Self-Care & the Equestrian

Most of us in the horse world live in irony when it comes to self-care. After all, we’ll spend thousands of dollars per month ensuring that our horses are coiffed and pampered with the best that the modern world has to offer in terms of nutrition, body work, veterinary and farrier care, physical conditioning, housing, and grooming. We invest in hours upon hours of careful management for the slightest ill, cater to their neuroses for competitions, and even fly them across the country to reduce their stress and travel time. Even people without such glamorous affectations work their fingers to the bone, building their kingdom through sweat equity, freezing temperatures, and long nights to provide their equine charges with care and comfort. It’s a point of pride and perhaps grit among horsemen that the horses always come first, no matter how sick/tired/broken the caretaker might be.

Many people can’t afford chiropractic for both horse and self, so they ride with an aching back to pay for Dobbin’s treatments. They haven’t purchased new shoes in months, but their horse gets them every six weeks. They are sick with a cold, but tough it up and bear it to clean a stall or ride in a lesson or teach a clinic. They take pride in giving up sleep to fit in extra hours in the saddle or preparations for a show. In short, we compromise our own wellbeing for the sake of our horses’, and then we parade around like we’re some honorable, self-sacrificing saint for doing so. That, my friends, is a dangerous proposition.

Don’t misunderstand; I’m not at all suggesting that horses should not receive proper care and attention. I’m the first to advocate for veterinary treatment and bodywork on our equine athletes, as I’m intimately familiar with the level of pain most horses perform under. (Hint: it’s much more than you think) Because horses are silent in their suffering, it is absolutely our responsibility as owners and caretakers to proactively monitor and treat them so that they are able to do their jobs without undue pain. That means preventative care, not reactive care. How painful does your ankle have to get before you can’t put weight on it? Exactly. That’s why preventative care is the only fair approach with an animal, so that they don’t reach a ferociously painful state because of the work you’re asking them to do. And the higher your performance level and expectation, the more methods and money you have to invest in his or her health in order to meet your responsibility. End of story.

That’s a pretty black and white statement, and it’s very frustrating if you don’t have unlimited funds to meet these ends, so I understand why people start cutting corners with their own health. Most of us would gladly go without if the alternative is a sick or injured horse, and we can even justify it by pointing to the above and touting our responsibility as caretakers for animals who cannot make their own decisions in regard to their health. I get it, and agree with that reasoning as I’ve been there myself and made the same choice.

So here’s where I’m concerned: harming or denying ourselves for the sake of another is never a healthy choice, and it is certainly not a sustainable one. In the case of the horse world, we have an entire industry based on a culture of self-deprivation which is cannibalizing the very foundations of its own purpose: the welfare of the horse. In other words, our lack of self-care is harming our horses, even though we are doing it (purportedly) for their own sakes.

Let me give you a few examples of what I mean. “Everyone knows” that it’s difficult to make it in the horse world. It’s a journey that requires dedication, persistence, guts, the ability to make harsh decisions for your career, and an unyielding drive to win. Most professionals who come up through the ranks have built the sweat equity kingdom I mentioned before, taken (or even still take) more than their share of abuse, and are here at the end of the road and the top of the game because they were unrelenting in their pursuit of this end. Many of them feel they have to be cut-throat to stay in business, and they know that their kingdom can topple at any moment if they falter, so they are under tremendous pressure to succeed with clients and new horses. They might sleep 4 or 6 hours per night, and they might ride 12 or more horses by day. Except for the very elite, they may still be responsible for chores if someone calls in sick. They know that their livelihood depends on their body, so they can’t risk too much harm to it, but the physical nature of the job means that something is always hurting. They are hardened people, used to self-deprivation as a means to an end. And then we put them on the back of a young horse and ask them to put aside all of that and be the polar opposite: sensitive, delicate, and gentle. Friends, it’s not just a switch you can flip.

Self-care nurtures us, puts us at ease, and builds up our resilience. Self-deprivation drains us, pushes us close to fight or flight, and thins our emotional walls. The more pain, stress, and fatigue we have, the more tolerance, patience, and compassion we lose. When our own physical and emotional needs are not met, we are unable to meet the needs of another. We lose our ability to empathize, to change our perspective, and to creatively respond with a different approach.

