By Sophie Wayner
Welcome to Part 3 in our new series, “Clear Eyes, Sound Mind, Halt, Salute.” Focusing on equestrian mental health, these articles come from dressage riders across the country who wish to share their struggles and triumphs. With so much focus on the physical health and fitness of riders, it is important not to neglect the mental health aspect of becoming a great equestrian. We hope these stories and bits of advice show you that you’re not alone and inspire you to push on through all challenges.
The past year has been surreal. The COVID-19 outbreak was something I definitely
did not expect to have to battle during my senior year of high school. Doing anything lately, I have felt like I have been living in a dream-like state. However, I am writing to share something that hopefully will help, at least a little bit, equestrians who read this in these scary times.
I have been struggling with major depression symptoms, an eating disorder, and anxiety for many months, well before this outbreak even began, and life turning upside down did not help the situation. I do not like sharing this information about myself with others because I am always worried that people will judge me, claiming that I am sharing it to get attention or pity from others. However, I want to share this information about me to show how, despite the constant struggle both internally and externally, I still discovered a new thing about horses while on this journey.
I have learned the importance of feeling grounded.
Horses feel an exorbitant amount of emotion in their everyday lives due to how sensitive they are, and they have many special and unique ways of communicating their emotions to us and other animals. The biggest thing to know about horses is their natural flight instinct when they feel unsafe, exposed, or spooked.
When I am having a depressive episode or anxiety attack, I feel like I am floating and there is nothing to bring me back down to the floor. I have made the connection that this must be what horses feel like when they are met with a situation that they do not understand, one that scares or even threatens them. Horses and practicing the sport of dressage has taught me the importance of remaining grounded. While I am with horses, I need to tap into the sturdiness and weight of a horse in order to stand my ground and express dominance, while also channeling a horse’s ability to be in one moment at a time and be so focused and in tune with the present that there is room for nothing else.
While on this quarantine and only able to see my horses, I have been experimenting with equine massage on my grey appendix mare, Libbie. She adores being touched and groomed and always looks forward to our massage and scratching sessions (even turning around and giving me her butt to itch for her). This has been such a therapeutic way to feel connected with my Libbie and also feel as though there is a wave of energy going through my hands, into her body, down through her legs, and back up through my legs to complete the cycle. Libbie used to not be able to stand on cross ties without prancing around and whinnying to other horses out of sight. However, after developing this sense of clear connection with her through touch and learning from her how to be paying attention to the present situation, it has allowed us to be at a place now that she no longer needs cross ties and stands waiting for my cues and paying attention to my movements. Just like a horse, I have to pay attention to every movement to see if she is happy, sad, spooked, going to spook, mad, ready to nip, walking forward or back or side to side, or calm and trusting. This transfer of energy I have been able to experience has been life-changing.
One day, I tried just resting my hands on my mom’s sassy Haflinger, Andy, who usually quivers when any part of his neck is touched and becomes very anxious with any sudden movement of mine. I wanted to see if I could create this circle of energy with a horse that hated grooming. In the past, Andy always had transferred so much nervous energy onto me while I was on the ground because of his tense nature. When we first bought him, I always found myself channeling his personality and reflecting his harshness through my attitude when I went home from the barn. After trying this new approach trying to transfer my energy onto him, to my surprise, just a resting of my hand on his neck and leaving it there for only ten seconds led to Andy dropping his head, closing his eyes, chewing, and his lower lip dangling down. I felt so connected to him and also so tied to the ground and safe knowing that we were in tune with each other, sharing our life in the moment.
Dressage is my passion sport. Not only because I love all of the technical, beautiful, and focus-driven aspects, but, because it helps me and the horse become grounded together and practice how to be strong, yet relaxed. Now, after working so much on the ground with horses through massage, grooming, and learning how to connect to them through my hands, dressage has challenged me to use my whole body to get the same effect and connection. Another horse that I have been riding, a beautiful Thoroughbred, can be very tense, stiff, and spooky when not confident in his job or what a rider is asking. By using the visualization of my energy channeling down into his body, down through his legs, and into the ground, I remain mentally stable. Now, it is not only visualization if you are skeptical. At the beginning of every ride, I roll my shoulders up and back as far as I can and then relax my shoulders to then take a resting position, and, at the same time, exhale and imagine my ribs all stacking and laying on top of one another. This allows me to sit up and straight and feel close to the horse’s back because I am sitting relaxed enough to move with their spine and back muscles and not trying to force my shoulders back in an unnatural position. Due to fantastic instruction by Lisa Schmidt, I am practicing being aware that I am engaging my triceps by imagining that there are weights hanging from my elbows, going down to the ground. This pull on these muscles connects to my ring fingers holding onto the reins and encourages the horse to stretch forward into the bit without feeling the need for me to ever pull back. This allows me to get proper contact while also adding to the grounded feeling for my horse and I: connected in a loop from legs, to hind end, through their topline, to their poll, and into the bit. With the horse properly connected and in tune with you in that very moment, you and the horse receive a feeling of confidence and sense of being grounded in what you are doing in the ring. Using this on every horse I ride, I find myself not afraid of a spook or bolt because I know that with the acceptance of what the horse will do, comes the horse accepting what you will do and also builds trust for them to follow thedominant role you portray.
After saying all of this, I do recognize that horses can be unpredictable and a person, no matter how careful, will never truly know a horse’s state of mind. This essay is my attempt at putting into words my journey that I continue every day. At the barn, finding a state of unity between horse and human no matter how different the two might seem is my daily goal. In any situation, I am able to remember the feeling of being grounded through massage and riding and even just peacefully sitting at the barn, and take each step with a horse in a natural and respectful way through communication and sensitivity.
These struggles have been an incredible learning curve for me and have kept me grounded not only at the barn, but in my life outside of the barn as well. Thanks to horses, humans like me can learn how to be more in the moment and connected to others that share our world. Despite this terrifying outbreak and the social unrest currently going on, it is important for all of us to remember to channel our inner equine, finding our ground in order to conquer this threat and so much social stress.
Sending healthy and safe thoughts to everyone reading this. As a community, we will get through this.