Ever feel like the world is crashing down around you even though nothing major has happened or changed? Or wake up and feel like the weight of things is just insurmountable that day? Or maybe that you’re not good enough in any way—in your career, as a rider, as a student, as a friend or a daughter or a sister, as a person? Ever feel like it’s not even worth trying anymore because you’ll just come up short again?
Welcome to a sneak peek inside my head for the past several months. Things have been heavy. For a while, I chalked it up to seasonal depression, and lack of sunlight and vitamin D—the typical winter stuff. But before I knew what was happening, it crept its way deeper and rooted itself firmly at the center of my day-to-day life. It manifested itself as withdrawal from interpersonal relationships and society in general, anxiety attacks and two pretty scary panic attacks.
I’ve struggled with severe anxiety and depressive episodes in the past, but every other time, riding has been a total respite. But this time around, the thought of not giving my horse a good enough ride was becoming crippling for me. I love my horse more than anything, but I had myself convinced that my riding wouldn’t benefit her or do her justice, that it would actually be to her detriment. Truthfully, it scared me that even my greatest passion, my old reliable cure-all, was not helping me feel better about myself this time.
My therapist (who has been instrumental in me digging my way out of all of this) helped me understand that in situations like mine, even a partial effort is better than no effort at all. So, on one particularly difficult day, I went to the barn. I spent 45 minutes grooming my horse and just enjoying her presence. I tacked her up and took her out to the front field to ride. And out in that front field, on that quintessential spring day, we just walked.
I left the reins on the buckle the whole time and never even picked up my stirrups. I didn’t have any grand plans or direction, and I let my horse pick the path. I petted her neck, paid attention to how the spring air felt as I breathed in and out, let my body relax and flow with her movement, and just walked. After half an hour or so, we made our way back to the barn. I dismounted with a feeling of lightness, both physically and mentally, that I hadn’t felt in months. As I untacked my horse and brushed her face in her favorite spot, her eyelids began to droop, and she rested her head against me. Talk about a dopamine surge! In that moment, it didn’t matter what kind of rider I was. In that moment, I was good enough.
I know it is far from a new or fresh perspective to discuss how horses and riding are beneficial to mental health; that’s pretty common knowledge for anyone even moderately involved in the horse world. But I do want to open a discussion about what happens when riding itself becomes a source of anxiety instead of a happy place when you’re already struggling with your mental health.
If you’re anything like me, you put a lot of pressure on yourself to operate at 100% of your capability, in every facet of your life, every single day. That’s a difficult way to live! Take a step back and remind yourself why you got involved in horses in the first place. Was it to perfectly school your horse through a clean flying lead change every single try, two months into starting to school them? Or was it because you love horses and the way they make you feel when you’re around them? I’d venture to guess it was the latter.
Maybe the intensity of the inner workings of my mind aren’t typical, and maybe my situation is more niche than I think. But if anyone else feels like I do, I want to encourage you to take that step back and think about why you love horses and this sport. Strive to give your horse the best ride possible, yes, but also be patient with yourself. And on the days that it feels insurmountable, heed the sage advice my therapist gave me: Any effort at all is better than no effort. Spend time with your horse on the ground. Ride your horse and just walk. I did, and the effects were beyond what I can put into words.
Laura Adriaanse is an amateur equestrian and USDF bronze medalist based in Philadelphia. She started out in the hunters, rode for the University Of Mary Washington (Virginia) IHSA team, then switched to dressage after college. She is the proud owner of Dixie Rose, a Hanoverian mare, with whom she hopes to make it to the FEI levels.