Where has any good horseman said that the desired qualities of a trainer (or instructor!) are “quick to anger, unyielding, unrelenting, impatient, easily frustrated, quick to blame, picks a fight, unable to read the horse’s mental state, stressed by unexpected reactions, takes things personally, and inability to change tactics?” Yet those are exactly the qualities that the self-deprivation culture breeds and builds into our professionals. They ride with broken bones, conquer 16 horses in a single day, live on coffee and not much else, and we applaud them as heroes for taking themselves farther and farther from compassion for the horse. (Then we wonder, when we see them lose it and strike the horse during warm up or cuss out a steward, what ever went wrong for this person who was on top of the world?)

The sad part is that these qualities have little to do with the personality of the person, so I am absolutely not suggesting that horse trainers are terrible, awful people – though there is an argument worth discussing about whether the “hazing” of the industry weeds out the sensitive and compassionate people in the process. However, generally speaking, most trainers are wonderful, good people who are reduced to their most desperate selves through a lack of care. It’s a shame that we – and our horses – rarely experience them at their best.

The self-deprivation epidemic is not unique to the professional side of the industry, of course. Plenty of amateurs have jobs which are equally as demanding, and they often use their riding as a release valve for this stress. The risks of self-deprivation are still present no matter the source, though generally those who do not work with horses professionally have a stronger buffer which helps keep the side-effects at bay due to their love and relationship with their animal. Of course, since that same relationship and lack of distance can cause us to take our horse’s behavior even more personally than a professional might, it’s up to all of us to stay conscious on this issue.

Woe be to the horse who pisses us off on the wrong day – and that’s really the heart of this matter. Remember the bit about anthropomorphizing? When we are at our best, we don’t take things so personally. When we’re raw and rough and stressed and in pain, everything feels like a blow, and because we are so close to fight or flight, we often punch back. Here is where we stop listening to our horses, stop allowing for their mistakes, stop recognizing their resistance simply as information. Here is where we start assigning blame, getting angry when they won’t respond, and feeling like it’s our job to punish them for non-compliance. This type of lapse is the point in the ride that should signal a reasonable person to get off, but reason also gets left behind in self-deprivation and frankly, this place is how many people feel when they first put their foot in the stirrup. As I mentioned previously, this anthropomorphizing is by far the greatest reason for trauma and tension in our horses. They are driven mad by our emotional response because they have no understanding of the source.

A horse will take straight forward physical pain any day over the fear and anguish caused by our retaliation. That’s why they will still perform even while obviously lame rather than risk our wrath. It’s akin to emotional abuse, and we as an industry take pride in the mentality that causes this harm. We righteously proclaim that we sacrifice everything for our horses, yet it is that very sacrifice that creates our resentment when they do not meet our expectations. That new pair of shoes that we can’t afford may not mean much when we’re happy, but it might be the straw that breaks the camel’s back when we’re frustrated. In a twisted way, we even justify our anthropomorphizing and retaliation through these sacrifices, as if it gives us the right to treat our horses however we want because “we’ve given up so much for him.” And then we get to tell everyone what good horsemen we are for emptying our bank accounts to fix Dobbin’s leg and whipping him into shape to bring home a ribbon.

I understand that this is not a pretty picture. It feels overwhelming to see this side of the industry. It would be much more comfortable to have a black and white picture that puts people into categories of good and bad horsemen. Sadly, all of us go gray in stress, fatigue, and pain. This acknowledgement also seems to muddy the waters for responsible horse ownership, because it subtly asks an important question: if we can only afford take care of one individual but we are responsible for two, who gets what? After all, few of us have infinite resources of both time and money, so at some point we have to choose even if we have one or the other. So, do I sacrifice my horse’s needs for my own, or pick between causing him physical and mental pain, or what?

Here’s my take on it. I stand by what I wrote before about preventative care and keeping the horse comfortable and free of pain. I also stand by that statement in regards to how we treat ourselves, because that’s the best remedy to avoiding mental distress in the horse (which is also our responsibility). Horse-care and self-care both can be achieved even with limits on time and money, but there are choices involved that may require compromises in other areas. For instance, if finances are an issue to the extent that you have to choose between your pain and his, the best answer may be changing your expectations entirely. Perhaps jumping higher than 3’6” gives your horse hock pain, and you can’t afford his injections, supplements, and your weekly ankle PT at the same time. Rather than asking him to jump in pain or risk your own health and wellbeing, a better solution would be to jump lower – for now – or find a different equine partner that helps you meet your goals. It’s astonishing how many people would rather endure pain than simply backing off or taking a different approach. While that’s a choice you get to decide for yourself, your horse doesn’t get a say in sharing that risk. Just as you wouldn’t ask him to jump in pain, don’t ask him deal with an self-deprived rider simply to suit your own ambition. You must take care of yourself in order to take care of him.

