Dressage rider mental health: the struggles people face in a ‘judged’ sport *H&H Plus*

  • Awareness around mental health in sport is growing, and some dressage riders are among those suffering. Polly Bryan investigates whether there is a mental health crisis brewing within our world, and what can be done

    MORE dressage riders than ever are speaking out about their experiences of mental health. While increased awareness can only be positive, the reality is that poor mental health, and its often devastating consequences, is worryingly widespread. It’s time to ask: can dressage incite psychological suffering in a way that differs to the other equestrian disciplines, and what can we do about it?

    Five-time Olympian Carl Hester is one of many big names to have publicly promoted the importance of good mental health in recent years.

    “I don’t necessarily think the situation in dressage is worse than in other disciplines, but dressage is so particular that its participants tend to attract more criticism, very often from the people inside the sport,” he says. “I think most of us would say that we have been negatively criticised – I am at the stage in my career where I am confident in what I do, but it doesn’t stop people questioning what I do.”

    International grand prix rider and trainer Anna Ross agrees that the fact dressage by its very nature is a “judged” sport, and attracts many riders with perfectionist tendencies, can lead to mental health struggles.

    “Having a perfectionist mentality in a subjective sport is a difficult combination to handle,” she says. “Blending perfectionism with trying to achieve something that no one has yet perfected, and then adding an animal with its own free will into the mix – it’s not easy.

    “Your idea of perfection may not be the same as the next person’s. It needs to be firmly understood that while we all work to the same set of criteria, everybody will have a slightly different way of interpreting that; for example, judging the balance between expression and tension in a movement.”

    Mental health coach and rider Sylvia Bruce has worked extensively with Riders Minds, the online resource launched in early 2020 by the late eventer and mental health campaigner Matthew Wright and his wife Victoria. Sylvia explains that she has witnessed differing cultures across the equestrian sports that contribute to riders’ experiences, and that it can be hard to detach yourself from the inevitable judgement that dressage demands.

    “When it is your performance being judged by another person – as opposed to a showjumping fence being up or down – it all comes down to perception and opinion. But it’s important to separate the person from the performance; it is the performance that is being judged, not the rider – the person – themselves,” she says.

    “Mental health is a continuum: positive at one end and poor at the other,” she adds. “Mental health involves all sorts of skills we need, like decision-making and the ability to learn, and can be fantastic when applied positively. But dressage seems to demand that drive for perfection, that perfect 10, when it can feel as though anything else is not good enough. Over time, that can nibble away at a person’s psyche.”

    MUCH of the current situation surrounding mental health can be attributed to social media – both in spreading awareness and aggravating riders’ struggles.

    “Social media gives everyone an instant voice, which adds enormous pressure,” says Anna. “Someone can have a photo up online of you before you have even finished your test, and anyone can say anything about it. These moments in time, which is what photos are, buy into the dressage mentality of examining the minutiae, and there are emotive subjects on the plate here, like animal welfare.”

    “Things can escalate so easily on social media,” agrees Carl, who says he counts himself lucky to have grown up without it, and that he worries about younger riders giving up the sport out of worry around what others might say about them online.

    Olivia Towers is a grand prix rider and vlogger who has struggled with severe anxiety for much of her life. She explains that her perfectionist nature became damaging when it led to intense self-doubt, and that social media often contributes to these feelings in riders.

    “There is massive pressure on riders for everything to look perfect, but the reality of training horses is that it doesn’t look like that all the time. It’s a messy process and horses don’t feed well off perfectionism. But I have been ridiculed for trying to show reality on social media.”

    While grateful for the increased awareness of mental health that social media has helped to bring about, Olivia is also cautious of issues becoming overly normalised.

    “It’s great that we are all more aware of mental health now; when I first started talking about this online, I felt completely alone in the dressage world, and didn’t think anyone else felt the same way as me,” she says. “But we have to be careful people don’t start to label themselves [as having a mental health problem], when they are experiencing a normal human emotion, like anxiety in a certain situation. It’s important to retain perspective and recognise when these feelings start to happen all the time, or get out of control.”

    Sylvia is also keen to point out that it is important to differentiate between experiencing occasions when our mental health is not where we’d like it to be, which is normal, and signs of a mental illness, such as depression.

    “We all have bad days, but these can tip into something more and it’s important to be honest with yourself if this is the case, to ask yourself how long the bad days have been going on for, and importantly, what to do about it,” she says.

    EVEN when social media is not a direct cause of poor mental health, its “shop window” function presents a complex challenge when it comes to running a business or simply presenting yourself to the world as a professional.

    “It’s important to reach out if you’re struggling, but it’s also important to consider how and why,” points out Anna. “My advice would be to tell a trusted friend or family member, or speak to a mental health professional, but to be careful what you air on public social media platforms like your business Facebook page – especially if you want somebody to book a lesson with you the next morning.”

    For Anna, the group most at risk of having their mental wellbeing compromised by the pressures of the sport are younger adults, who have graduated from the under-21 youth sections but are struggling to gain a foothold at senior level. Being thrust into a challenging and sometimes intimidating competition environment often comes with the added pressures of setting up and running a business, and dealing with finances.

