Most research studies into burnout talk about it as something that happens to people only as a result of their work, i.e. pressures of their professional lives. The World Health Organisation even recognises burnout as an ‘occupational phenomenon’.
I’m challenging this perception, because I think people within the equestrian world, whether horses are a hobby or work (or both… especially both!), are particularly susceptible to burnout. But why?
Horses can be exhausting, perplexing, frustrating, and everything else in between. We put pressure on ourselves to give our horses the best possible life and make progress under saddle and achieve good results in the competition arena, and, and and…. And then they go lame, or develop a weird skin condition, or decide that the judges hut at the championships is far too terrifying to even contemplate going near. Owning, caring for and riding horses is stressful.
Obviously, I know that the joy our four-legged friends give usually outweighs the more negative side of horse-ownership, which is why we keep on keeping on, but how many other people have a hobby that’s more stressful than their job?
My friend is an excellent ice-skater. She works 50+ hour weeks as a solicitor and also manages to be a social butterfly, but she’s happiest when she’s on the ice. I ride my horses in my spare time. I work 50+ hour weeks on the yard and coaching, have something that vaguely resembles a kind-of-not-really social life, but I’m happiest when I’m on my horse. We’re quite similar on paper, my friend and I. But I’m prone to burnout, and she’s not. And I’m sure part of that is because when she’s finished on the ice, her ice skates go in a bag, and into a cupboard until she needs them again. They don’t need feeding, or watering, or brushing, or mucking out. And they don’t try to kill themselves when you’re not looking.
When you think of everything that can and does go wrong with horses, and then add in the time commitment and expense of keeping them, it really isn’t any wonder that we burn out.
While I was geeking out researching burnout, I came across a study that was carried out on caregivers (unpaid people who care voluntarily for someone, usually a close relative or friend). Whilst I am in no way comparing people in medical need to horses, I think the premise is the same. There was a phrase in there that resonated with me: “Burnout is often the result of extreme commitment that results in people neglecting their own needs”.
I think this is why we, as equestrians, are so prone to burnout. We become so committed to horses’ needs that we neglect our own. And it might not even be our own horses that we're committed to. What do you think the number one reason for grooms staying in unsatisfactory jobs is? They love the horses. They put up with poor living and working conditions, no career progression, broken promises (I could go on here…), because they love the horses they care for. Why do you think livery yard owners continue to run at a loss and effectively subsidise other peoples’ hobbies? Because they love the horses. They work seven days a week, fourteen hours a day and don’t take home a wage, because they love the horses in their care.
Then you have the one-horse amateurs who work long hours to support this ludicrously expensive hobby, and fit caring for and/or riding their horse around an already demanding schedule.
We are so committed to horses and our goals with them that we forget that we have needs. I could get right into Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs right about now, but I won’t bore you with the finer details. The one need I’m focusing on here, is ‘safety’. You, as a person, need to feel safe in order to function properly. I’m obviously referring to physical safety, but emotional and financial safety are the big hitters when it comes to horse ownership.
We all know that being a horse-parent is an emotional rollercoaster, and your mental state can flip within the space of 0.3 seconds (“when your farrier finds an abscess” – if you’ve seen that meme you’ll know what I’m on about!). This is emotional stress. Burnout is a build-up of unmitigated stress.
We all know that being a horse-parent is eye-wateringly expensive, and your fur baby just loves to see the vet for a Saturday evening catch up, thereby incurring unexpected bills that even the most stringent of budgeters may not have anticipated. And that usually happens when you’ve already had a pricey month; maybe you dared to splash out on a big holiday (shock horror!). Being under financial strain is stressful. Burnout is a build-up of unmitigated stress.
Now – physical safety. I teach a lot of people, and I can honestly say that a handful of them are, more often than not, genuinely terrified when they ride. These guys are generally quite nervous by nature, but they’re adding to their daily dose of stress just by climbing on board their horse. It’s not for me to say whether or not they’re completely mad for putting themselves through those levels of terror every day, but that perceived lack of physical safety is stressful. Here is comes again: Burnout is a build-up of unmitigated stress.
So, horses = stress, whether it's directly from the horse (e.g. injuring themselves or you), or indirect (e.g. unacceptable working conditions for a groom). If this stress is unmitigated, it leads to burnout. I'm pretty sure that’s why burnout is so prevalent within the equestrian world.
It really is a wonder that we’re all still (semi) functioning when you think of it like this!
As you might be able to tell, burnout within the equestrian world has become something of an obsession for me, so I’m absolutely delighted to be able to talk about it for 45 minutes straight at the Flying Changes Coaching Equestrian Mindset Event. It’s happening on 19th March 2022, in Birmingham, and it would be fabulous to see some Conscious Equestrian followers there! I can’t wait to hear the other speakers and am looking forward to a day of learning and socialising. Please follow this link to find out more and buy (very reasonably priced) tickets:
Hope to see you there!