I don’t know if you have ever asked yourself that question. I have done a few times. This is my reflection and observations of my life in horses. I am fascinated with all things to do with human behaviour so I often ask ‘why’ questions. Why do you ride/compete or whatever you do with your horse? What is the meaning for you? When was the last time you asked yourself that question? Is the answer different now to when you started?
The reason I was thinking about it is because I have a family member who needs help with addiction right now. I was just pondering the similarities between having an addiction to something and making choices to do something. It’s a bit of a grey area when you look at it. Would I say I am or have been addicted to horses? Does it matter if I am addicted if I’m happy? What would you say about yourself? Do you have a non horsey partner or close family member who would disagree? I don’t necessarily have the answer, I am simply asking the questions. My view is that an addiction is unhealthy for either yourself, others, or both.
I didn’t ask myself why I rode in the beginning because I started riding at a young age. When I was about 4 or 5 I had an accident which frightened me, so I didn’t ride for a while. When I thought about if I wanted to ride again, the answer was always ‘yes’ but I was fearful, so it took me some time to get brave enough. Eventually I pushed myself because I wanted to feel that sense of freedom again - moving with the horse/pony. I loved the connection I felt with them. I also enjoyed spending time with our dogs and cats. Animals made me feel at ease; I enjoyed their company.
Throughout my junior school years, I played netball. My best position was goal shooter because it didn’t involve being a fast runner or having to be tall; I was neither. I loved the accuracy and skill involved. It was quite an academic school, so sports were not very high on the agenda. We played rounders, had the occasional tennis practice, gymnastics when indoors and ballet! I hated the indoor activities because they involved balance and grace – of which I had little. I much preferred the sports where I could practise a specific skill over and over until I had mastered it. I guess that could also be applied to gymnastics and ballet, but my starting skill level was so low with no natural ability that I think the reward seemed too far away to bother. My love of riding was, I think a compensation for my own lack of grace. I felt myself connecting with my horse to get that floating feeling. They made me look good!
Jumping wasn’t my thing until I was about 10 years old. It terrified me to begin with. When I finally started enjoying it, I was completely in love with the feeling. My pony called Blackjack was my best friend. We explored great heights together. The bigger the fences, the greater the buzz. He tried his best, but he wasn’t really a top pony, he just believed in me. That was the first time I understood what a bond you can have with a horse. We were a team.
Feelings I had then about show jumping and riding were so simple – I just loved it! Things get more complicated as an adult of course when you bring in other responsibilities, not least of all finances. It is an expensive sport. I made working with horses and competing them my main income and was lucky enough to have a small yard to do that from. Things got complicated for me in my personal life in my 20’s and 30’s. That’s when I think my love of horses and the sport turned more to an escape from life. I wanted equestrian sport to take me away (mentally), which was great to some degree, but I reflect on that time with a bit of perspective now and see some other things.
An addiction (talking about behaviour rather than a substance) can be defined as an obsession or compulsion to commit to a behaviour even when it causes them to disregard other obligations or responsibilities. I have found a few questions online which I could ask myself to check if I think I might have an addiction. (Please take this with a pinch of salt – it is not intended to replace a professional)
· Am I unable to stop the behaviour if I wanted to?
· Do I feel anxious when I cannot engage in the behaviour?
· Am I neglecting personal responsibilities at the expense of my behaviour?
· Am I hiding the behaviour from others?
· Have I experienced withdrawal symptoms when I stop?
· Am I doing the behaviour more than I planned?
I had to laugh at the hiding it from others question! I know lots of people who have done that regarding the finances in their relationships, especially if the other half is not horsey. I think it’s called a ‘tacksident’ accidently buying things from a tack shop?!
I know looking back at my 20’s and 30’s that I missed loads of family and social time through going to shows. It was important for the young horses to go, but I definitely did not have a balance in my life. I did do activities with my children, but I also think I could have done more or at least given them more time. The quality of the time we had should have been better. I should have been more present; I regret that. My need to practise my skills to perfection was more obsessive than it should have been. My children were not very interested in riding. One rode and the other was terrified! That was a difficult balance.
Financially it was complicated, but the finances were probably not treated like a business should have been. It was more emotional. Of course, the horses’ welfare came before money, but the financial implications should have been looked at more closely. To be fair to myself, there was another situation going on which was out of my control at the time. My knowledge of finances was limited due to my ex-husband’s behaviour, but that’s another story. There were definitely times when I should have changed my plan if the training of a horse was not working out, but I buried my head in the sand and kept going because, if I was honest, I couldn’t bare to stop. My whole sense of self and sense of personal worth was tied up in how successful my riding was. I had nothing else that made me feel the way training horses did, especially the difficult ones. I seemed to have a lot of those. The bigger the challenge, the greater the feeling of reward when I resolved an issue. To give up on a project horse felt like my self worth would be absolute zero.
