Two friends leading their horses and enjoying each other's company. Helping each other with whatever struggle they are facing

It’s Time to Change the Culture

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I want to comment on a recent article in Eurodressage by Adriane Alvord, “The Pain that Lives Behind the Barn Door” referring to the tragic death of Teresa Butta in the US.

We have lost three professional riders to suicide in the last three months and there are many more I know who were contemplating taking the same action. We can’t ignore this anymore and something needs to change.

There are so many people who struggle with life. Most struggle in silence and put on a mask that hides the way they feel. A beaming smile, a chatty conversation and a false assurance, “I am doing fine”, is all it takes to hide the way you feel. Not many people have the courage to ask for help and not many friends notice the subtle warning signs.

I am a mindset coach in the equestrian industry and, having worked with riders for over 15 years now, I know how many riders out there are suffering.

We often talk about the financial struggles and the pressure that riders are facing, but that is not all. I have met riders from wealthy backgrounds who have that special horse in their stable and still struggle with the pressure they put on themselves.

The constant striving to be better, living up to expectations (mainly their own), wanting to prove their worth and to earn the recognition of judges, trainers and colleagues often proves too much.

Our competition environment is a no-win situation. No matter what you do, it will never be good enough. There are always scores that need to improve, expectations from owners, coaches and parents that need to be met, and there is that constant drive to earn recognition – to gain the confidence that confirms, “I do belong.”

Every rider is only as good as the horses they have in their stable. A horse can be exceptional one day and create opportunities to be on ‘that team’, get selected into ‘that squad’ and reach ‘that dream’. It all seems just a grasp away and can disappear again in an instant, when the horse goes lame. Who can sustain that pressure over long periods of time?

To top it off, the general view is that riders are tough. There is an expectation that beautiful and skillful riders are confident and happy. After all, they are role models and others out there are looking up to them. So, riders just suck it up, put their heads down, work even harder and ignore the pain. They put the stress and worries aside and just keep on going, hoping that it will all turn out ok. Until one day it doesn’t and they break.

This has to stop and I am calling for a big review of how we can include more emotional support for all the participants in our equestrian sport.

We can’t just focus on our horse training we also have to focus on life training. It is possible to get mindset coaches involved in junior squads and pony clubs to help young riders develop life skills in how to deal with stress and pressure, but more importantly, creating a culture in our sport that allows them to reach out for help. With people around them they can trust and open up to. Let’s teach our young riders that asking for help shows strength and courage, not weakness.

For our older riders and professional trainers. Please hear me when I ask you to make time for yourself. We become so good at putting everyone else before ourselves – you are important, please make time in your day for you!

Get a coach who is there for your own wellbeing not only for your horses.

Speak openly about your problems and the pressures you encounter. Don’t bottle it up and hope it will disappear, it won’t! Instead, it will grow inside you and gradually consume you.

To the friends out there, take note. If someone doesn’t look like they are okay, that means they are not. Don’t let them shake you off. Keep an eye on each other and offer your support. That’s what friends are for. Picking up the phone when you feel like checking-in with someone can make a world of difference.

To the parents, encourage your kids. Teach them that achievements are measured from within not from the outside. Tell them that validating yourself is far more important than looking for validation from other people. Ask them what they want and make them understand that loving their pony and simply enjoying a ride is more important than winning ribbons.

To all the riders out there who ride for pleasure, take the pressure off! I see so many riders striving for this illusive goal of ‘success’ only to find that they keep shifting the goal post and whatever they do is never enough.

  • You are not wrecking your horse if you make a mistake!
  • Your horse is not better off with someone who takes it out competing and brings out the best in him/her. Your horse is better off with the one who loves and cares for him/her!
  • If you try to please others you will never reach happiness!
  • If you wait for someone else to tell you that you are good enough you will never be good enough!

Look inward rather than outward and find your joy, your love for riding, within you. That will make you better at what you do.

If you struggle, ask for help. Speak up and be open. It is time we made our equestrian sport a more supportive environment for everyone.

The Eurodressage article ‘The Pain that Lives Behind the Barn Door’ can be read here: https://bit.ly/2vbt80H


This article was published in Horses and People March-April 2020 magazine.

Tanja Mitton

Tanja Mitton is a riding coach and Neuro Linguistic Programming (NLP) master coach with over 25 years of coaching and competition experience. She has been working with the Australian high performance squad as a mindset coach and, in 2012, was invited to the Australian Institute of Sport to present a workshop on how to improve the Mindset of Australian Coaches. Author of the book ‘Seven Steps to the Mindset of an Equestrian Champion’, Tanja conducts clinics all around Australia and her seminars have been approved by Equestrian Australia for NCAS coach accreditation points.

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