The Mental Impacts of Riding with Pain

BY Paige Cerulli

From the magazine

When Paige McCaslin suffered a bad fall, landing on a jump in 2014, she experienced excruciating back pain. The accident came two weeks before a major show, and when she rode in the competition, she found that the pain significantly impacted her confidence.

Now in her twenties, McCaslin has also experienced knee problems and had surgery on her left ACL. “I had a very hard time returning to riding after the surgery,” she tells The Plaid Horse. Today she’s a trainer and owner of Fiery Manners Hunter/Jumper Academy in St. Louisville, OH, and prefers to ride without stirrups, which helps to relieve the pressure on her knees.

Such modifications allow her to ride, but she still experiences the mental side effects from her injuries. “When your body doesn’t work like it used to and you’re trying to get it to do what it needs to, it affects your confidence,” McCaslin says.

After suffering a bad fall landing a jump in 2014, Paige McCaslin has continued to experience pain and challenges. Photo by Winslow Photography.

How Pain Affects Equestrian Performance

When asked about their past injuries, most equestrians will share stories of dramatic falls, being stepped on or kicked, or any number of other ways that they’ve been injured around horses. But while injuries are common in the sport of riding, the impact of pain on riders goes overlooked.

Understanding the mental effects of pain starts with understanding how pain physically affects riders. Michele Hollis, M.D., explains that pain has wide-reaching effects on riders and their performance in the saddle. Hollis, who is both a board-certified Emergency Medicine physician and an equestrian herself, provides urgent care house calls in Wellington, FL, during the Winter Equestrian Festival with her practice, Hollis Med.

“The effects depend on the type of pain that you’re dealing with,” says Hollis. “From musculoskeletal to acute, whole body to chronic autoimmune conditions, there are all kinds of pain. When you’re not able to move freely or use all the parts of your body in the way that is best to maximize efficiency, then your performance is going to suffer.” Hollis notes that pain often affects a rider’s balance, core, and ability to effectively use both sides of their body.

Taylor Campbell, the National Team Physiotherapist for Equestrian Canada and co-owner of Prospect Physiotherapy, explains that pain can have significant impacts on an equestrian’s overall position and riding style. Most often, Campbell sees that riders try to guard or protect the painful area to avoid additional pain or injury. In an attempt to protect themselves from pain, riders may tense their muscles, alter their balance, or otherwise change their position in the saddle.

“These compensations can affect the rider’s ability to communicate effectively with their horse, as well as their horse’s ability to perform correctly,” says Campbell. “Guarding can also impact the horse’s way of going, as the rider’s altered position can affect the horse’s balance, rhythm, and movement. Over time, the muscular imbalances or strains seen in the horse correspond very closely to the physical patterns that I see in the rider, which actually makes perfect sense.”

If left unaddressed, the rider’s compensations can become habitual and lead to additional issues, like weakness, fatigue, stiffness, and decreased range of motion.

For example, a rider experiencing pain and tightness on the right side of their back might shift their weight toward the right, increasing the pressure in their right seat bone. That uneven weight distribution can create tension in the right side of the horse’s back. The horse will naturally adjust its balance to compensate, and bulge slightly to the left, creating a right-side bend in the horse’s body. That postural shift would eventually tighten and shorten the muscles along the horse’s right side.

Such alterations to a rider’s posture, security, and overall performance in the saddle carry mental implications, too. Janet Sasson Edgette, Psy.D., M.P.H., is an equestrian sports psychologist and a renowned child and adolescent psychologist. She is the author of seven books, including Heads Up! Practical Sports Psychology for Riders, Their Families & Their Trainers, and The Rider’s Edge: Overcoming the Psychological Challenges of Riding.

Edgette explains that pain can have tremendous psychological impacts. “Pain in general is exhausting, not only physically but mentally as well,” she says. “It takes up a lot of real estate in a person’s mind, making it hard to focus on other things. It’s easy to imagine how that would negatively impact a rider’s ability to attend to all the details that make a difference in our horse’s health or performance.” For example, if a rider knows they have a limited window of time to be physically active before they get tired, they might opt for a shorter warmup than is ideal.

Edgette notes that the cumulative effects of riding in pain can impact how an equestrian feels about themselves as an athlete and a competitor. “Everyone wants to feel on top of their game, especially if competing, so anything that compromises that can affect a rider’s self-concept as well as her self-confidence,” she says. “Worrying about whether your back pain will return on show day or become acute as you head into the show ring is very distracting for a rider. It can cause her to ride more cautiously, which sometimes translates into riding less assertively.”

Campbell says that she frequently sees pain cause anxiety for riders. “Pain can also lead to feelings of frustration, helplessness, and discouragement, particularly if the pain is chronic or difficult to manage and limits their ability to ride,” she says.

