Self-Compassion for Equestrians

Photo © Heather N. Photography


If you’re anything like me, you’re pretty tough on yourself. In fact, it’s a trait I see that’s pretty common among equestrians. We’re always striving for better. We work exceptionally hard. We’re quick to forgive our horses and just as quick to blame ourselves.

These typically common character traits are something I love about equestrians. It’s why most of my closest friends ride. But I’ve recently realized that “tough love” isn’t always the best way to treat ourselves when it comes to overall mental wellness.

Kristin Neff, a researcher and Psychology Professor at UT Austin, has devoted much of her career to studying self-compassion. The basic premise is that most people believe their happiness and sense of worth comes from having high self-esteem, mostly driven by accomplishments, but research actually shows that being able to show yourself compassion is what has the greatest positive impact on your total well-being.

If this sounds woo woo to you, I get it. I thought the same thing at first, but here are some science-backed points that stood out to me in from Neff’s book, Self-Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself.

  • Studies show that high levels of self-criticism are linked to depression and dissatisfaction with life.
  • High self-criticism is often used to cover the desire for control.
  • Extreme self-criticism is linked to suicide. 
  • Self-criticism flags a stress response in your brain that creates cortisol (the stress hormone). Over time, high cortisol levels lead to depression by depleting the neurotransmitters that experience pleasure.
  • Self-criticism triggers the part of your brain associated with error processing and problem-solving. 
  • Being kind to yourself triggers the part of the brain associated with positive emotions. 
  • Perfectionists are at a much greater risk for anxiety, depression, and other mental illnesses. 
  • The illusion of control encourages self-judgment and blame. 
  • When something bad happens, we tend to jump into the logistics of fixing the crisis. This causes burnout because we spend all our energy trying to fix external problems instead of refreshing ourselves internally.
  • Research shows we have a negativity bias—meaning we react more to negative facts than we do positive ones. 
  • Self-compassionate people have better emotional coping skills.
  • People with high self-esteem tend to be more narcissistic than those with low self-esteem, but self-compassion is completely unassociated with narcissism. 
  • Studies show self-compassionate people are more oriented towards personal growth than ones who criticize themselves. 
Photo © Heather N. Photography

So, what does all of this have to do with riding?

Think about the last time you showed, lessoned, or even had a productive schooling session on your own. Was there one bad distance, missed lead change, or “epic mistake” that burned itself in your brain? Did you get off the horse thinking, Ugh. I can’t believe I leaned for that long spot! How many times am I going to screw that up? I’m no good at this sport!

I don’t know about you, but I’ve had a lot of thoughts like that at the barn. My self-criticism voice is loud. Traditionally, I’ve always thought of my inner critic as something that pushed me to work hard and be better. Maybe that is partially true, but it also can get me really down on myself. It’s like throwing kerosene on the fire of my stress and anxiety. I’m not sure what good it’s done me.

In her book, Neff explains how people fear compassion because they worry they will become weak or complacent. But that fear is a real block to treating yourself kindly. It exacerbates self-judgment and feelings of inadequacy. 

When we teach proper horsemanship, we’re essentially training riders to first and foremost have compassion for our horses. Try to see things from their perspective. Be fair in what we ask, and consistent in our communication. Remember they’re living, breathing, creatures. They’re going to make mistakes. They’re going to have off days.

But here’s something we have to remember—the same goes for us.

Photo © Heather N. Photography

One of the biggest things that stood out to me in Neff’s writings on self-compassion is the following: When we’re constantly trying to improve or maintain high self-esteem, we’re denying ourselves the ability to be accepted as we actually are. 

I adore my horse. His big, long body is not easy to wrangle. He looks to look and pretend to spook at things when he’s fresh. He does not have an easy lead change. His trot takes abs far stronger than mine may ever be to sit properly. But I see him for who he is, and I love him. Flaws and all. I’m trying to learn to do the same for myself.

Having self-compassion has not turned me into a lazy rider who doesn’t want to progress. I don’t leap off my horse and declare myself God’s gift to the amateur hunters. But it has allowed me to make mistakes and not feel shame for them. It has allowed me to remind myself, Hey—this is your fun hobby and you’re always learning. You don’t have to be perfect. It has helped my horse, my trainer, and most importantly—myself—to accept me as I am.

This self-acceptance, love really, is something I’d like to see be as common in our community as tenacity and grit. We’ve accomplished so much while being hard on ourselves, but that isn’t the only way to live.

About the Author: Lauren holds an MFA in creative nonfiction from the University of California Riverside, and is a lifelong rider and writer. She writes as a way to explore life. She’s interested in the impact horses have on our lives as well discussing body positivity, mental health and addiction through personal narrative. She enjoys showing on the local hunter/jumper circuit in Austin, Texas.

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