Mindset Makeover Spotlight: Returning from Injury

Mindset Makeover Spotlight: Returning from Injury

This month, we’re going to be taking a deeper look at stories that center around horses and mindset, be it dealing with injuries, juggling horses and life, or making difficult decisions in moments of high pressure. 

To kick off our series, we sat down with Equestrian Masterclass member Carolyn Naoroz, an adult amateur rider who spent her formative years in the high stakes, high pressure world of professional dance. When an injury cut her career short, she eventually found her way to horses as a means to channel her energy. Read her story of what she initially faced as a relatively new adult rider to the sport, and how she needed to constantly adjust her mindset throughout her journey as different roadblocks appeared, including a new, debilitating injury that came completely out of the blue. 

Sophie Coffey: As a former professional dancer, what’s your relationship been with injuries, and where were you in your riding before this latest injury occurred? 

Carolyn Naoroz: I was in some sort of dance training from the age of 3 through the age of 23, very intensely from the ages of 10 - 23 in pre-professional and professional programs. I had to retire from dancing when I developed tendonitis in both of my knees, which was due to wear and tear and wasn’t something that could just be fixed at that point. At that point, I realized that the future I had been training for all of my life was no longer going to be a reality, and that was a major mindset shift I had to go through at that point.

It was an extremely complicated process to go through at such a young age, and while it took me a few years to figure out where to put all of the energy I had channeled into physicality. I took the path of refocusing it into intellectual pursuits, doing the same sort of mental gymnastics that I had done physically with my body before. 

But after I got my PhD, I knew that I had to do something to put my energy towards, and I said to myself, you know, I’ve always wanted to seriously ride horses. I think it’s time for me to tackle that pursuit. I was 34 at the time and had always been a lifelong horse lover, but had never been able to do anything with it as a kid because all my time and focus was spent on dancing. I finally decided to join a hunter show barn, went in knowing nothing except it had been a dream to own a horse, and that’s where I wanted to end up. 

Coffey: What goals had you set for yourself in the saddle prior to your most recent injury? 

Naoroz: After the first few years of taking lessons, then leasing, then purchasing my first horse Perkins and being in a show barn environment, my goal was to be able to have a clean 2’ hunter course and be able to enjoy showing without getting nervous. In fact, my nerves were the largest hurdle to achieving my goals, my old dancing injuries didn’t affect my riding at all at the time, but the mental aspect of being in the show ring was daunting. As someone who is not afraid of being in front of people or performing, my nerves were all around the inherent dangers of riding, especially as someone whose body is already compromised in some ways from my background. The mental game was very present and wrapped up in those goals pre-injury. 

So the struggle pre-injury was very much the mental game, and I worked with a lot of professionals to try to get my mindset to a place where I could not have debilitating nerves, which is what I was experiencing: the sort of nerves where you freeze and you can’t do the things you know you need to do to perform and stay safe in the saddle. 

Coffey: It sounds like your goals were realistic and you were on a set path to attain them, so what happened when the physical piece started to interfere with your progress?

Naoroz: I had never had sciatica before, and it started off in my left leg, which is the leg you use to mount up with and needs to be weight bearing and on a moveable balance point in the stirrup iron. It started off feeling like pain across my glute where the peraformice muscle is (my dance background does help because we had to learn anatomy so we could be very specific in telling the masseur or body workers where we had pain after a performance or rehearsal).

It started to be just a dull pain that I could ride through, but very quickly escalated into, “Wow, I can’t stand, I can’t be weight bearing on that leg.” It was absolutely mind blowing for me. It first presented in August of 2023, and by the end of the month, I couldn’t even drive. I couldn't be comfortable at all unless I was laying down flat on my back. And when I stood on it, it was the worst pain I had ever felt in my entire life, which is saying something considering my background as a dancer and all of the injuries I’ve had over the years from that. 