Since chronic pain can impact a rider’s sleep and energy levels, it can cause fatigue and feelings of depression: “All of these psychological impacts can further lead to a loss of confidence and affect the rider’s performance, motivation, relationship with their horse, and enjoyment of the sport.”

Janet Sasson Edgette, Psy.D., M.P.H. Photo by Chris Ricciardi.

Balancing Pain with Competition Goals

Pain can also interfere with competitive goals. Hollis notes that riders recovering from an acute injury may feel that they don’t have enough time to adequately prepare for a competition, so they may try to rush the process, potentially resulting in reinjury. “Being unsure of whether you’ve started back too quickly could affect your confidence,” says Hollis. “Fear of a reinjury can impact your confidence, as well.”

It’s essential for competitive riders to develop an integrated support team of trusted healthcare professionals and a trainer, notes Campbell. “The goal of an integrated support team is to allow for open communication between team members to create a holistic approach to rider recovery and development,” she says. A support team should consist of a trainer, physical therapist or chiropractor, mental performance coach, and sports nutritionist or dietitian.

Campbell explains that trainers play a crucial role in helping riders to manage physical limitations. “Given their unique position in observing riding patterns and performance, trainers are often the first to notice any changes in a rider’s abilities,” Campbell says. “For instance, if a trainer consistently finds themselves issuing the same cues to a rider, such as “drop your right shoulder,” it may be beneficial to seek the expertise of a physical therapist to address any underlying pain or myofascial issues.

By working collaboratively with medical professionals, trainers and riders can modify training plans and set realistic goals that take any physical limitations into account.

There are several ways that riders can take an active role in managing old injuries and preventing future ones. “Depending on where the old injury is located, it’s generally thought to be a good idea to try to strengthen the area around the injury,” Hollis says. “If a knee is injured, you want the quads to be stronger. Stretching is great for helping to loosen up muscles, but strengthening exercises are important as well. Pilates is a great strength and balance training form of exercise that will be useful for any rider, whether injured or not.”

Strength training can also help to protect joints from future injury. Hollis encourages riders to make sure that their position in the saddle is correct, their core is strong, their equipment is properly adjusted, and their stirrups are the right length.

Coping with the Emotional Impacts of Pain

Pain can alter a rider’s position, lead to new problems in the saddle, and prompt a loss of confidence. It can also cause significant fear. Edgette encourages riders to take their fears seriously, rather than trying to talk themselves out of being afraid or minimize the impact of their fear.

“Calling fears ‘irrational’ doesn’t make them any easier to manage,” says Edgette. “In fact, I’ve found that fears are usually very rational when you think of them in terms of how our brain and body are always trying to protect us from harm. When we don’t like the things we feel or think, we tend to dismiss them by calling them irrational or ‘negative.’ But that gives us an excuse to avoid being totally honest with ourselves about how much pain we’re in, and what the steps are to remedy it.”

Edgette encourages riders coping with pain to determine what it is that keeps them in the sport of riding. “Maybe you have training or competitive goals you really want to reach, or you simply love the smell when you walk into the barn,” she says. “Once you figure out some facet of riding that really keeps you engaged in the sport, find a way to keep that front and center in your mind.” For example, a rider could post a photo of a horse show they want to qualify for on their fridge.

When it comes to setting goals, Edgette highlights the importance of a personalized approach. “Everyone comes to the table with different aptitudes for enduring or mentally blocking pain,” she says. “That said, I return to the idea of being thoroughly honest with oneself and one’s riding and health care teams as the best starting point, while at the same time understanding that grief for what one has lost, in either the short or the long term, is as much a part of the sport as all the moments of glory that we draw from it.”

Changing the Perspective on Riding and Pain

From joint supplements to PEMF therapy to equine bodyworkers and more, riders have their choice of a wide range of options to support their equine partners and help them to feel their physical best. But when it comes to riders themselves, that same focus on physical comfort and wellness is lacking.

“I think traditionally, riders have been perceived as secondary to the horse in a partnership, with the focus primarily on the horse’s physical well-being,” says Campbell. “From my experience working with this demographic, riders are also just a physically tough group of individuals with a high pain tolerance and often prioritize their performance over their own discomfort or pain.”

Campbell cautions that the implications of overlooking the rider’s well-being can be significant. “While I may be biased, I believe that the biggest factor affecting our horses is ourselves,” she says. “Riders who are in pain or discomfort may develop compensatory patterns and be less effective in their riding and training, which can ultimately impact the horse’s movement and overall performance.”

“It is so important to recognize that the rider is a critical component of the equation when it comes to equine athlete performance and comfort,” says Campbell. “By prioritizing the rider’s well-being and providing the support needed to manage pain, riders can be better equipped to perform at their best and, in turn, allow their horse the opportunity to perform at its best.”