The mental health podcast host and therapist-in-training shares her story and her hopes for the horse world at large.
BY HERO BEAN STEVENSON
Candid conversations about mental health are on the rise. Simone Biles made headlines and opened minds this summer when she spoke up about the intersection of gymnastics and her mental health. In our corner of the sports world, Hero Bean Stevenson is hoping to do the same. The California-based amateur hunter rider, 25, was on track for a career in fine art when her own battle with an eating disorder prompted a detour. Today, the host of “All of Us,” a mental health podcast set to debut its second season, is studying to become a therapist herself. With hopes of a horse community that does a little more cheering for each other and a little less hiding of our struggles, she shared her story with The Plaid Horse.
Two summers before I was born, my mom was showing in the Adult Amateur Hunters at the Hampton Classic. On Grand Prix Sunday before the big class began, they trotted a tiny, dapple grey miniature horse out onto the field. Immediately after the final horse had jumped off, she found the mini’s breeder, bought him for my one-year-old brother, and loaded “Comet” into the back seat of her Ford Explorer. A tiny four-stall barn was built in the backyard, and a year later, when my mom was pregnant with me, she filled a second stall with my first pony—a miniature white mare named “Stardust.” I grew up in that barn. I remember endless summer days running barefoot with Stardust and Comet through the tall grass, swimming them in the pond, hitching them to their pony cart, and “training” them over tiny jumps on-foot. Honestly, I can’t believe we survived!
Stevenson took lessons and showed locally on ponies as a child before deciding she wanted to take horse showing more seriously.
Clever Z, or Carter as he’s called in the barn, took me from Children’s to the Small Juniors on both coasts. While I was in high school, I had the privilege of being able to compete regularly on the A circuit, and receive training from some of the greats in our sport, like Carleton and Traci Brooks at Balmoral, and Archie Cox. That was a time of immense growth for me, and I was able to lease additional horses to compete in the junior hunters, as well as in the equitation.
When I graduated from high school, I went to Barnard College in New York City and got to take Carter with me. He was stabled in Southampton, and I drove out every weekend to ride and spend time with him. It was during that first year of college that my mental health really took an unexpected turn for the worst. I’d begun struggling with anxiety and developed an eating disorder in the summer before my first semester, when my mom was diagnosed with cancer. Then, when school began and the seasons changed, I dealt with seasonal depression for the first time. By the end of the school week, all I could think about going out to spend time with my horse. Regardless of what I was going through, I took such immense comfort in the familiarity of my connection with him—being with him felt like home. All of the feelings of anxiety, depression, and isolation melted away when I was with Carter. Throughout high school I regularly volunteered with a therapeutic riding program for people dealing with physical and mental hardships. I always marveled at how deeply these horses would impact the lives and abilities of those who were on their backs. And now, years later, Carter was doing the same for me.
Eventually, my declining mental and physical health required that I withdraw from Barnard and move back home to the West Coast. So in 2016, Carter made another cross-country trip with me. I spent a semester in recovery before enrolling at USC, where I studied Art History and eventually graduated in 2019. Since then, through years of dedication and healing, I am beyond grateful to say that my mental and physical health have reached a better place than ever before. Now at the age of 18, Carter doesn’t show anymore, but I enjoy riding him at home almost every day and he continues to be the best emotional support animal there ever was.
Stevenson also recalls the way her mother played a pivotal role in helping improve her mental health when she started college.
In high school, I had little knowledge around what eating disorders were, and developed bulimia as what felt like a coping mechanism. At a time when so much felt out of my control, including my future with horses, my relationship to food was, sadly, something that I took comfort in controlling completely. It wasn’t until I got to college in New York that my eating disorder transitioned into Anorexia. I felt like I was floating in this transitional period, constantly engaging in new challenges and trying to get my bearings. Again, controlling my relationship to food was, to me, one place that felt ironically safe and familiar.
It didn’t take long for my weight to drop significantly, and for the people around me to take notice and express concern. My mom had come to visit during a parents’ weekend around Thanksgiving, and asked me if I was okay. At the time, I blamed my weight loss on stress from classes and my internship, and thought that I could conceal my disorder under the guise of normal college student growing pains. Then, when I went home for winter break a month later, it was clear that there was something more serious going on. I was extremely lucky in that my mom confronted the situation in a way that made me feel completely supported, and in no way judged. This, I have come to learn, is an extremely rare and difficult skill. Without knowing it, and even with the best of intentions, people’s reaction and expressions of concern to individuals with eating disorders can be extremely triggering and counterintuitive to recovery. My mom made me feel empowered and encouraged to embark on my healing journey in the way that felt most effective and resonant to me, and I am forever grateful to her for that.
When Stevenson took some time off before graduate school, the horse show bug returned.
