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Why do we need to end equestrian burnout?

I forgot my dressage test twice and nearly got eliminated at this event because I was burnt out.
Hopetoun CIC2* - 2012

In my last blog I talked about my own personal experience of burnout, but I know that I am most definitely not alone in what I go through when I try to take too much on. I know most equestrians, professional and amateur alike, are familiar with the feeling of spreading themselves too thinly.

Over the last few months, I've made it my mission to research burnout as widely as possible (that's one of the annoying things about me: I can't do anything without researching it fully first). I've listened to podcasts like "Fried: The Burnout Podcast", I've read numerous scientific articles (I won't pretend here that I fully understand everything that I read, but I got the gist of each one) and I've joined Calmer's "Reignite" campaign and am currently on their ten-week course to become and an anti-burnout ambassador!

Those of us who have experienced burnout know how rubbish you feel, and how it impacts on every single part of your life. The lack of energy, enthusiasm and creativity becomes crippling and everyday things, such as keeping the house tidy, staying in contact with friends and basic self-care, fall by the wayside. Now, it's difficult for people on the outside to recognise burnout, because other than maybe looking like you've been dragged through a hedge backwards (which, as my father reminds me constantly, isn't unusual for us horsey types), there aren't any outward signs. No physical changes.

Or are there? This bugged me. I thought, "There MUST be some kind of physical change that goes on within the body that contributes to us feeling so low when we over do it."

And guess what? I was right. However, like most mental illnesses, you can't see the changes that are happening; you can just see the symptoms. This is where I confess that I read a fair amount of neuroscience papers with Google open on another device, so I could look up every other word. I'm sure there will be a few people who read this that are way more clued up than me when it comes to brain science (maybe I'm flattering myself to think that such brainy people might read my ramblings?!), but I'll try to explain it those of you who, like me, need it in layman's terms.

The human brain has a part called the prefrontal cortex. It's the bit that makes you a logical human and stops you from reacting like your horse might when you see a flapping plastic bag. We'll call this bit your Human Brain.

Then there's the amygdala. This is your Threat Brain. The Threat Brain has an important job to do in keeping us alive; it's what stops us from getting straight on the four-year-old thoroughbred, that's been on box rest for three months, on a windy day. But if you only had your Threat Brain and no Human Brain, you wouldn't do anything remotely risky (like getting on a horse). You'd perceive everything slightly out of the ordinary as a threat. A bit like a horse does, actually. Basically, the two need to work together to keep us alive, but also keep us logical. In modern, civilized society, the Human Brain should generally take the reins, and steer its owner through everyday life, with the Threat Brain sitting just behind; it's there, but only really needed every now and then when the Human Brain encounters something it's unsure of.

I messed up the striding to this enormous brush into the water because, in hindsight, I was utterly exhausted.
Hopetoun CIC2* - 2012

Now, let's add in a bit of stress. There's positive and negative stress. Positive stress is pre-competition butterflies/excitement, pressure from an exciting job opportunity, going on a first date. Negative stress is things like money worries, work trouble, chronic fatigue. Positive stress is a good thing. However, when we're under negative stress, the threat you feel (e.g., not being able to pay bills, strained professional relationships, feeling tired all the time) begins to re-direct blood flow towards the Threat Brain, because that's the part of the brain your body thinks it needs to activate. So, less blood flow to the Human Brain equals way fewer nutrients going there. Neurons in your brain need nutrients, just like other part of your body, and when they don't get what they need in order to function, they die off, and your brain shrinks.

Read that again. Your brain actually shrinks. And then you make bad decisions. Bad decisions lead to further negative stress and even fewer nutrients getting to the Human Brain.

So prolonged periods of negative stress = brain shrinkage.

OK, so that's a massively simplified version of what goes on, but it's pretty common knowledge among medical professionals.

The Human Brain is also responsible for willpower, which is why, when we're under stress, diets and healthy eating go to pot, and then guess what? The body is getting even less of the nutrients it's craving. You then have less energy, and you can't do your job as well. But the problem is that you still have the same amount of work to do. It all becomes much, much harder, and the quality of your work starts to slide. You begin to resent anyone and anything you have a responsibility towards. It's a downwards spiral, and my gosh, it's hard to get out of.

This is why so many good grooms leave their jobs. Why so many talented riders quit before they've reached their full potential. Why coaches become sour, and why amateur riders give up on their dreams too soon.

This is why we need to end equestrian burnout. For the good of the industry we love so much. We're not going to eliminate negative stress from our lives completely (especially with horses around!), but we can teach ourselves better coping mechanisms AND be even more productive than before.

N.B. The reason for using photographs of Hopetoun CIC2* in 2012 is that it was a prime example of a time I was burnt out, but didn't know it. My brain literally didn't work all weekend. We drove all the way up to Scotland from South Oxfordshire, only for me to forget my dressage test twice and nearly get eliminated. The show jumping was a highlight, and we managed to jump a clear, but then on the cross country I was very lucky not to have an accident, as my judgement was so poor due to being utterly exhausted. It was only thanks to my wonderful horse, Morris, that we got home in one piece.

Which makes me think... We're striving to make eventing safer all the time, but if the riders are burnt out before they even set off on the cross country, is it really safer?


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