Q: I ride at an equitation barn in the southeast and am also on a collegiate team. We’re all focused on the equitation ring and I’ve noticed that most of the other girls on my team and at my barn are thinner and taller than I am. I don’t know if this counts against me in the ring in a conscious way, but I feel like every time I ride an amazing course and nail all of my distances, they still place higher than I do. I wonder if it’s because I’m “thicker” than they are.
Am I projecting? Is there a way to stop comparing myself to the other girls? It’s starting to affect my relationship with them and sending me down a rabbit hole. – Samantha
Jesse McKee Parvin, LMFT: This is a great question, Samantha, and there are a few different layers I’d like to unpack here. Let’s start with that element of subjectivity that exists in the hunters and equitation.
Given this particular discipline, what makes it beautiful and difficult is the subjective element. This differs from other areas of focus in riding (like the jumpers where it’s all penalty-based) and while this subjectivity allows for creativity, with it comes the feeling of ‘the unknown’ when you walk out of the ring after your course. When you finish your round, you have no idea how you’ll end up in the ribbons! You do not know, and cannot control, how the judge perceived your round. This is a world that I compete in myself, so I can certainly relate! It’s important to recognize that in this discipline specifically, there is the potential that you may be judged on something you can’t objectively identify, even down to something like the color of your show coat! Therefore it can be helpful to simply start with acknowledging the element of the unknown in each round completed.
Along these lines, the ‘unknown’ can leave many riders with anxiety. Given the type of personality that pursues this sport – it’s often perfectionists, type A riders who like things in order and like to be clear about what’s happening – that grey area can be difficult to work through.
The second element of your question that I’d like to address is about projecting. There are a lot of variables in the equitation ring and because there are so many, we tend to bring into that unknown space that with which we are already internally grappling. If we’re experiencing any insecurities with body image, self-confidence, our age, or the financial element of the sport outside of the arena, we’re going to have a tendency to seek clarification or confirmation on that in potentially unrelated aspect of our lives. It’s kind of like the idea that if you’re looking for green in a room, you’re going to find green in the room.
Samantha, did you have a question of your body image beforehand? There might be some other women that you compete against or with who happen to be taller and slimmer, but are they winning because they demonstrated a great lower leg in that round, or they’re getting their changes? Perhaps the slender body type is just what you’re noticing because it’s what you’re already uncertain or insecure about. I would ask you this: can we take note of that internal grappling? Can we widen our scope of possibilities that would cause you to place below your peers sometimes? In therapy I’d call that an alternative appraisal. If I leave my round, feel great about it, but I don’t place as high as my peer, my automatic appraisal (or thought) is “It’s because she’s thinner than me”. Let’s think of some alternative possibilities - not to push to the initial thought away, but to actually increase the possibility of you improving your skills. When you mentally attribute your peers’ success over yours to your weight, you’re also robbing yourself of gaining self-confidence from what went well. What went right in your round? What are you going to work on tomorrow?
If you’re in college, you’re also creating your self-identity, and this can bump up against your peer relationships and wanting to feel connected to your peers. This is a very common moment in development that everyone faces, not just you! You’re trying to connect to your peers but excel in your own way as well, and that’s tough. This is more common than you think, and I wouldn’t be surprised if your peers frequently felt similar. With time and moving out of this particular setting, some of this is naturally going to fall away.
Here are my recommendations for next steps for you:
1. I encourage you to validate the difficulty of this particular discipline. This is hard! To compete in a discipline of subjective nature is very rare and has a unique set of challenges that can sometimes feel so personal. Can you give yourself space to feel that?
2. Can you find ways to utilize this experience to create connection? If you’re feeling this way, there’s a chance others do too. Can you turn this into an opportunity to connect with someone (on your team, your barn, or even online) about these feelings if you suspect they’re feeling the same way? Solidarity is powerful.
3. Identify what is true about your riding. What are things that you know about your skills in the saddle? What are your strengths and weaknesses? What makes you confident, and what makes you nervous? Take note of the initial feedback you give yourself. This keeps the focus of your rounds on learning and growing, and the more focus we place on that, there’s literally less brain space for everything else (like the judge’s opinion that we cannot control). Diluting that feeling and experience you validated in step 1 won’t make it go away, but you can make it less powerful.
Written by Jesse McKee Parvin
Jesse McKee Parvin is a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist specializing in working with eating disorders, athletes, and women's issues. Jesse maintains a small private practice in Brentwood, Ca and in her free time lives the amateur life with her Oldenburg, Millie.