Honoring Your Mental Health is Good Horsemanship

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Photo © Heather N. Photography

BY ANONYMOUS

Outside of the horse world, the predominant Olympic buzz was about Simone Biles. Despite some of the comments directed at Simone Biles for withdrawing from the team and individual Olympic finals, the overwhelmingly positive response among the public seems like a sign that the discourse on mental health is changing for the better. Biles cited the tremendous pressure she had been facing and announced she needed to focus on her mental health. Some tweets surrounding Biles’s exit from the event point to why in gymnastics especially this was such an important moment:

These comments hit home with me. Risks associated with making mistakes in riding, like gymnastics, are exponentially higher than in most other sports. One fumbled distance, one poor decision, one momentary lapse in judgment has the potential to leave us and our horses catastrophically injured.

I remember being at a horseshow at seventeen, almost a full year after my mom had passed away. It’s hard to be a teenager under the best of circumstances, and mine were not the best. Putting on my helmet to hack every afternoon felt like a huge feat. Walking into the ring at a horseshow left me feeling like I had climbed a mountain before I’d even approached the first fence. 

I was eliminated early on in my first class of the day and was disappointed with myself. I was riding a horse that was new to me, and the partnership between us had been inconsistent and frustrating for all parties involved. We went back to the warmup ring, jumped a few more jumps and decided to add the next class.

Somehow I made it around the second course in one piece, but I don’t recall enjoying it and it wasn’t pretty. Going through the timers, I was mostly relieved at the prospect of being done for the day. But that relief was fleeting. By some miracle, not only had I jumped all the jumps… but I had left them up.

I heard the second buzzer, picked up a canter and knew about three steps later I was not going to make it over the first fence. A fence I had jumped no more than two minutes ago. 

Mental blocks in riding are very real. Despite the fact I was jumping a height I was used to winning at, every fence was a question I was never sure I had the answer to. I didn’t trust the horse I was on to get from point A to point B, and I trusted myself to make good decisions on behalf of my horse even less. 

But I did something really important that day: I recognized it. 

I don’t know how I knew, but I just knew it wasn’t a good idea. Pushing through whatever mental block I was experiencing would be putting myself and my horse at unnecessary risk. I dropped my reins and left the ring feeling content with finishing the afternoon on a positive note. 

I kindly informed the ring steward on my way out that I would like to scratch the jump-off. But my trainer’s reaction to that decision was not, “thank you for making a good decision on behalf of yourself and your horse today.” Instead, I was met with was anger and belittlement. My trainer was livid. In fact, she was so upset that she left me at the in-gate alone with no explanation. 

As I cooled out my horse in the warm-up ring, I was overwhelmed with the realization that for the first time, my mom was not there to help put things in perspective. I remember quietly crying in the wash rack while putting my horse away because I couldn’t express how out of touch with myself I felt, how alone I felt in a barn aisle full of seventeen-year-olds. 

I apologized later for exiting the ring prematurely, and she emphasized that it was embarrassing for her. I hadn’t felt embarrassed until I was told I had something to be embarrassed about. The lesson I learned in that moment was nothing I felt was more important than completing the task I had been assigned. The guilt I felt for embarrassing her was all-consuming, and it convinced me taking a step back would have been embarrassing for me too. 

This sport can be so hyper-focused on training, creating, and producing well-rounded horses that it neglects the fact it is training people too. But horses stay in a stable, wrapped cozily in monogrammed blankets and tightly cocooned by our equestrian bubble at little to no risk of infecting the real world with any problems we create for them. People, on the other hand, leave the barn and carry the lessons they’ve learned with them to their jobs, schools, homes and families. 

As show season continued, my mental health plummeted. I rode very poorly as a result. I questioned every stride, every distance, and every decision along the way. Looking back, I should not have competed that summer. It was unsafe for me and my horses. The damages incurred took years and a lot of very patient trainers to undo. I was tentative, indecisive, and found myself eliminated more often than not. The energy I invested in compartmentalizing was more draining than the riding itself, but I continued to show up because I was determined not to be an embarrassment. 

Seeing Simone scratch brought me right back to being seventeen and standing at the in-gate alone, feeling punished for honoring my intuition. Even though my horse probably could have jumped seven more jumps that day, I couldn’t have. It reminded me that I was told in no uncertain terms there was a direct correlation between recognizing my own limitations as a human being and being an embarrassment to myself and my trainer. 

Prioritizing mental health is a lot of work. It’s tedious and exhausting in ways that are hard to understand until you’ve lived them. I think the most painful part of trying to balance grief and competitive sports at seventeen was the visceral loneliness of it all. Things felt so much heavier because I figured I must have been the only one struggling. 

Photo © Heather N. Photography

Seeing Simone scratch this week reinforced that I was so much braver at seventeen than I was led to believe. It reminded me the lessons we inherit are often reflections of the insecurities of others. My experiences were not all bad, and I don’t harbor any ill will for the trainer who left me at the in-gate that day. She was doing her best to operate in a sport that taught her to persevere at all costs. 

How can we make this better? I think the easiest thing is to incorporate mental well-being into discussions about horsemanship. Be mindful of the language you use in the tack room, barn aisle, and in the saddle. Let young athletes know there is a difference between persevering and recognizing when your capacity to persevere has been depleted. Knowing when to take a step back was not then, and is not now, embarrassing. It is a crucial component of good horsemanship and promoting athlete autonomy. 

Not being in the right headspace for sports like gymnastics or riding, with solid obstacles and animals who depend on us to make decisions on their behalf, can lead to horrific long-term consequences. If someone cites mental health as the reason they need to scratch for the day—believe them. It will cost you very little. The costs that come from questioning it can be so much higher.

If we want to dismantle feelings of isolation struggling with mental health can bring, athletes at all levels of every sport have to see a way out. 

I wish I had seen Simone scratch when I was seventeen. I wish my trainer had seen it too.