More than ever, I was dreaming of competing, and at that point my parents really recognized that my love for the sport was more than just as a serious hobby—it was cosmic and spiritual. With that understanding, and their ability to support me, I was given the green light to get back in the show ring. It was kind of kismet, because at the same time, my trainers had been suggesting that I partner with an incredibly special hunter they’d had in their barn for years, Ann Adams’ Academy Award. I ended up trying him as a potential mount for that year’s winter circuit, and things did not go as planned. We jumped a big oxer on the quarter line, and turned the corner when something—I still don’t know what—caught his eye that absolutely terrified him. We proceeded to barrel once around the ring at blinding speed, before he came to a grinding halt. I went flying into the rail and broke my collar bone almost clean in half.
It took about two months to heal physically, and then, as a naturally timid rider, it took me a year to the day before I got back on Martin. I tried him again…and it couldn’t have gone better. I ended up leasing him for a year, and it was total magic. To me our partnership was, in itself, a huge win because I would’ve never believed that after our accident I would’ve gone on to ride him, let alone compete with him to the level of success that we did. He even took me to my first Indoors this past fall. Needless to say, my year with Martin was rewarding in ways that no amount of tricolor ribbons could ever sum up.
Despite a long-term goal of working in the art world, Stevenson’s eating disorder changed her career path.
Since I was little, art has always played a very special role in my life. Growing up between Los Angeles and New York, there was always a museum to visit or gallery show to see, and my mom loved exposing me to all of it. From the time I started school, I knew I wanted to work in the art world. While I was working at a gallery in Hollywood, the mental health journey that I’d begun after moving back home had become the main priority in my life. I was becoming extremely passionate about not only my own personal healing process, but about the mental, emotional, and spiritual wellbeing of humans in general.
I am currently a Master’s student in Clinical Psychology at Pepperdine University, with the goal of running a private therapy practice. In delving into my own healing process, I realized just how many of my peers were, and had been, struggling similarly for years. And most surprising to me was the fact that no one felt comfortable speaking openly about their mental health. I noticed that whenever I spoke honestly about my eating disorder, or other challenges like stress, anxiety, and depression, people suddenly felt safe in doing the same. Last August, I launched my mental wellness podcast called “All Of Us,” which aims to destigmatize candid conversation around the internal obstacles we all face as humans. A couple of months into holding conversations for the podcast, I realized just how passionate I was about speaking to people about mental health, and that’s when I knew I needed to pursue it more seriously as a career.
As part of the elite horse show world, Stevenson also recognized the value of horses in a sometimes-toxic environment.
Horses are the antidote to the toxicity that exists within their own sport. We all love riding because we love horses. In a world that can be so incredibly critical, a horse’s ability to love, accept, and trust us without superficial judgement is profoundly comforting.
However, growing up at horse shows and within highly competitive show barns, I have not only experienced but observed a degree of judgement that I think all of us are aware of to some extent. This judgement often manifests as comparison. Between riders, for example, who will compare the amount and caliber of horses they are able to have. I’ve also seen riders endure immense criticism from both themselves and others—including trainers and fellow riders—based upon their riding ability, accuracy, position, body shape, and the rigor of their training programs. Then of course, we must also acknowledge the presence of toxic and even abusive trainer-student relationships that have recently been coming to light more than ever due to the work of Safe Sport, and even more so, through the bravery of riders who have had the strength to come forward. Everyone’s experience, of course, is different. But I believe that most riders have suffered some mental and emotional consequences of riding in one way or another, and that is something that must be addressed for positive change to occur.
Along the way, she also discovered the value of horse care as it relates to self-care.
Beyond our connection to horses on a physical and emotional level, the responsibility and privilege of their care is also something that can be extremely therapeutic for us. We cannot properly take care of these incredible animals if we do not take care of ourselves, and there is a healthy amount of accountability in that truth.
A pivotal moment in my own experience happened one winter afternoon when I was in Southampton visiting my dad, and I’d just come back from riding Carter. Because of my eating disorder, my health had reached an all-time low. I had very little energy, and was beyond physically frail. I sat down at the kitchen table where my dad was having tea, and he looked at me in the most loving way and asked me to tell him about how I manage Carter’s care. I lit up, and told him about Carter’s feeding program, turnout, and exercise schedule—all of which went into keeping him happy and healthy.
Then my dad said, “How would you feel if someone was treating Carter the way you are treating yourself right now? Your body deserves to be cared for with the same amount love and dedication that you give to your horse’s well-being. He would want that for you.” Those words completely shifted my perspective. I’d always thought of myself as someone who had self-love. But viewing how I was treating my body through the lens of how I cared for my horses, and seeing that stark contrast, was a shocking wake up call. It made me completely re-assess what I knew self-love to be, and realize how deeply I’d been depriving myself of the real thing.
Looking ahead, Stevenson hopes that we as a community can shift our focus from comparison and judgement to supporting and celebrating one another.