My first thought about addiction came to me when my marriage broke up and everything was sold. The house, yard and horses had to go. I had no horse of my own for 7 years after because it was just way too expensive to keep one at livery. I was absolutely lost, as you would be, I guess. The first thing I noticed was I didn’t get that high, the rush of endorphins I felt from connecting with a horse I have been training. I would say that is a kind of withdrawal symptom. I felt hugely anxious being unable to ride and train horses. I had lost my identity. At first, all I could think about every day was how I could get back to it. My feelings of self worth were at rock bottom. Sometimes I would be crying uncontrollably over the loss I felt. It was similar to grief. I felt like a big part of me had died. I did contemplate leaving the equestrian world entirely because it was so painful to see people progressing when I couldn’t. I stopped watching any show jumping on tv or online. I didn’t follow anyone or any horses in the sport. There was nothing else I was qualified to do at that time except for coaching. I loved the coaching side of the sport although at that time I was not able to get much enjoyment from it. Depression almost consumed me in those dark days. I got up every day to go to work which was made up of freelance yard work. I don’t look down on anyone who is a groom or does those care type jobs at all, but I looked down on myself at that time because it felt like a step backwards after all I had worked for.
I never identified my self worth in being a mother to my 2 boys, a sister to my siblings, a daughter to my mum, partner to a great man who came into my life at a difficult time or being a friend. I put it all into one identity. When that was gone, my world fell apart. To me now looking back – that is the wrong balance. It looks more like an addiction type behaviour looking back now which was unhealthy and obsessive. I think if I was happy and it didn’t hurt me or anyone else, that would be different.
I couldn’t leave horses out of my life completely though. When I thought about my riding ambitions being largely over, I wanted to leave it all behind, but I couldn’t. I remembered the absolute joy of just being around horses. The inner peace I felt being close to them even when I wasn’t riding. Riding, training, and competing were the icing on the cake for me, but even without the icing, there was still a cake! Who doesn’t love cake?!
I decided to keep my options open, staying fit enough and riding some for other people kept me in touch with my skills to hopefully not lose them completely. With my partner Roy’s help, we were able to buy a young horse just over 3 years ago with a limited budget. With less money to spend you are likely to get a slightly boring, limited horse (nothing wrong with that if it fits your requirements) a lame one, or a naughty/difficult one. Obviously, I went for the challenge! She is the one I have now. Still a challenge most days but in many ways so rewarding.
I cherish the time I have riding and competing now. I still would absolutely love to be jumping bigger tracks, aiming for HOYS finals, the main ring at Hickstead, all of that. Ambition is still burning in me and I have to hold it back. I wonder if the past year in lockdown has given us all some of that perspective. Enjoying the journey of the training over the treadmill of the back-to-back shows chasing qualifiers. The difference now is I know I have only one horse. I don’t want to break her physically or mentally if I can help it. If I do that, the journey is over. I have more control over my addiction now. It’s much harder to have control without abstinence. If I was addicted to something that was dangerously bad for my health (I’m fairly sure horses are, considering I’ve broken my neck before! But that doesn’t count, does it? Ha ha!) it might be best to give it up completely. That is what I was tempted to do. When I gave up smoking 25 years ago, I just stopped and never went back. In my head I knew there was nothing good about it. There is a really good side to horses though. Unfortunately, it is expensive. So long as you can manage that without harming others, I think the upside is huge.
They are, in my opinion one of the greatest levellers of ego. Horses don’t know ‘who’ you are by any other means than who you show yourself to be. Isn’t that the only important thing anyway? Maybe we could learn from that. I have always found horses to be like a mirror to your inner self. Horses, like most other animals will reflect back to you the energy you give out. When I have been feeling down, angry, or sad about something in my life and I thought I was over it, my horse would tell me in the first 5 seconds of meeting me, that I wasn’t. Simply reflecting back at me was often enough to get me back on track and try harder to start again. They give out an enormous amount of love and trust if you are fair and respectful of them. Put simply being around horses makes me a better person.
I hope you continue to enjoy your love of horses and enjoy the journey it takes you on. Just remember to keep an eye on your addiction!