Are dressage riders suffering more greatly from mental health issues than other equestrians?
Updated: Jan 29, 2022
There was an interesting article in Horse & Hound last week, which discussed the rise of mental health problems in the equestrian world.
The focus of the article was on the discipline of dressage with several riders speaking out in an attempt to identify the reasons behind the increased problems that we’re seeing.
Although the article raises some valid points, I have to admit that there are a couple of things that I immediately don’t like about it.
Firstly, it skirts around the problem by saying ‘experiences of mental health’ and ‘poor mental health’ without ever mentioning mental illness.
This happens constantly and annoys me because the stigma lies in mental illness not mental ‘health’ and the two things are so completely different.
Fortunately, Grand Prix rider Olivia Towers, who sufferers from severe anxiety recognises this by saying:
“We have to be careful that people don’t start to label themselves as having a mental health problem, when they are experiencing a normal human emotion, like anxiety in a certain situation.”
It’s so important to clear this up because mental health issues are not problems until they disrupt the functioning of your life in a significant way and become mental 'illnesses'. Everything else is a normal part of life as a human being!
The second thing I don’t like is that the article is suggesting that working with horses is in some way to blame for ‘poor mental health’ or mental illness which isn’t true at all.
The reality is that there does not have to be a reason for anxiety and depression or indeed any other mental illnesses, they sometimes just happen without us being able to label why, and that is when it becomes a real problem.
This creates a conflict in the mind because if we can’t understand why we’re feeling the way we are then we can’t find a way to make ourselves feel better.
The guilt comes in for those who on the outset have ‘perfect’ lives because ‘how dare I feel this way’, but it doesn’t matter what you have or don’t have, because mental illness doesn’t discriminate, and it can affect anyone regardless of their status or circumstance.
I agree that there are environmental factors involved in the deterioration of a person’s mental health, but mental illnesses are spread across the board in all professions and careers, so I don’t think that a lot of the things they talk about in the article are actually anything to do with it!
When I was suffering from depression, I would have told you that horses were to blame because I was trying to find reasons to account for my disinterest and apathy. But the truth is that working with horses, being a perfectionist, or not having weekends off, had absolutely nothing to do with why I was feeling the way I did.
What I had was an excruciating illness, but now that I am better, I realise that I do love riding and exercising as well as all of the things I used to enjoy before the illness came in and decimated my life.
Although I’ve criticised the article, I do appreciate that there were in fact a couple of interesting points to come out it, because a big chunk of it was devoted to societal problems, namely the dangers of social media, and I do agree that there’s a problem there.
I completely agree with what was said, because I think that social media and the ‘Kardashian culture’ are some of the worst things to have ever been created, and can have a terrible negative effect on a person's mental health.
The strive for riches and fame and the backlash of social media can unconsciously affect people, making them continuously feel like they’re underachieving or not measuring up. I’m sure that all of this plays a part in the increased rates of mental illness and high numbers of suicides that we’re currently witnessing and it really is quite frightening.
Anyone who watched the recent Caroline Flack documentary will appreciate this, because she was so badly abused online and in the media and it directly resulted in her taking her own life.
I deleted all my social media accounts in 2017, in truth because I thought I was going to take my own life and I didn’t want my eulogy to be played out on Facebook, but since I removed them, I realised that they weren’t helping me in any way, and I don’t miss them at all.
Another interesting point to come out of the article was that dressage in itself is a ‘judged’ sport which doesn’t help people when it comes to promoting confidence and boosting self-esteem.
I think there’s probably something in this point, because striving for perfection can be exhausting and I certainly had to accept a lower or lesser functioning version of myself when I was ill which wasn’t easy at all.
The problem is that being a perfectionist is part of who I am, and I don’t think you can ever be brilliant at something without being perfectionistic to some degree because you’ll never have that edge on everyone else.
I feel qualified to say this because I am a perfectionist, but now that I am well, I see it as one of my strengths and I wouldn’t say that it contributed to the downturn of my mental health either.
I would say that it’s important to manage your expectations in order to avoid constant disappointment (especially when working with horses) but I don’t think there’s anything wrong with being a perfectionist or aiming for the top.
The last point to mention is that dressage riders are often so much more isolated than other equestrians, especially those that work on their own.
I think this is important because a friend of mine used to work with dressage horses and he would spend so much time just training the horses on his own at home. I often thought about the isolation factor, but it's important to note that some people thrive on their own so it’s not as simple as saying that isolation causes a downturn in mental health.
Having said that, I do think that isolation can be a factor in the onset of mental illness sometimes, particularly when it involves depression, but it is also important to note that it is often the illness itself that isolates you because you don’t want to see anyone or do anything when you are suffering.
That’s why telling people to ‘socialise’ and ‘seek support’ is a difficult one because I know that it’s no where near as simple as that, and I don’t think that point is appreciated at all!
We need so much more in the way of education around mental health, because I still feel that those of us out here with mental illnesses are not receiving any real guidance - it’s all talking about mental ‘health’ (well-being) which is totally different!
Anyway, I am glad that people are being so open about these issues, even if the mental illness side of things is still being misunderstood and often overlooked.
If you would like to read the article in Horse & Hound then you can find it here.
As usual, I will be taking a break tomorrow but will be back on Monday with more mental health, illness and well-being educational and enlightening insights!
Thanks for reading,
Speak to you soon,