    “In young riders, people tend to live in a bubble, where you’re mostly competing against the same people, and maybe riding all over the world and going to the youth European Championships. Exiting that world can be a huge shock – one minute you’re the big fish, then suddenly you’re a very small fish,” explains Anna, who trains and employs many riders in this age group. “This is when reality hits and people have to make hard choices.”

    Grand prix rider Olivia Oakeley is someone who knows first hand how trying this “in between” stage of a dressage career can be, and the impact it can have on mental health. Olivia partnered Donna Summer on five European Championship teams as a junior and young rider, finishing fifth individually in 2014, her final year. In 2015 she was given the ride on the Keen family’s talented upcoming horse Don Carissimo, whom she hoped would help her reach senior grand prix.

    “Unfortunately I had a skiing injury, which meant that Don Carissimo went to Gareth Hughes instead. He is an incredible rider and I’m so grateful to have been able to ride ‘Darcy’ in the first place, but from that point I really struggled,” Olivia explains. “Outwardly I coped quite well, but inwardly I didn’t. I went from being a young girl desperate to get on a senior team and compete on the international stage, to convincing myself that I would be happy to stay at national level.

    “Mentally I had to tell myself that to stop myself getting into a much worse place that it would be hard to get out of. I am a competitive person and my bubble had well and truly burst. It was hard seeing Darcy doing so well with Gareth, and other people I had been on young rider teams with winning medals at under-25 level. ”

    Olivia Oakeley - Donna Summer

    Without the funds to go out and buy a horse to continue chasing her competitive dream, Olivia bought a cheap two-year-old, Rock Diva, and has spent the past six years training the mare up the levels, as well as developing her teaching business and gaining personal training and sports massage qualifications.

    “I’m really pleased I decided to take my career in a slightly different direction at that point,” says Olivia. “Focusing on training helped me find the love for dressage again –
    the horses rather than just the competition side.”

    RECALIBRATING expectations and motivation can be an effective way of dealing with the mental pressures in dressage, a sport in which finances and luck perhaps have a greater impact on competitive fortunes than in other, non-equestrian sports.

    “Many people struggle to cope with failure, but what is failure?” questions Anna. “I once had a very lazy horse with whom I didn’t have great results, but I had a lot of fun and felt I did a very good job training him.

    “Ask yourself where you get your validation from – if it’s from everybody, via social media, then you will struggle to survive. It’s more important to have a close circle of people who have your best interests at heart, and whose opinion you genuinely respect. Your validation should come from them.”

    Anna adds that the riders she worries about the most are those of any age who have set up on their own, “who work on their own, and go home on their own”.

    Carl agrees: “Dressage riders tend to be more isolated in their training [compared to showjumpers or eventers], and a lot of people ride and train on their own, so they don’t have anybody there when things go wrong. But if you have a good trainer, you have someone to talk to. I find being a trainer also means being able to listen to riders’ fears and worries around training and competing; what might go wrong, and what others say,” he says.

    “You can get too close to your own thoughts,” adds Olivia Oakeley. “Surround yourself with people who have the same vision as you – you can’t do it completely on your own.”

    Support and communication are key to good mental health, as is maintaining self-awareness and asking for help when you need it (see box, below).

    Olivia also advises writing down your thoughts when feeling overwhelmed, working out what it is that might be tipping you over the edge and whether it is something you can control by making a change. Anna is keen on the idea of a mentor scheme for dressage professionals, also acknowledging it is not only the younger generation who struggle. Older riders with established, successful careers are far from immune from the impact the sport can have on mental health.

    For Carl, improving dressage riders’ mental health across the board ultimately comes down to one thing: being kinder to ourselves and each other.

    “My plea to everyone in this sport we love is simply to support one another,” he says.

    Spotting the signs

    “WHEN we have a training issue, or our horses are not feeling 100%, we’ll spot the signs and take action, ask for help,” says Sylvia Bruce. “It’s important to apply this to ourselves and our mental health.”

    Sylvia advises riders to learn their own personal “clues” that something is not as it should be. These could involve changes in:

    • The way you think, for example constant worrying, difficulty concentrating, or becoming increasingly critical of yourself or others.
    • Your mood, such as increased irritability, difficulty relaxing or a lack of energy.
    • Your behaviours – eating more or less than usual, struggling to sleep, developing nervous habits or isolating yourself from others.
    • Your physical health, for example aches and pains, nausea, headaches or palpitations.

    Sylvia also advises paying close attention to the type of language you use, and how this might change:

    • Words like “should, ought, must, got to” creeping in – these are limiters that can add negative pressure.
    • Changes in self-talk tone, from encouraging to harsh and angry.
    • Pay attention to the times when you think or say, “Give me a break; I need a moment; my mind’s not on the job.” These thoughts are usually telling you something.

    Getting help

    If you’re struggling, there are many places you can turn to for help. These include:

    Riders Minds
    Extensive advice and a confidential hotline

    Riders Helping Riders
    Offering support for victims of bullying

    Advice and support for anyone experiencing a mental health problem

    Offering emotional support to all,

    This exclusive column is also available to read in this Thursday’s H&H magazine (1 April, 2021)

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