Your horse’s wellbeing is always a priority. If even the smallest thing is amiss, from lameness to not looking themself, you’re always on hand to help. So why do we find it so hard to prioritise our own wellbeing? As part of World Mental Health Day (10th October) and inspired by Team Shires rider, Matthew Wright, we wanted to raise awareness of mental health in the equestrian industry.
Whilst horses can be a great source of enjoyment, and have often been used for therapy, the impact the equestrian lifestyle can have on mental health is often overlooked. In this demanding, high-risk sport, luck isn’t always on our side. Issues such as financial pressure, long hours, workplace stress or injury can add up, leaving you feeling low. A study by the British Grooms Association showed that more than 83% of grooms have suffered from stress or mental health issues, and only 12% reported that they didn’t consider these problems to be linked to their job as a groom.
From grooms to 4* eventers, no one is exempt from experiencing mental health problems. For Matthew Wright, success began at a young age and he says, “for a long time I felt untouchable and like life would just keep on rolling”. However, Matthew’s fortune began to change when some of the best horses he’d ever ridden didn’t perform as expected. Feeling as though he’d failed the owner, and with many of his top horses reaching retirement age, the pressure built. “I felt like my career was over,” Matthew says, “I couldn’t talk to anyone about feeling a failure and I didn’t even know what depression was at this point”. Things escalated, until a diagnosis of testicular cancer led Matthew to reach what he describes as, “the lowest point of [his] life”.
Looking after your mental health
A clean bill of health has helped Matthew improve his mental wellbeing, but he also credits a change in attitude to overcoming these challenges. “Admitting when I’ve done something wrong, that there’s a problem, that I’m scared of something. And if you can be honest to yourself and the people you love, you learn to become much more open.” The charity Mind has been part of Matthew’s journey, directing him to a counsellor and being a great support network. He donated all his prize money from this season to Mind and Orchid (a male cancer charity).
Here are a few ways to maintain good mental health:
Exercise is a simple way to boost your mood. Find an activity you love and get moving – go for a walk, join a dance class or take your horse for a hack.
You wouldn’t feed your horse poor quality feed, apply the same principal to your own diet. Eating balanced meals will improve your physical health which in turn will help your mental wellbeing too.
TAKE A BREAK
Take some time for yourself. This could be getting out of the office at lunchtime or going for a blast round the field with your horse instead of doing some schooling.
LOOK AFTER OTHERS
Caring for others is a great way to make you, and those around you, feel good. Reaching out to friends can open up doors to help communicate shared frustrations or worries. Caring for others also applies to our four-legged friends. Sometimes a good grooming session with your horse helps you both relax.
TALK ABOUT IT
Whether you’re sharing problems with a friend, or seeking professional help, being open with your feelings can be the first step to improving your mental health. It’s not a sign of weakness and it doesn’t need to be scary. Matthew says, “The biggest mistake I’ve made my whole life is burying my head in the sand and never talking to anybody about what was going on inside my head or the problems I had. I have had to learn to be a very open person now, which with the help of counselling and my family, I am now able to do.”
Be honest about your feelings, even if you’re just talking things through with your horse at first – they’re always happy to listen!
Opening up to friends and family will help you feel supported and may help them to share their feelings too.
Conversations about mental health need to happen more, especially in the equestrian industry. Most of us aren’t afraid to ask for help when we are experiencing physical pain, so it doesn’t need to be any different for mental health. “I’ve been in the worst physical shape of my life and been successful, but when my mind had gone it was a recipe for disaster,” says Matthew.
Looking for more advice? Visit Mind’s website for help and support.