health. Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org or find me on social @jennys_licsw to ask questions or share professionals you’d love to hear from on this subject.
Jenny Swanson is an independently licensed clinical social worker with a specialty in trauma practice and applied sports psychology. A competitor herself she has done everything from the ‘Big Eq’, AO hunters to Grand Prixs. She now focuses her time in her private practice working with equestrians, individually or in groups, to help improve their performance by strengthening their mental skills and overall mental toughness.