When Mental Illness Comes to the Horse Show

When Mental Illness Comes to the Horse Show

From a young age, I never questioned what my career would be. At ten years old, I began planning how I would run my barn, mapping out the classes I would win, and the goals I would achieve.

Truthfully, I never had any doubters. My parents and trainers saw my passion and drive and having a successful career as a professional rider and trainer felt inevitable. I never would've imagined that my greatest enemy would be myself.

By now, anyone who's read my two previous articles (here and here) may think I sound redundant or even ask themselves, 'Can she write about something else?' But I don't think there could be enough writing in the world to solve the complexity of mental illness --more specifically, mental illness in professional equestrians.

My horse show career began when I was four years old. I felt at home in the show ring, wearing the best pink bows my mom could find, thriving off of the excitement of waiting to hear my number called. It wasn't long after that when I got diagnosed with severe General Anxiety Disorder. More intense than nerves and worries, the Anxiety Disorders Association of America describes this as  "Children who suffer from an anxiety disorder experience fear, nervousness, shyness, and avoidance of places and activities that persist despite the helpful efforts of parents, caretakers, and teachers." I always knew that I felt different than the other girls at the barn, but I was too young to understand why. I spent years ignoring these feelings, but as the pressure grew more intense, I snapped and quit riding when I was about 14 years old. I eventually began riding again, but I put the thought of becoming a professional out of my sight, swearing to myself I'd never put myself in that position again.

"I don't think there could be enough writing in the world to solve the complexity of mental illness --more specifically, mental illness in professional equestrians."

I quickly realized that I couldn't envision a future that didn't include being a professional rider. I've always lived and breathed horses and competing, but I felt as though settling for a career outside of horses was the only way I could keep my anxiety at bay. Yet, I was constantly grieving the loss of what my riding career could've been, a lack of fulfillment so strong that it overpowered all my fears. Admittedly, I haven't been able to confidently say out loud that I want to be a professional until these past few months.

Most 20-year-olds will proudly declare their aspiring career, but when someone asked me if I wanted to be a trainer, all I could mutter was "maybe." Everyone has times where they doubt themselves or feel like a failure, but I imagine this feeling quickly passes for the average person once they get out of their "rut" or achieve a goal. For me, it's not just a feeling -- it's a backpack filled with rocks that I never seem able to put down. It's strapped to my bones. And just when I gain the strength to carry it with ease, this backpack is filled with one hundred more burdensome rocks.

I've always thought that the mental component of riding was far more challenging than the physical component, and my fears manifest in the same way. For instance, most nerves riders face about jumping revolve around falling off, crashing through the jump, or flipping over. Similarly, most horse show nerves are fears of a horse's unpredictability at a new venue or arriving to find that the 3' class you entered is built up to look like 3'6".

Don't get me wrong, I still have these fears, and I'm far from a superhero that never misses a distance, but these fears feel minuscule compared to the outrageous and typically false statements my brain comes up with each time my foot goes in the stirrup. These statements usually range from "What if I ruin this sale horse and undo all of his training?" to "I'm probably the worst rider ever to swing their leg over a horse." Sounds intense, but anxiety is intense. Having hopes of being a professional means having hope in myself and projecting that hope outwards, which isn't my strong point, but if I want people to invest in my future, I have to invest in myself. 

If you watch me ride, you'll notice that when I'm warming up at the walk (sometimes at the trot and canter if I'm particularly anxious) I close my eyes for a few strides. Years ago, I learned a common grounding technique to help during panic attacks called 5,4,3,2,1. During a panic attack, your mind can go into a state called derealization, which is when you don't feel connected to your surroundings, and the people and objects you see don't seem real. The 5,4,3,2,1 technique names five things you can see, four things that you can feel, three things that you can hear, two things you smell, and one thing that you can taste. This exercise returns your body to your five senses and stops derealization. I've had excessive practice with this exercise, and at some point over the years, I realized that by closing my eyes, I can feel the horse's movement, listen to their hooves meeting the ground, find better contact with the bit, and relax my muscles to go in sync with theirs. I become fully present and able to ride from my feel of the horse, not my fear. 

I don't think what I'm explaining is an easy concept to understand, and if anxiety could be understood from one article, then I wouldn't have spent the past ten years trying to figure it out. I'm a quick learner, athletic, a hard worker, and a talented rider, so while I still struggle with executing certain things under saddle, I've never doubted my physical ability to understand and perform the task. Yet, I don't have the luxury of silencing my nerves or hanging out with friends before a horse show to "unwind and relax," which, more often than not, leaves me feeling inadequate. My anxiety will leave me feeling paralyzed, overwhelmed, and convince me to lay in bed all day -- it's no wonder I've struggled accepting that I want to have a professional career in one of the most judgmental and intense sports.

Mentally, I have to work harder than most to succeed as a rider and competitor, but the debilitating fear of not being good enough comes with this hard work. I'm terrified that, after all of this, someone will watch me ride and scoff, "This girl wants to be a professional?" And just like that, the years I've spent building myself up will come crashing down around me, but battling anxiety has taught me to stop catastrophizing the negative. Although I'm anxious, I'm still incredibly competitive and driven by defying all of the odds that have been stacked against me.

More and more riders have come out with stories of rising above financial barriers, beating physical health setbacks, and overcoming prejudice. These stories are all equally important and inspirational, but there's room at the table for riders with mental illnesses. So, here's to the professionals on anxiety medication, the ones who just received a bipolar diagnosis, the ones who are thinking about seeing a therapist, and everything in between. In the meantime, I'll see you (and your mental illness) in the show ring.

Read this next: Daniel Bluman - My Journey with Anxiety and Panic Attacks

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.