Is equestrianism a perfect environment for burnout?

Burnout in equestrians – would you know the signs? Could you or a friend be burnout? It’s beyond stress, as we shall see and can easily lead to a downward spiral and into total mental, physical and emotional exhaustion that may takes weeks or months to recover from.

Take note of the symptoms, be aware of yourself and others and let’s help one another prevent this awful 21st century condition. Here I’m looking at the professional world, although there is much overlap with amateur and recreational riders.

The dream job

Equestrian burnout – the subtle and insidious creeping into mental, physical and emotional exhaustion.

Working in many performance-related environments is very tough – corporate, academia, medical, educational, financial. However, sport-related careers are seen as soft options, where a talented athlete can work in the job of their dreams backed by sponsorship and adoring fans.

If only it were that simple. I’ve been really struck by two recent suicides in the dressage world, firstly that of Teresa Butta, a 44-year old American rider and then the Danish rider and dressage trainer, Henning Sloth Jepsen. These two tragedies seem to raise important questions about the mental health and well-being of professional equestrians and the absolute need for solutions, empathy, sensitivity and understanding.

Burnout can happen at any stage of your career

Professional riders and trainers do not have it easy; from the working pupils to the highest ranked performers, life is simply hard; equestrian burnout can happen at any time, at any phase of a career. This is particularly so for those in their 20s and 30s; those in their 40s and 50s either give themselves the headspace to realise what is truly important to them and go for that. This can be a healthy change of pace, they may decide that being or getting to the top no linger interests them in the grand scheme of things, or that they have one last chance to push for more success. When the ideals are to remain to work like they did in their 20s, they can force themselves into unrealistic goal setting with disappointing consequences at best.

Gaining a reputation and maintaining it is never easy. However, with little financial backing, the equestrian world is more than tough. In order to gain a reputation as a skilled horseman or horsewoman, you probably need to start by imply making enough money to live on and by riding and breaking the challenging horses that others won’t touch. Whilst the profit margin will be narrow, the risk of injury can be high.

If you are lucky enough to have a higher quality horse and start to get seen, you need results. Fast. That’s an added pressure for you, as you depend on the results to maintain your credibility and, at the same time, enhance the quality of horses you ride and train. Factor in unappreciative owners or ones who seem to have all the answers for what you could improve on, riders have to bury their frustrations, angers and irritations. This is the perfect way to start the journey to equestrian burnout.

As a mindset coach and trainer, bottling up such major emotions in this way is almost always detrimental. It could harm the rider’s own health, outlook and more than that, when you are away from the competition or owners, you may be less than patient with others around you.

Professional riders rarely take time off. Most work 6 or 7 days a week and long hours to get all their riding, schooling and training done. Not to mention finding the time to teach others, if only to earn a little extra. There is a general rule that you should be overworked to be successful! There’s a pervasive and pernicious opinion, that if you take more than the minimum time off, you aren’t at the beck and call of others, then how can you be serious about making it?!

There is a certain kudos to training/riding a huge number of horses and working without rest!!

And now for the pièce de resistance – perfectionism! Professionals naturally strive for the perfect round, it’s part of the job. But going too far down this nasty rabbit hole can lead to emotional distress and certain unhappiness.

The cycle often repeats

Once a rider has made it, however, and their reputation is established, there is no rest, the cycles of needed success and red rosettes (blue ribbons in the US) repeat. There may now be the burden of bills, employees, sponsorships, even the media and social media ‘experts’ to contend with. Those entering their 40s and 50s may have thoughts about entering a different phase of life, this could be a very positive outlook or somewhat darker.

Throw into the mix other influences of 21st century life: family, partners, children, and those occasional curve balls that life like to challenge you with and you need a robust mindset to deal with it all.

The industry is absolutely ripe for burnout situations. This is nothing like stress or depression, although a burn-out person may feel both. Stress is often removed when the stressor is removed. If the rider goes on holiday or has a time away, stress should decline. However, with burnout, you have extended yourself beyond all of that and removing yourself from horses and riding does not help in the short-term.

Recognise the signs

Burnt-out equestrians are easy to spot. They feel

  • Irritable
  • Frustrated
  • Emotionally drained
  • Emotionally disengaged with others
  • Physical aches and pains
  • Headaches
  • Sleep disturbances
  • Inability to relax or switch off
  • Easily fatigued
  • Exhausted – mentally, emotionally and physically

Often, during a burnout episode, you’ll feel like you can’t take on one more thought, just that one thought will be too much. If someone asks you a question, it’s that your brain cannot process it and you give a snappy answer or a shrug of the shoulders.

Burnout needs to be recognised and something done about it. The deeper you enter it, the more difficult the return journey.

What can be done?

The easy answer is to book a strategy call with someone like me, to help you find ballast and feel more like yourself. In the short-term or if your burnout is milder, you can

  1. Check in with yourself every week. You almost need to put this in your diary, as not doing it isn’t negotiable. How are you doing? What can you leave doing, what’s going to help you? Can you ask for someone else to do it? You need a time when you can think – plan this!
  2. Be more selfish in order to get yourself well again. Say no more often. It’s your health that’s at stake!
  3. Having a treat like going for the (very) occasional massage or nails painted isn’t self-care. Self-care needs to be done daily. It’s not riding and its not spending time alone mucking out or being with horses! It’s a time to find your headspace. Something you can do in about 20 minutes every day. Walking is superb for this, walk for 10 minutes, turn around and walk back.
  4. Whilst you’re walking you’re not thinking about your to-do list, you’re not thinking about others, about horses or about future plans. You’re going on a mindful walk. You are going to empty your mind of daily life by filling it with complete trivia about your walk. You describe inside your head everything you see, hear, smell, touch, even taste. You are going to babble to yourself constantly to describe your surroundings, pointing out cracks in the pavement, blue skies, grey skies, weeds, paving stone shapes, anything at all!
  5. Consider the things you can do for overall health – sleep, eat properly, exercise (probably not needed!), de-clutter. If you need help with any of these, seek expert help. Lots of experts have free strategy calls – make use of them! You might also like to know more about techniques included in Time Line Therapy®, which helps to alleviate emotional problems.

Whatever you choose to do, do it consistently. Do it to improve your mental and emotional health and your physical health will improve too. Remember, turn away from denial, reach out for help when you need it (get it down in an email to me if that helps!) and know that you can re-find you.