When I first started riding, it was all about friendships at the barn. Whether it was with my pony, or the other kids there, the camaraderie and sense of connection was really what got me excited about going to ride each day. In group lessons, we’d get so excited for one another when someone found a perfect distance, or learned something new, like a turn on the forehand.
The horse show environment made maintaining this supportive energy a lot more complicated. I remember standing in the work-off for the Taylor Harris medal, and the four of us that were lined up to complete the test all happened to ride together with the same trainer. Each of us listened to the called-out test, rode it our best, and rejoined the lineup. The three of us who went first all gave subtle nods of affirmation to one another upon completing the test, to wordlessly say, “You did it!” Then the final girl went, and she’d definitely had the most accurate and smooth ride. She returned to the lineup, and before her horse even came to a halt, she said to us, “I was the only one our trainer whooped for.”
We were all completely astonished that she’d said it, and it’s still something I think about to this day. That girl had clinched the blue ribbon. But I knew that the real win that day was having been supportive of my friends and fellow riders. That moment really demonstrated and engrained in my psyche the importance of being a good sport above all. At the end of the day, we’re all doing this because it makes us feel a sense of joy and fulfillment that is so rare and beautiful—and we must keep that awareness front of mind as a collective.
At Harrisburg several weeks ago, I had a little moment with legendary equestrian Betty Oare that really encapsulated this sentiment. Betty is often referred to as the “Grand Dame” of the hunters. She is 80 years old and competing in the older division of the Adult Amateurs. As a competitor in the younger section of the same division, I’d been watching her rounds with total admiration over the two days of competition. The final class of the division was a combined classic, and Betty and I ended up standing next to each other on our horses at the in gate. I introduced myself, told her how much I’d enjoyed watching her ride, and how much respect I had for her as a fellow horsewoman. She flashed me the most brilliant smile, and said, ‘Thank you, darling! I need as many people cheering for me as I can get!’
I smiled back and thought to myself, “that goes for all of us.”
Body Shaming at the Ring
I cannot count the amount of times I’ve been ringside and have heard toxic commentary about a rider’s physicality. What has been most surprising to me about this is that a lot of the time, the comments aren’t coming from other riders, but from trainers. We as riders put so much stock into our trainers’ opinions of us. I have heard of trainers recommending weight loss to achieve higher scores, and making jabs at a rider’s weight or eating habits after a bad round or lesson.
I also know that body bias within competitive equitation is an extremely prevalent topic, and have heard many riders refer to equitation classes at shows as “skinny competitions.” I firmly believe that a person’s body is no one’s business but their own. Yes, this is a competitive sport. Yes, we are athletes. But no, that does not make it okay or give anyone the right to make someone’s body a topic of discussion or criticism.
In order to create a positive environment for everyone involved in the equestrian community—both at shows and at the barn—we must all take accountability for our own words and actions, and do what we can to promote acceptance, positivity, and mental wellbeing. At the end of the day, we cannot improve as a sport, and as a community, if we do not make the effort to improve ourselves.
The “All of Us” Podcast
In short, “All Of Us” is a weekly mental health podcast focused on exploring and embracing the world of internal obstacles we face on a daily basis. Our mission is to destigmatize candid conversation around the issues that people often feel very alone in dealing with. I wanted to create a nurturing community in which people felt resonance, acceptance, and the motivation to grow into the best versions of themselves.
The guests in season one ranged from friends, to doctors, to my own therapist, to professional athletes. I really wanted to include a diverse range of people to communicate the principle behind the podcast, which is that all of us are dealing with internal obstacles, in one way or another. I can’t wait to finally share season two later this winter. The guests are all very different from one another, and address a number of topics that I think are extremely prevalent.
Listen to the latest episode of All of Us:
“Because of My Horse”
Every time I go spend time with my horses, whether I’m riding or just hanging around the barn, it feels like a therapeutic experience for me. I think because of the connection humans have had to horses through history, there is something that feels so right on a primal level when we spend time with horses. Last Christmas Eve was a particularly turbulent moment for my family, and I woke up on Christmas feeling completely alone.
I remember it was 5am and, in my pajamas, I drove out to the barn. No one was there when I arrived, and it was still dark out. I found Carter sleeping curled up in his stall, and I went in and sat in the shavings with him and just cried with his head on my lap. It was such an incredibly cathartic moment—a release that I’d known I needed from the minute I woke up that morning. I took him outside to graze and we watched the sunrise together, and what could have been the worst Christmas morning turned into one of the most beautiful ones I’ve ever had, because of my horse.
Hero rides with Halie Robinson at Hunt Ridge, LLC. Check them out in the December 2021 issue of The Plaid Horse:
*This story was originally published in the December 2021 issue of The Plaid Horse. Click here to read it now and subscribe for issues delivered straight to your door!