I usually feature some current subject or topic in my blogs, so as I sit here writing this in what is considered to be the quiet season for an event rider, I thought it was time to keep my promise and give you a true account into the mental health issues I’ve experienced in my life and how I’ve dealt with them. After all, as we reach the festive period and a general election looms, what we need to remember is that there are still a lot of people out there suffering with mental health issues.
Where do I start?
When I look back at my life, I achieved a huge amount of success from a young age that I don’t think I ever really processed or appreciated at the time. I’d represented Great Britain at junior, young rider and senior level and earned my senior team colours when I was just 23 years old. I’d won international events and was ranked in the top five of the British Eventing rider rankings, as well as winning The Goldman Cup for the leading British under-21 rider one year. The majority of what I’d won was also on a home-bred that we backed and produced ourselves. Playing it all back in my head now it seems completely surreal — a lot of what I achieved is a lifelong ambition for a lot of people and I completely took it for granted at the time. I know there are other professional riders out there from different disciplines who have achieved success from a young age, and I often wonder if they too went on to experience some of the issues that my mind kept throwing at me.
The trouble was, not only did I take these achievements for granted, I never appreciated them at the time and it gave me a false sense of what normality was. A lot of the people I was competing against were a lot older than me and had been doing this sport for a long time — most of them were my idols. But weirdly, I saw myself as the same age as them and rather than seeing myself as having so much more to learn. With horses you don’t learn true experience until you’ve been doing this job for many years and even then you’re still learning. But there I was at 23 years old, strutting around like Billy Big Bol***ks, not really mature enough to understand any of it. I was on a hamster wheel that I couldn’t get off.
Now we all know with horses, ‘when your luck’s in, it’s in’ and when it’s not, you’re on the effing ground! My luck seemed to last until my late 20s, which to me felt like I was already in my late 40s and having a mid-life crisis. I felt like I needed a sports car and a Paul Hollywood-style hairdo and I was constantly having a ‘my di*k’s bigger than yours’ competition in my head. I’d been in with a shout of winning at five-star on what I felt were the most talented horses I’d ever ridden, and then on three separate occasions, three separate chances and, ironically, three away from home… CRASH! I’d broken most things by this point so my body felt like I was 90 years old and my mind quite honestly was fu*ked. I had physical and mental health problems, and above all, I’d lost my love for the sport I once loved so much, and in hindsight, loved for all the completely wrong reasons. I chased anything to try and change my luck, to feel wanted or to get a bit of success. But the expectations in my head were so unrealistically high as to what I thought I should be achieving, nothing was ever going to suffice. And until you can step off that hamster wheel and take a step back and look at your life, you can’t change.
I’ve made some pretty bad decisions and choices I didn’t need to make in my life. To go into detail about it all would take too long. But when I was in a bad place and people mocked me, regarded me as being unsuccessful, keyboard warriors and troll comments used to make me rear up and lash out. I let all of this continue to get on top of me. But the reality is people like that will only be brave enough to put you down at low points in your life. Why? Because they either want to keep you there or to stop you progressing any further because they fear not progressing themselves. Bullies, narcissists and trolls are all usually fear-driven by their own egos. And when fear is driven by ego, caring what other people think is its main ally. The main enemy of these people is somebody who has a growth mindset to keep improving, to keep progressing.
Depression became known to me as ‘the black cloak’. When my head was fu**ed, it was like a black cloak wrapped around me and every thought I had was clouded by a fear of my own past failures. I had no recollection of any of the good things I’d done, past achievements or happy thoughts, only things that were bad.
To people on the outside I think I appeared lazy and ungrateful because the simplest of tasks seemed difficult to do. And to be honest, I didn’t want to go back onto the yard feeling a fraction of the person I used to be. There were some days I couldn’t bear to speak to anyone. I’d contemplated taking my own life and I know people who have felt no other option than to actually go through with it. The question I had to ask myself and the discussion I wish I could have had with them is this: at what point do you feel like you lost control of your own mind? What was driving your fear of failure so much that you couldn’t take the control back?
I didn’t have counselling, I didn’t take antidepressants, things which I know help a lot of people, but for me it was about understanding my own mind and what was driving my fears. We are all afraid without knowing it at times of failure. It’s just the things that drive the fear for each and every one of us is different. In my early years, my fear of failure was driven by ego which isn’t good. This encourages you to make decisions that are not a true reflection of the real you. Then it turned into fear of failing as a father, fearing change, fearing my past, fearing not being as good as I used to be. The truth is, the person you were 10 years ago, two weeks ago or two days ago doesn’t need to be the person you can become today.
Anybody feeling depressed, anxious or stuck in a rut, have a think about what fear of failure is driving those negative thoughts. I would highly recommend reading a book called ‘The Fear Bubble’ by Ant Middleton, which is a book that really helped me to understand my own mind. Take a look in the mirror and tell yourself you CAN do this and start by taking small steps towards doing something tomorrow that you didn’t think you could do today. It can be something as simple as setting your alarm clock, getting up and taking a shower. If you’ve lost your confidence jumping, start again with poles on the floor in a course format and just get used to cantering over them, the height is hardly ever the real root of problem anyway. For those that have the fear of not being good enough, set yourself realistic goals towards achieving what you think you couldn’t. And for those with confidence issues, stop thinking about what other people are saying about you — if they need to judge you in the first place, it’s only because you’re doing something more courageous than they would do themselves. Irrespective of your past, if you put your mind over matter, you will never stop developing and improving as a person. Even the person I was a couple of years ago I now want to punch in the face and give him a shake.
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Anyway, enough of me going on, but I hope you can all understand why I’m so passionate about promoting the importance of good mental health. For me the winter is about concentrating on my younger horses and getting some jumping practice in and myself in good shape for next year. And most importantly, spending some quality time with my family. I have big ambitions for 2020 with the horses and also ways of progressing the Time To Talk campaign with other riders and the fears they’ve faced.
As we soon will say goodbye to 2019, I would like to take the opportunity to thank my sponsors, owners, team at home and friends and family for the unbelievable support they’ve shown me this year. Thank you also to the people who’ve read my blogs — I hope in some way you may have found them useful.
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