I am sitting behind the back barns with my head on my knees, crying so hard it feels as if my head and lungs will burst. It’s sunny and unseasonably warm for Ocala, Florida, in February. Arriving from Chicago a few days earlier, I should be elated. I know that this moment is the culmination of years of hard work and sacrifice.
As an 18-year-old, I decided to stop riding and commit fully to my education. I wanted to build a successful career as an accountant, not because I had a real love for accounting, but I believed it could provide the financial resources necessary to pursue riding and showing in the ways I had envisioned in my youth. It took a decade and more 70-hour work weeks than I thought physically (and legally) possible, but I made it. I am here with my new friends and my new horse, the show is beautiful, I’m doing what I supposedly love to do, and yet, I am completely miserable.
The truth: I was crashing (literally) and burning in the novice adult hunters. (I know, I know, a real pressure cooker of a division.) My Thoroughbred Skylar was green, this was his second show ever, and I was green too, having just started riding again after my 10-year self-imposed exile. That unfortunate morning, Skylar and I had two modes: We were going to jump all the jumps at breakneck speed, or we were not going to jump anything. Well, technically three modes: We went through a couple of jumps too.
I was unraveling fast, and my trainer Jeannine attempted to salvage the day by switching me over to George, a warmblood schoolmaster that knew his job well and aimed to expend as little energy as possible doing it. I was told to do nothing except remain in two-point and look for the next jump. Any other attempt to move or think was expressly forbidden.
Apparently, I was in the wrong discipline because I lit up George like a Christmas tree, and we were off to the races again. We even raised the metaphorical bar (as the literal bar desperately needed to be lowered), bolting from the ring and back toward the barn after one particularly embarrassing effort.
When it was over, I was completely beside myself. I didn’t know humiliation could be palpable—I felt it in every part of my body, and it physically hurt. I was sick to my stomach over the money I was spending, the vacation days I was using, and even the years wasted working weekends and holidays, all to fail epically at my first attempt to live my dream. I called my husband. Although as supportive and encouraging as ever, he was understandably confused. He also made sacrifices for me to do this, and it pained him to hear me so unhappy.
My brain went into attack mode: “Quit the pity parade and show some gratitude. You didn’t just get cut from the Olympic team, and I bet that person handled it with more grace and class than you right now. You’re weak, pathetic and ungrateful. Do you know how many people would feel so lucky to be where you are at this moment?”
Not only did I feel terrible, I also felt entitled and guilty about having bad feelings at an event that was supposed to bring me joy. At the time, the only way I knew how to deal was to shelve the feelings, compartmentalizing all the shame and fear deep inside myself in the hope that I’d somehow forget it all. It was an effective temporary fix that I used many times in my life, both before and after this specific event. Eventually, I filled all the shelves in my mental pantry, and the pain I tried so desperately to bury began to expose itself in more destructive ways. I pulled away from meaningful relationships. I drank more than I should. I struggled at work.
Why am I telling you this? I am not a psychologist or an expert in anything, but I am alarmed by the rise of anxiety and depression in our society, especially in our youth. While our ancestors relied on emotions for survival, it seems that in the modern world we habitually suppress our negative emotions or project them onto other people because acknowledging them is uncomfortable and often considered “weak” or “narcissistic.” Also, it’s a skill many of us were not taught in childhood. I imagine many can recall a time in our early lives when we were punished for outwardly expressing our frustration or anger. Further, many people don’t have the ability to access difficult feelings because parents today feel immense pressure to immediately “fix” whatever issue is causing their child pain, much to their child’s long-term detriment.
Years of therapy helped me become more compassionate with myself so that I can acknowledge my feelings without harsh judgment or criticism. Strong feelings are not “good” or “bad.” They are simply signposts, there to point you in a direction that will better serve you if you heed them. And you don’t need to be in therapy to develop the ability to observe, question and accept your emotions. You just need to practice stepping outside and asking, “Why do I feel so [anxious, angry, depressed, hurt, envious, etc.]?” in the heat of the moment without judging the answer. Then begin to gently question that answer with another nonjudgmental and curious “why” and follow the trail until you begin to understand the root cause of the response. Many times, it has nothing to do with the situation that triggered the strong emotions in the first place.
I would argue that learning to observe and analyze our emotional responses is one of the most important things we can do for ourselves and our horses. When you step into an “observer” mentality, allowing yourself to accept difficult feelings as they are without internal judgment, the part of your brain that is suffering begins to quiet. We all know that horses are incredibly sensitive to our energy; tension in the mind will always translate in the physical body, causing our horse to mirror our stress and anxiety when we interact with them.
Further, by exploring the “why” behind your feelings, you will begin to develop empathy for yourself. This is incredibly powerful because the more empathy you have for yourself, the more you will have for others, including your horse. It’s very difficult to criticize, attack and blame with an empathetic, open mind. Imagine how much more headspace you would have to solve your training problems and take your riding to the next level if you did not constantly judge and berate yourself for what you think and feel. Imagine how much stronger your connection could be if you could put yourself in the (horse) shoes of your equine partner to better understand their resistance or fear.
In hindsight, my breakdown in Ocala had little to do with the embarrassment I felt about what had transpired that morning and much more to do with the feelings of worthlessness I struggled with at the time. I always felt that I needed to offer something of “value” to others in exchange for their acceptance, attention or love. If I was brutally honest with myself, I knew that I so desperately wanted to be accepted by my new barn community and trainer that I rushed into purchasing a horse that was probably not the best fit for me because I believed that being a boarder was the only way to be taken seriously as a rider. For the same reason, I insisted on going straight to the bigger A circuit shows, spending thousands of dollars that I could have saved for training if I had attended the local schooling shows until we were both more experienced.
At home, I wanted Jeannine to see me as serious and hardworking during lessons. Ironically, I was so concerned about her valuing me for my “output” that I was unable to absorb the concepts she was trying to teach me. This stunted my progression and made it difficult to connect to my horse and with other people, which, in truth, was what I wanted most. When Skylar and I encountered difficulties, as is inevitable in this sport (and in life), I would completely shut down in panic because I believed that if I was failing, I was nothing, and because humans thrive when connected, to feel as if you are nothing is a profoundly terrifying experience.
I want to begin to tell these stories because I believe that all of us, even the most seasoned professionals, struggle with something that is holding us back. This goes beyond sports psychology and developing the skills to perform more effectively in the ring, though that is important too. I want to have conversations about the limiting beliefs we all carry around with us, usually established in early childhood, that unconsciously shape our thoughts and actions, preventing us from living in a more intentional, connected and fulfilling way. We all make tremendous sacrifices to be equestrians. Why not challenge ourselves to get to know ourselves on a deeper level to improve our overall experience with our horses and with each other? While incredibly scary and difficult to do, it can also be one of the most exhilarating and freeing experiences we can have in this lifetime.
Lauren Amiri grew up in the Chicago suburbs, competing in local hunter/jumper shows before taking a 10-year hiatus from the horse world. Back in the saddle for the last nine years when she’s not crunching numbers as an accountant, Lauren is competing in the jumpers with the help of her amazing barn family at Winter Meadow Farm. She currently resides in Glenview, Illinois, with her husband, two young children and very fluffy Bernese mountain dog.