By Emma Kane

As equestrians, we have been taught since day one that our horses come first. We take care of our horses’ needs before our own, whatever that means at that moment. Our horses rest before us. Our horses eat before we do. Sometimes, our horses even get fun new matching polo/ear bonnet/saddle pad outfits before we buy a new outfit for ourselves. This (maybe minus the fun matchy outfit part) is what we were taught is good horsemanship. Being a good horseman is a badge we wear with immense pride.

Equestrians think of everything for our horses and do everything in our power to ensure they have the best life we can give them. This is something that transcends discipline, level, or training philosophy. These 1,200lb flight animals allow us, imperfect humans, to climb on their backs and dance as one with them. They tolerate our flaws and forgive our mistakes. Horses see and accept us for who we are; something many humans are unable or unwilling to do. Equestrians put considerable time, money, and effort into making sure our magical animals who do so much for us get everything within our power in return. When our horses are “a bit off”, we adjust. We call the chiropractor. Give them a day off. Call the massage therapist. Acupuncturist. Saddle Fitter. Vet. Farrier. Animal Communicator. The list goes on.

What do we do for ourselves when we are “a bit off”? Grab an extra shot of espresso in our Starbucks, pop some Tylenol, maybe some Excedrin, and hope it goes away? Wrap whatever hurts with Vet Wrap? Regardless of if we are professionals, grooms, working students, juniors, young riders, or amateurs, how can we give 100% to our horses if we are not at 100% ourselves? Think of it as a pitcher of water (or bottle of wine, whatever works). When the container is full, we can pour out the contents to others, our horses included. We can choose where to put the contents of the container, give what is needed, and possibly even still have some left over. Now, if our container is empty or near empty, there is nothing to give or at least not enough. How can we expect ourselves to give our horses the focused, soft, feeling ride we strive for when there is literally nothing there for us to give? Plus, when we are on empty both physically and mentally, we become cranky, drained, stressed, and potentially short-tempered or overly emotional. Is that what we want to bring to our horses? We owe them our best, which means taking care of ourselves both physically and mentally.

One of the first assignments at the beginning of my graduate program in clinical mental health counseling was a self-care assessment. Before this assignment I had thought of self-care as spending the day getting a makeover, going on vacation, binging a TV show, or “treating yourself” to something that was a want and not a need. I am sure many others believe this as well. Which lead me to roll my eyes and think the assignment was stupid. I don’t have time for that, I thought. Besides, our culture embraces and glorifies the concept of hustling; working hard and putting in 110% to get ahead. I embraced the hustle; I am a full-time graduate student. I am working to begin a research project with a professor. I work for a local municipality as a Police Records Clerk and Economic Development Coordinator, I’m a GMO board member, photographer, volunteer, I work at Hunter/Jumper horse shows, plus I have two horses and am desperately trying to make every second at the barn count and learn every word of what my amazing trainers tell me. And of course, go to horse shows myself. Why the heck would I even be interested in this self-care thing? Isn’t that what riding is for? I am sure you can guess how well my self-care assessment scored. With my shoddy score, I proceeded to complete the assignment and learn the true meaning of the topic. What I discovered is that self-care is so much more than I originally thought.

My definition is that ultimately, self-care is deliberately caring for and loving yourself so much that it allows you to more fully care for and love others. Yes, this includes our horses. What self- care is not, is selfish. Questions on our assessment shocked me. They included on a scale from one to ten are we: eating healthy (or at all), exercising, getting medical care for prevention and when needed, taking time off, sleeping, liking the clothes we wear, taking time away from our phones, self-reflecting, paying attention to our inner experiences, seeking psychotherapy if needed, doing something where we are not an expert nor in charge, being curious, setting boundaries (saying no and meaning it), loving ourselves, watching movies for enjoyment, allowing ourselves to cry, spending time with significant others, children, and friends, reflecting, being open to not knowing, experiencing awe, spending time with our animals, asking for help when needed, and identifying our priorities in life.

I was shocked but knew that these were all actions that would make a difference in my ability to show up more fully for the people and animals in my life. So I took baby steps. Each baby step added a little more into my “container.” I was becoming more and more “full.”  I began being deliberate in my actions, thoughts, and with my time, something equestrians work on with our horses every day! Taking self-care seriously does not necessarily mean taking significant amounts of time away from what you are currently doing. Even an ounce of self-care pays off. You have to start somewhere! I started with listening to audiobooks or podcasts when I was driving, working out, or trail riding. I personally recommend all of Brené Brown’s work and podcast plus the Dressage Radio Show podcast. I then added in rollerblading on top of lifting and riding as I am not exactly the “go for a run” type person. Slowly, I started changing out whatever food I could grab for whole foods (foods where I can actually pronounce and identify what the ingredients are) which made my body and mind feel significantly better. Lattes became iced coffee with almond milk. Whatever sweets someone brought to the barn (mostly) changed to carrots and hummus I packed in the morning. I spent less time on social media or going down whatever internet rabbit hole I found myself in and suddenly had more time to actually relax and read, even if it is school/therapy related. The list goes on. And suddenly, I realized that I was able to be more present when riding. Be a better student. Listen better. Be a better friend. Have a social life. And ENJOY all of it. My pitcher is fuller.

Especially in this time when everything is different, changing, and stressful, I encourage you to re-think self-care. Try one small step. Add a little more “contents” to your “container”. Reflect, be curious, try something new, and choose the courage to do something for yourself.

Emma Kane was named USDF Youth Volunteer of the Year in 2018.

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