It’s no secret that growing up in the horse industry teaches you, from an early age, an unmatched level of perseverance, grit, and strength. A never-ending work ethic is like a badge of honor as we push through illnesses and injuries to care for, ride, and compete our horses.
Since my early childhood, I’ve been making sacrifices for my riding career. I would happily skip playdates and after school activities to go to my riding lessons, but as time went on, I took it to an extreme: riding through physical injuries, riding dangerous horses, and neglecting my mental health. I was applauded for my tenacity and bravery when, in reality, I was terrified and in pain. To an extent, these traits create a strong work ethic, but where do we draw the line between working hard and harming ourselves?
This mentality was reinforced by influential professionals - you know the ones - and their famous sayings like, “If you fall off, you either go to the hospital, or you get back on." While there’s value and truth in getting back on after a fall and pushing your physical and mental limits, we can find ourselves experiencing an “all or nothing” mindset. The American Psychology Association defines a workaholic as “one who has trouble refraining from work. This type of driven over involvement in work is often a source of significant stress, interpersonal difficulties, and health problems". The past few years have shown me that the workaholic tendencies of the horse industry can lead to more severe issues: emotional and sexual abuse, eating disorders, and anxiety diagnoses, among even the most successful riders. If you don’t see these issues or rebut by saying, “that’s how things have always been,” I challenge you to listen to those speaking out and consider your reluctance to change.
Me at a horse show in the early days.
This past year, I’ve wrestled with the toxic workaholism that the horse industry thrives on. My 20th birthday was in January, and I knew that my early 20s could be crucial as an aspiring professional. Yet, I was fearful of being another working student subjected to 15 hour work days, seven days a week, just to be belittled, taken advantage of, and told I’m not working hard enough. At the same time, I wanted to challenge myself and the horse industry to honor and advocate for ourselves the way we do for our horses. To my surprise, an ideal opportunity presented itself, and with this in mind, I took a working student position and moved with my horse to Ocala, FL.
The most recent example of my workaholic tendencies was last week. In this instance, I was kicked on my elbow by a weanling. Don’t get me wrong, I consider my day a success if I don’t get bitten, kicked, or stepped on by a horse. However, this time, my arm immediately swelled up and began to go numb. My boss promptly drove me to the Urgent Care for X-Rays, and I immediately felt embarrassed for being in pain. I was worried that I’d seem lazy or ‘soft’ for not toughing it out. Fearful of not upholding my strong work ethic, when the doctor said I didn’t break my arm, I told myself that I had to work and ride the next day. I ended up pinching a nerve in my elbow that caused swelling, weakened my grip, and caused my fingers to go numb. I was consumed with anxiety when I couldn’t clean stalls or ride my horse because of the pain. My thoughts began to race. Would I be viewed as weak? What if the pain is in my head? Will I be fired for taking a day off to rest my arm? This thinking seems irrational to anyone outside of the horse world, but most riders have experienced similar feelings and fears. No one at my barn was mad or disappointed; instead, they encouraged me to rest and take care of myself. At this moment, I realized how uncompassionate I am with myself. When any of the horses in our barn have a swollen leg, we begin to assess the problem, provide appropriate treatment, and let them rest. I would never view my horse as weak or lazy for being injured, sore, or just having an off day, so how do I justify treating myself like that?
"No one at my barn was mad or disappointed; instead, they encouraged me to rest and take care of myself. At this moment, I realized how uncompassionate I am with myself."
Touching on recent events, it would be foolish of the equestrian community to dismiss the lessons we can learn from gymnast Simone Biles withdrawing from events at the Tokyo Olympics. Like gymnastics, riding is a dangerous sport that demands a rider’s complete focus. A momentary lapse in judgement can be catastrophic. Some of the response to Biles’ decision exemplified not only ignorance, but a lack of willingness to sacrifice pride. While riders all learn to channel mental strength and work through off days, sometimes, despite all efforts, you don’t have a good feel of your horse and are not mentally present. Whether you’re going into a .80cm jumper round or running a CCI5*-L, there’s courage and strength in honoring yourself and your horse enough to recognize when an off day is going to evolve into a dangerous ride. Despite comments calling Biles selfish, the most selfish act is knowingly putting yourself or your horse in an unsafe situation because you’re afraid of looking like a failure.
Me and my horse, Scooby.
In this case, it’s necessary to acknowledge that I’m not advocating for a poor work ethic or making excuses. I work in the barn 10 hours a day, 5-6 days a week, pushing my limits each day to become a stronger rider and better horsewoman. There are days I’m so exhausted that even grooming a horse feels like a challenge, days that I miss my friends and family, and days that I doubt my riding abilities. However, I don’t have days where I’m treated like a replaceable employee, days where I’m called weak or incompetent, or days that I hate myself. What I am advocating for is treating yourself like the incredible equestrian and athlete that you are. An equestrian’s success shouldn’t depend on neglecting our physical and mental health or damaging our relationships with family and friends. An equestrian’s success shouldn’t be about chasing an ego boost. An equestrian’s success shouldn't equate to being a workaholic.
"What I am advocating for is treating yourself like the incredible equestrian and athlete that you are."
This topic’s greatest challenge is that no cookie-cutter standard or rulebook determines your success as an equestrian. Horses are incredibly subjective, and what one sees as unattainable goals or wealth is another’s reality. At the same time, this subjectiveness is what makes riding so beautiful and personal. No two horses or two riders are the same, so, of course, this is an intimate and delicate conversation. One reader could think I’m overworked, while another could argue that I’m not working hard enough. Similar to how we make an effort to understand our horses’ quirks and weaknesses, we must make an effort to do the same with ourselves. If you knew that a snaffle bit worked best for your horse and someone insisted it was not only the wrong choice, but that your horse needs a harsher bit, wouldn’t you advocate and stand up for your horse? Learn yourself, establish your boundaries, then stick to them. Advocate for yourself the way you do for your horse.
Just like many other aspiring professionals, I’d love to have a string of Grand Prix horses and a solid group of clients. Whether or not I achieve my goals will be determined by time and various internal and external factors. Despite all of my aspirations, I’ll consider myself successful if I’m considered someone who loves their horses, other riders, and most importantly, myself.
Feature photo by Dani Maczynski. Inset photos courtesy of the author.
Written by Megan Roswech
Megan Roswech is 20-year-old and a working student in Ocala, FL. Megan grew up in New Jersey showing in the hunters and equitation, but recently switched to eventing. She’s now pursuing her goals of being an upper level event rider while developing her young horse, Scooby.