Coffey: What was going on in your head as you were talking to doctors and trying to figure out a path forward? What was your initial mental state and how were you having to rethink things?

Naoroz: Initially when trying to diagnose an injury like this, you have to go through a process. First, you get X-rays, then they prescribe physical therapy, then you have to get an MRI, and there were months between each of these appointments. I was also doing acupuncture to address it, and at first every new approach gave you hope, but then you are just in pain for so long without being abel to do the things you normally do that it gets very dark. 

For example, my husband would have to drive me to the barn, and I would lay in the back seat of the car and have Perkins walked over to the car just so I could see him, because I couldn’t even make it down the barn aisle to see him. And this was when I had just purchased another horse, Roya, who we had just brought home. I had a total of 5 rides on her before my injury set in, so the other mental thing in this was, I was so excited for this new partner, to get to know her and learn together and see what sort of horse she was, and now all of that was on hold without any guarantee that it would come back. 

By the end of September with no real diagnosis, I was in a downward spiral for sure. 

Coffey: When did things start to turn the corner for you? 

Naoroz: In the beginning of October when I went in for the MRI, we finally found the root of the problem, which was disc degeneration and a herniated disc in my lumber spine between S1/L5, and L5/L4. All of that was from my years as a dancer, and was just the wear and tear that comes with that life when your primary shock absorber has been put under that amount of pressure. 

When we finally figured out what it was, my main concerns were how can we treat it and when can I get back in the saddle. My goals had changed to the point where I just wanted to sit in the saddle again, regardless of what I could do once I got up there. I just wanted to be able to stand and groom, and I couldn’t even do that piece. 

Coffey: Once things were diagnosed and a treatment plan was in place, did your goals and mindset shift at all from where it was before your injury? 

Naoroz: I will say that I was very lucky that even though physical therapy didn’t help and nerve pain medication didn’t help, the injections that I received at the end of November (just as you would inject a horse that’s having a problem), I did slowly start feeling better. I was still very weak in my left leg, and will probably always be a little weaker in that left leg, but really by the time I got to Christmas I was just thrilled that the doctors cleared me to get back in the saddle at all. 

I was just thrilled to have horses back in my life at all. I was also very lucky that my longtime partner Perkins was still there to help me through it. We had decided to sell Roya since I just didn’t know what my long term future would be like and she deserved an owner who could really devote time to riding and bonding with her, there were just too many unknowns. But I knew that Perkins would take care of me and be the horse to help me come back. 

The goal for me once I started riding again was to figure out my new baseline, and if it was what I could do before, which was walk/trot/canter and jump some crossrails. Today, I am definitely at that baseline and beyond. I legged myself back up just the way you would leg up a horse - I started with tack walking, increased the time, then added in some trotting, increased the time, etc It took a while, but it was worth it since no outside physical therapy can really recreate the fitness that comes with being in the saddle. 

The most amazing thing though was that through that legging up process, I found that I no longer had that debilitating fear in the saddle. The limitations that I felt pre-injury went away. I found myself thinking, “I don’t care about getting hurt while riding, as long as my injury is gone, I want to do this no matter what level I’m at - this is where I want to be.” Sitting on the sidelines for 6 months made me realize how much I wanted to do it, and that overcame whatever anxiety I had previously felt about it.

Now when I have nerves or a moment or panic, I just take a breath and keep going. Tonya Johnston says that you have to want it more than you fear it, and I really think that this time of being injured and now knowing what I would be able to do coming back from it changed my mindset to, “If I feel good, I’m riding. Nothing is going to hold me back.” 

If you are having challenges with your mindset, Equestrian Masterclass offers several courses which could help, some of which Caroline herself took and recommends:

Tonya Johnston Teaches How to Be a Consistent Rider

Dr. Jenny Susser Teaches How to Control Fear and Anxiety

Annette Paterakis Teaches Becoming a Confident Rider

Or, start your two week free trial! 

* image credits to Fine Run Photography and Carolyn Naoroz