Another example: if you really want to make the jump up to fourth level dressage, but are finding the time requirements difficult due to your busy work schedule, you have some choices to make. It’s not fair to ask your horse to carry that level of collection without the fitness to do so, nor is it fair to ask him to use his back if you’re not in-shape enough to sit it without bouncing. It probably doesn’t feel very good to you, either. The temptation here may be to become overly-reliant on veterinary methods or bodywork to manage the problem, but that is insufficient horsemanship. Instead, you can hire someone else to ride your horse a few days a week and diligently hit the gym those days yourself, or you can change your schedule at work (or your job, if it’s that important to you), or change your goal. Our expectations suffocate us when we’re in deprivation, and in that space we can’t see beyond them. When caring for both ourselves and our horses seems impossible, our responsibility is to change what we are asking of both parties so that it becomes possible. That is truly good horsemanship.

Self-care isn’t something just to think about when we face a challenge like this. Even if we have unlimited time and money to pursue our passion to the fullest, and can afford every luxury and therapy for our horse, we still owe it to ourselves and to our horses to meet our own needs and bring out our best. We are asking our horses to perform their utmost, and in order to support that within them, we must bring our best attitude, state of mind, physical ability, sensitivity, and creativity to the table. Only through self-care do we have the ability to give our all, just as we ask our horses to, and make our riding an equal partnership. We owe our horses the best of ourselves, and we owe ourselves the best.

Here are some simple standards for self-care to start incorporating into your riding life:

  • BubbleBath-500x667Choose when and how you approach new challenges. Ideally, we would only ride when we ourselves are nurtured and in a positive state of mind, but that may not be realistic for you today. Instead, you can make choices based on where you are each day. Save the hard stuff for days when you have the extra patience and sensitivity required for the learning process. Be content with a hack or an exercise ride when you aren’t at your best. Take the day off or make a quick stop only for giving treats when you’re a wreck. You can earn your horse’s trust through your consistent internal balance, but you will erode it with mood swings and unpredictable reactions.
  • Evaluate your own body just as you do your horse’s. Don’t put off bodywork until you get hurt; that’s setting yourself up to fail. Take a proactive approach to your physical and mental health so that you are well-maintained for riding, just as you do with your horse. This may include outside fitness and nutrition so that you stay fit and don’t hit, for example, blood sugar crashes. Prepare your body for the work to be done rather than letting the work take it’s toll. As a side benefit, you’re less likely to get hurt this way, which means more time in the saddle and fewer aches and pains in general.
  • Make simple choices to take care of yourself at work and at the barn. Dress appropriately for the weather. Bring extra snacks and water. Play music you enjoy to ease your nerves or motivate you for riding. Take frequent breaks to warm up or cool down in extreme temperatures. Allow yourself plenty of time so that you don’t feel rushed. Most of these cost nothing, but will make a world of difference to your self-care barometer.
  • Treat yourself every now and then. This phrase means something different for everyone, but figure out what works for you and do it. Whether it is a new pair of shoes instead of a clinic, or it’s taking the night off on a cold winter day to have a bubble bath instead of a ride, practice nurturing yourself. Many of us have a puritanical approach to riding and barn time, and we feel guilty if we miss or postpone a single ride. Frankly, this isn’t a healthy practice for you or your horse. If you would rather be elsewhere, you’re doing neither of yourselves a favor by insisting on a ride. Don’t make your horse into a chore or a source of resentment. Find a way to want to be there, so that going to the barn is a pleasurable experience. If that means you cut back your amount of rides per week (and adjust your goals accordingly) to hang out with friends, that’s a much healthier choice for now than feeling grumpy with your horse because of all you have to give up to ride him.

Many of these suggestions can be achieved without a great deal of time or money. They require forethought, preparation, and a careful look in the mirror, certainly, but everyone has the capacity for these qualities. The more you cultivate these practices, the more you engender self-care, and the happier you and your horse will be! Industry change begins within us.

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