I have wanted to write this article for a long time, and in the age of activism, seeing riders I have showed with speak about Black Lives Matter has inspired me. The equestrian community sweeps many issues, such as race, economics, body image and sexual assault, under the rug, but I have personally been most affected by mental health.
I was always a happy kid. I had loving parents, and we were lucky enough to afford my show habits. I had a promising future at a young age. When I was 10, I started to show competitively and moved up to the children’s hunters. At 12, I progressed to the 3′ equitation. Expecting only the best from myself, I set my mind on winning the ASPCA Maclay Finals.
Days after my 14th birthday, my perfectly planned out life came to a screeching halt. I suffered somewhat of a nervous breakdown and quit riding. I untacked after a particularly difficult lesson, and, holding back tears, I quietly said goodbye to my horse and left the barn.
I had rehearsed the conversation with my parents over and over in my head: “I don’t want to ride anymore.” “I think I need to try something else.” Or perhaps I would flat out say, “I’m so depressed I don’t even want to be alive, and the very thing I love so much has become a burden too heavy for my fragile shoulders.”
I had a speech planned out when I got in the car, but all I could come up with was, “I’m done riding.” I swore off horses; I tore down my ribbons and hid every picture under my bed. Horses had created a memory that seared a painful image in my mind of the girl who would never be good enough.
While I always had some anxiety as a child, it wasn’t severe until I was in middle school and at the peak of my showing career. The memory that stands out most is the day before I left for HITS Saugerties (New York). While packing for the week I began thinking about how I needed to win. Too young to even know what a panic attack was, I passed out, then found myself vomiting from the stress. I was 13.
After every show, I would come home and think about how much I hated myself. How at 5’7″ and 120 pounds I was too fat for the equitation. How I’m not good enough for my horses, how I disappoint my trainers. This narrative played in my head so often that I eventually believed that I was a disappointment.
Upon reflection, I’m horrified at the toxic relationships between students and trainers. While I know my trainers loved me and cared for me, backhanded compliments and blatant insults add up for a child. I wasn’t capable of understanding that they would say things out of frustration or sarcasm, and I became afraid of my trainers. Instead of having someone I could go to when I felt anxious or insecure about my riding, I felt dismissed and as though my worth to them was contingent upon my success. I told myself they’d be better off if I quit riding because I’d never be successful enough.
The relationships between riders were perhaps the most toxic of all. Despite wanting to support each other, jealousy prevailed. After all, how do you explain to a child that you have to be happy for others even when you lose? At times, I was pitted against and compared to other riders, whether barn mates or friends from other barns. I was told, “Well you’re better than her,” or, “You need to ride more like her.” As someone who struggles with social anxiety, I have a hard time understanding certain social cues from others and found myself easily feeling excluded. This led to bullying and jealousy and made me question my self worth in ways that a 13-year-old shouldn’t.
After many years of this, I deteriorated from the inside out. I taught myself that I was only worthy if I was a good rider. I know I’m a good, strong rider, but anxiety doesn’t care. Anxiety doesn’t discriminate against people who are talented, successful or hard workers.
I attempted suicide at 15. Leading up to that moment, I struggled with suicidal thoughts, disordered eating, self-harm, and I was diagnosed with clinical depression and generalized anxiety disorder. I entered treatment, took time off from school, and day by day, I healed my relationship with horses.
I had to strip everything away and find out who I was without intense training and my beautiful show horses, who I was when I couldn’t hide behind a hairnet and Samshield. Who was I truly on the inside, and why do I even ride horses? These are answers that I’m still searching for, but I could probably write a book on the experiences I’ve been through, the people I’ve met, and the lessons I’ve learned.
At 19, I’m riding and competing again. I’ve switched to eventing and realized that I’m most passionate about training young horses. My relationship with horses wasn’t healed until my jumper retired, and I rescued a BLM mustang. She’d been in the wrong hands, just as I had, and together, we healed. Watching her transform from a neglected mustang to a beautiful event horse has saved me in more ways than I can explain.
However, I can’t say that there are many times that my mental health has been supported. More often than not, it’s my horse and me against the world, but she understands my mental illness. She doesn’t get upset with me if I’m too depressed to ride, yet I know I always have to stay strong for her. I now seek out trainers and riding friends who support me, encourage me, and base my success on my riding and my horse’s ability—not on their standards of perfection. Getting to the place I am now has been the result of outpatient treatment, five years (and counting) of therapy, medication, and surrounding myself with people who know me and love me for exactly who I am.
I’ve spoken out many times about mental health and suicide within my schools and church, but I want to take this issue to the horse world. One of my biggest goals in life is to help destigmatize mental illness. You can have all the looks, money and horses you want, but “more” won’t satisfy the deep, persistent need within all of us to belong and to be loved.
I challenge everyone to be a little bit more open, a little more accepting and a little kinder. I don’t share my story for pity, but rather to exemplify strength, raise awareness and inspire others. If you know someone dealing with mental illness, and you don’t understand it, I encourage you to read up on it and try to empathize. If you’re struggling, my heart goes out to you. You’re worthy of life, and you will overcome this. If I can help one person by sharing my journey, then it will all be worth it.
Megan Roswech, 19, was born and raised in New Jersey. She currently lives in Rapid City, South Dakota, with her family and their five horses. She is a rising sophomore at Black Hills State University and is pursuing a degree in early childhood special education. She trains and competes her horses when not working or studying.