I know so many people who shy away from the label and the stigma that’s attached to mental health illnesses and therefore don’t ask for help and support. As a coach and an educator, I’ve written this article to offer help and support, because we all struggle with our mental health at times.
This is for all the riders, coaches, judges, officials and families involved in the horse industry. No matter what role you play, at what level you compete, or which discipline you participate in, we need to recognise the pressure when it builds and we need to learn to regulate ourselves if we want to survive in the sport long term.
I know what it’s like to be under pressure and I know what it’s like to feel never good enough. I know the sound of that inner voice constantly reminding you that you’ve made a mistake, that you should have done better, that you will never be as good as someone else.
I remember the feeling in my chest when the stress became too much and you fear that one day you will simply explode. I have cried the tears that only fall at night when no one is around, only to get up in the morning, put on a fresh layer of makeup, and face up to the world pretending everything was OK.
What I came to realise much later was that whenever I thought I was alone, the only one who couldn’t cope, the only one who felt the way I did, I was wrong. There were others who felt the same. We were all hiding behind masks, playing our roles so convincingly that even people who were close could not see past the exterior smile, the bubbly small talk and the glittery glamorous picture we presented when we stepped into the open.
I have been a mindset coach for over 15 years now and I recognise my own story in many of the people I talk to. There is always a common thread. We feel alone, misunderstood and overwhelmed. When I was younger I felt the only way to survive was to learn to fight, to be tough and strong so I would not be beaten. I made people ‘wrong’ if they did not understand me, I generated conflicts by trying to get my point across, and I created havoc inside myself. I fought a battle that could never be won until I became older and gradually got wiser, finally realising that I was the one who had to change.
Wisdom is not something that necessarily comes with age. Wisdom develops after you’ve chosen to step outside of yourself and look at things from a new perspective.
We all know that our sport has to change in order to help our riders and our equine partners stay safe and sound in mind and body – and we need to get back to basics, where the love of the horse is paramount in everyone’s mind.
So here is some advice that might be helpful wherever you are right now:
People are your friends – it’s the EGO that’s the enemy.
The moment we make something right and something else wrong, the ego will jump in and try to defend. Don’t get me wrong! There are clear do’s and don’ts and rules that need to be in place – they’re not what I’m talking about here.
I want to address the ‘right and wrong’ that is driven by our own opinions.
“The horse should be schooled in this way…”
“The training has to follow that system…”
“This movement was not expressive enough…”
“That canter was not forward enough…”
And herein lies the problem that we face in our equestrian world where every judgment, every score and every remark is purely someone else’s opinion.
Learning to leave your ego aside becomes one of your greatest triumphs. Don’t get caught up in the blame game, or take on the role of the victim.
No one owns an opinion – they’re just fleeting comments made to express someone’s view.
If there’s no right and wrong then we are left with only different ways to do things. There are different:
Ways to school horses
Systems to train under
Ways of strengthening a horse’s movements
I understand that we rely on scores to reach our goals but all you can do is stay true to yourself, and train and ride at your best. Put simply, control the things you can control, learn to let go of what you can’t control!
Be brave and own your knowledge: When you do what you do from your heart, and you know that for you and your horse it’s the right thing to do, then own it. You don’t have to defend it – you just have to hold onto it instead of throwing whatever your decision is away in order to please others.
We try and please others when we are in the search for acceptance
Acceptance can’t be bought and respect is not achieved by begging. Acceptance comes from within and only bears fruit that is acknowledged by others after it has ripened.
No matter how much you want to be acknowledged by others, you will never be able to control what others think, not even if you were prepared to sell your soul.
If you are acknowledged it is because the other person is able to acknowledge you. It takes strength and confidence to acknowledge others. Not everyone has it and not many can do it all of the time. The ability to acknowledge someone else is a pure reflection of the person who does the acknowledging.
The mask gets thicker the more we have to hide: The most fragile people wear the thickest masks. For some, the mask is a constant smile. The helpful ones, always there for others and constantly trying to do their best, are often hurting deep inside. Recognise their mask and instead of just accepting their help, offer help back in return.
The mask of the worrier – The one who is always ready for battle and willing to enter conflict is often hurting inside. Be kind to them. Instead of entering the battlefield, offer support and disarm them by compromising instead of drawing the sword and fighting.
The mask that never belongs – Some people, even though they are accepted, feel like they don’t belong. No matter what they achieve, how much praise they get and how much they are part of the group, they will always find a way to step outside, to choose not to belong. Recognise them for who they are. It’s not that they are difficult, they’re not arrogant or can’t be bothered, but instead they’re fighting a battle with themselves. Open the door and invite them in. Be prepared to send the invite over and over again until it is accepted.
You can do this: These four words can be said in so many ways. Sometimes you can say them in such a way that they are understood – and sometimes you seem to be talking to a wall.
The power of words and the mystery of communication: What you say is not always what someone else hears. So be creative and become a master of language.
If you say “That was good,” depending on how they hear it, the recipient might well believe they’ve heard “That was terrible.” When you say “You need a bit more…” the person you’re speaking to might instead hear “That was not good enough.”
Never assume that someone else has heard what you’ve said. Whenever I speak to someone I watch their face and body language to gauge if they have understood not just my words but also the intention behind my words. A lot of conflict is created by misinterpretation and a lot of battles can be solved by translation.
Let’s motivate: Motivation comes in many forms. Some forms are understood by some and not by others. This is often a cause of great difficulty when, for example, a coach motivated by fear is teaching a rider motivated towards pleasure.
If you are motivated by fear, that means you dig deep when things get tough and you will most likely try to motivate others the same way. The military is a great example of this. A ‘towards pleasure’ rider however, will freeze or get scared when ‘motivated’ in that way. They need you to be empathetic, encouraging and able to build their confidence so that your motivation hits the fertile ground in which success can grow.
And lastly the following concept is the one that causes the most difficulty, yet becomes your greatest treasure when you understand it:
Your perception is NOT the reality!
We all think that everyone sees the world the way we see it.
We all think that everyone thinks the way we think.
We all think that everyone solves problems the way we do.
I hate to tell you this, but that’s not the case: the world you see is only your world. Start to see the world in different ways, the ways that your students, your coaches, your judges, your parents and your friends see it. Understand that there are differences and the more you see, the more you learn.
We all want the same. We want to be accepted, understood and appreciated. We want to share, laugh and be in harmony. We want to be supported, get help and recognition. And most of all we want to feel connected and belong to a group that keeps us safe, and understands and supports us, no matter what.
I believe that the equestrian world can become a place where everyone feels accepted. Why? Because I know the people in that world, and we have some of the most compassionate, strong and determined individuals I’ve ever met – people who are well able to bring about change for the better.
We can all do our bit no matter how big or how small, and as long as we stick together we can make our world a better place – for horses and riders.