Updated: Apr 29, 2021
Burnout is a hot topic in the corporate and medical industries, but why don't we talk about it more in the equestrian world?
When the going gets tough, the tough get going. But not if they’re already burnt out.
What is Burnout though?
"Burnout is a state of emotional, physical and mental exhaustion caused by excessive and prolonged stress. It occurs when you feel overwhelmed, emotionally drained and unable to meet constant demands."
When I first started researching the topic of Burnout, I was overwhelmed by the amount of information there is out there. I knew Burnout was a ‘thing’, but I had absolutely no idea that there were Burnout specialists, anti-Burnout campaigns and books - oh, so many books - on the subject.
I was a Burnout Ignoramus.
Which is a bit dumb, because it’s happened to me. Many times, actually; I just didn’t know it. I have a cycle that goes something like this: I need to earn money because I have staff and a mortgage to pay, and, well, I like expensive things. So I fill my diary up and deny (or forget to allocate) myself any time off. I get all caught up in other people’s journeys with their horses, so I squeeze in an extra lesson here, an after hours phone call there, and for a limited amount of time, it’s all gravy. I’m full of energy and enthusiasm for both my horses and my clients. But then I start to feel tired. And then teaching and riding becomes a chore. I start to resent anyone and anything I have a responsibility to because I’m. So. Damn. Tired. And then comes the crash. Something small (and I mean small - I’ve been known to have a total meltdown about not having any loo roll in the house) will trigger it. I just sit and cry and won’t eat, or will only eat junk, and won’t want to leave my house.
Until last year, each time this has happened, I’ve pulled myself together the next day, told my nearest and dearest that I’m absolutely fine (“I just had a wobble”, “I needed a good cry” etc). Then I gee myself back up again and ‘renew’ my enthusiasm for the job (I.e. listen to some upbeat, motivational Taylor Swift - usually the more shouty ones about proving people wrong and not giving two hoots what other people think) then repeat the cycle.
But why did I carry on? Why didn’t I seek help or change what I was doing?
Because I’m actually very tough and I was just being a bit wet for a moment. Because I’m passionate about horses and I love my job. Because I’m an equestrian and we’re a breed apart. Normal rules don’t apply to us.
So there’s the problem. Right there. Let’s dissect that mindset.
Why do we, as equestrians, put so much stock in being The Toughest? How many of us have, against doctor’s orders, carried on riding with an injury? I’ve done it. Hell, I’ve even competed three horses in one day with multiple fractures in my right foot. But why? Because I really, really wanted to ride those horses at that show. For the love of it. But I didn’t stop for a second to think of the long term damage I would do to myself. Maybe I was young and pig-headed and stupid, but I definitely wasn’t so uneducated that I didn’t know that bones need to be rested before they can heal properly. I wore this achievement as a badge of honour; it was proof of my passion and dedication to my sport and career. I thought that if I wanted to succeed in the equestrian world, I had to be the toughest. And we (my equestrian peers and I) laughed about it. We laughed about the fact that I’d irreparably screwed up my foot in the long term, just so I could jump a few classes on mediocre horses and prove how tough and passionate I was in the short term. People said "Oh gosh, aren't you dedicated!" and "Aren't you tough!", and I liked that.
Sadly, this same mentality applies to the psychological side of equestrianism too. We do have amazing highs, but there are also unbelievable, sometimes seemingly unbearable downs in our sport and we expect ourselves to bounce straight back from them and, you guessed it... Just carry on. And if we don’t, we’re considered soft (by ourselves, and/or our peers). The fact that the mental health of equestrians is being discussed more frequently is amazing, and charities like Riders’ Minds are doing incredible work. We now need to be more proactive, not reactive. We need to embrace our mental health in a positive way, and change the ‘Only The Tough Enter Here’ culture embedded within equestrianism.
Let’s face it - this sport/lifestyle is hard enough on its own, without us beating ourselves up for simply being human.
To be continued: See Burnout... The Beginning (Part 2)