Mental health is a talking horse right now, but how do we actually find someone to talk to who can understand the particular issues faced by those working in the Equestrian Industry.
Many of the issues we face are part of 21st Century life: the work/life balance, social media pressures, body image pressures and financial concerns. But then add the pressures that all high level sport imposes on both sportsmen and women and all those who support them: personal pressure to perform, fitness issues, injury issues, huge amounts of time spent away from family and friends, difficulties in forming and maintaining relationships and long, long days.
Finally add the pressures that are unique to this industry: Premiership footballers and managers don’t drive the bus, they don’t have to worry about finding the stadium, cooking the dinner and the endless, endless tiredness, or the loneliness. Whilst some premiership footballers aren’t the greatest conversationalists, they can speak. We are totally responsible for another athlete who really cannot speak for itself. If you are a groom you try your best to make the horse comfortable, healthy and fit to perform, if you are the rider you have to try to ride each individual horse to maximise its ability, and to finish each round happy and confident to face the next round.
The fact that we work in an industry that is often perceived as elitist and privileged is another unseen stressor. Yes, we are incredibly lucky to spend our days with horses - surely the most wonderful creatures on the planet. Yes, we have to acknowledge that this sport runs on large amounts of money, but mainly it’s just a very expensive sport. Mostly very little of that money reaches the grooms, and surprisingly little of it reaches the vast majority of riders.
We work in a very beautiful sport, and there is added pressure to look beautiful. But foremost we are athletes and we need to be strong, and skinny is very rarely strong. So what if many of us girls have slightly “big bottoms and sturdy thighs”, look at female sprinters they are a similar shape because a round of show jumping is similar to a sprint - 70 seconds of anaerobic and intense exercise.
All this adds up to a lot of pressure or stress and anxiety. A certain amount of anxiety is not such a bad thing, it probably propels us out of bed in the morning and pushes us to perform to a good standard in our daily lives. If you feel no anxiety you probably belong to a small group of people called “callous unemotionals” who fail to feel or recognise human emotions, particularly fear, and make excellent murderers - luckily they mostly get locked up pretty quickly for exactly that reason.
However, too much anxiety is not a good thing. The DSM, Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for Mental Disorders, which is the handbook for psychologists and psychiatrists, defines Genalized Anxiety Disorder as “Excessive anxiety and worry (apprehensive expectation), occurring more days than not for at least 6 months, about a number of events or activities (such as work or school performance)”. That’s a little bit of a sobering thought because although I wouldn’t really describe myself as an anxious person, I definitely worry about a lot of things a lot of the time. Now, for the way you feel to escalate into an actual illness depends on whether or not “you have a behavioral or mental pattern that causes significant distress or impairment to personal functioning”.
Everybody handles anxiety differently, but there is no doubt that one of the best ways to stop it spiralling out of control is to try and step out of the cycle in some way. The easiest first step should be to find someone to talk to about the way you feel. Everybody is busy trying to do the best they can to get through their own day, and maybe they just didn’t spot that you weren’t quite coping. There is a big problem in that most of us don’t like to interfere and then the rest of us don’t like to be a burden, don’t want to seem weak, or just don’t like to talk. Someone has to make a start - be that person because actually most people are only too happy to listen.
Next address some of the patterns of behaviour that cause you anxiety. Take back some control: set some boundaries, ask people not to call, text or whatsapp outside normal working hours, then you decide what those hours are. Don’t take your phone to bed with you - you really don’t need to catch up with Social Media between 10.30 pm and 6.30 am. If there is a long time between classes at a show organise between groom and rider (depending on which one you are) to have some free time, or time to yourself, and then use it wisely. Go shopping, go to sleep, read a book, catch up with Sons of Anarchy, but try not to spend it at the stables or on social media, let your brain have a rest, escape and use somebody else’s imagination.
Try to eat well and regularly. Ask your rider to bring you coffee, ask them to keep bottles of water and snacks at the stables. A lot of selfish behaviour is just unthinking - that’s not an excuse, but let’s educate one another.
The great guys at Stable-Mind CIC are setting up their charity to help us all, not just grooms, but riders too and other workers in the industry too. They hope to provide Psychologists and trained counsellors for us to talk to. When you need a break they hope to provide accommodation where you can take time to yourself. They are going to do more research into why the Equestrian Industry has such a high level of mental health issues, and at the most basic level they hope to just provide friendly faces, and free food and drink in the stable areas at shows.