She's not alone either, I have had this conversation with other FEI eventers from around the world, with showjumpers, with dressage riders and even riders who just want to have fun, and they all say the same thing. Mental health in equestrian sports is finally being spoken about on our public platforms, but unfortunately, it took the devastating loss of some of our top professionals over Christmas to start this conversation. A top British YR Eventer also spoke out on her Instagram about her struggles this month, admitting that she too felt embarrassed to talk out about her own battle. It is clear that this pressure to appear 'perfect' is an ongoing theme, and I understand that we are in a competitive sport, but there must be, has to be, a way to help our young riders enjoy their time competing.
Learning to manage the stress of our sport is incredibly difficult at any age, let alone when you are young and in most cases balancing school, attempting that thing called 'social life' and have the all-elusive (and highly to blame) 'social media' to keep updated. I get it, I really do. I too am a Young Rider and remember making sure I never posted after a bad weekend, or had the perfect edit ready after a good weekend. I felt I had to hide my plans and my bad training sessions from my peers, and over-promote the good parts. Just the other day I had someone comment on how well a horse went because I only posted the good part on Instagram. Well, plot twist, what you see on social media and what actually is happening in real life isn't always the same thing! I'm a culprit for it, you probably are too. After all, we are representing brands, support systems, coaches, we simply have to look our best... don't we? Here are some tips I think will help young riders, and their sometimes as equally competitive parents (did I just say that!), to make the sport just a wee-bit more enjoyable.
- Horses first, results after.
We know, you want to post that you're now an 'FEI' rider in your bio, want to have that acknowledgement for moving up a level and the comments that come with it. Your parents finally want to see some reward for the lessons they have worked so incredibly hard to provide you.
Now, deep breath, repeat after me. There is always another competition, there is always another day. If you're not feeling it, don't risk it. Train a little bit harder, it will make the victory all the more worth it. For those not convinced, I pushed myself and my horse when I was 15 and had a rotational in the warm-up of a big FEI 3-day, yep, the warm-up! Major regrets. Take your time, no one can judge you for putting your horse first.
- Talk it out!
If you're feeling stressed, or had a bad training session, talk to your 'people' about it. It's really not as embarrassing as we make it out to be. We all have bad days, and if they say they don't, then they are probably feeling a little embarrassed too. Let's make this conversation open, after all we are working with animals, they have their own minds too!
- Stop comparing yourself to others.
This one is easier said than done, I even catch myself doing it too. The thing is, there will always be someone competing higher than you, getting better results etc. Instagram is a shocker for showing us the people who are doing 'better' than you. The thing is, we don't know what their home life is like, how many horses they have on the yard that they can't get on with, how many times they've fallen off before they got those results. Stop comparing yourself, work on your own journey and be happy for others. The universe has an odd way of making sure you get where you need to go at the right time.
- Make authentic friends.
This one is a hard one, and may take a little bit of trial and error, but the best thing you can do is have friends who are fully authentic. You don't want someone who is chatting to you then sending all of your stories to the next person. It's okay to have a smaller group of support, if they're genuine, they are worth their weight in gold.
- Sports Psychology is your friend.
I know I'm a preacher for sports psychology, but it literally, truly, changed my life. At 16 I was competing at FEI, travelling Australia, doing all that 'fun stuff', but in my mind, I was not so good and too embarrassed to ask for help. I think it limited my ability to perform and well, made life not fun for those around me. Having a sports psychologist, or seeking help from a professional in general, is the best thing you can do. It is never a bad thing to ask for help! if you don't know what to talk about- just chat about your season plan, it will get the conversation flowing!
- Practice what you preach.
'I do it for the love of the sport', 'I want my kid to be happy', 'The results don't matter, I just want to have fun.'
I am sure, fundamentally, we all do the sport for the love of it. After all, we are spending big dollars, living on only coffee and have next to no social life to maintain our babies. But I have seen it, first hand, the change that comes over oneself as the competition season gets going, as the fight for the team places begin. We forget sometimes I think, why we do it. I dare you to practice what you preach, I'll practice it too.
Let's make the sport a little friendlier this 2020, a little more open and a whole lot more fun.
Big love, from one young rider who learnt all of the above the hard way, to you, who hopefully won't have too.