Depression in the equestrian industry

Christa Dillon asks – is it just mind over matter?

Almost everyone involved with the equestrian industry are united by their interest in horses. From young children learning how to rise to the trot through to top level professional riders, the horse brings us all together and binds us with this one shared passion. It is a beautiful thing indeed but, it does perhaps belie the reality for those trying to carve out a career with horses.

A few statistics from a survey conducted in May 2021

In Irish horse racing, up to four out of ten racehorse trainers were found to be showing signs of depression

The incidence amongst jockeys is similar, with 35% found to be exhibiting signs of depression

27% of jockeys suffering with anxiety

19% of jockeys with psychological distress

Only a third of the jockeys with symptoms of mental health difficulties had visited a mental health professional and, only one in five trainers had taken steps to access support for their mental health, at the time of survey.

I have been unable to find any similar surveys or statistics relating to the sports horse industry but, it is reasonable to assume that these issues do not exist only in one sector of the equestrian world.

There are many, many factors that can, do and will impact upon any one person’s mental health and well-being. No one is immune, regardless of age, experience, background, chosen career path or, available resources. Some of those factors might include:

Ambition and expectation

For equestrians who are ambitious and determined, ‘chasing the dream’ can become the ultimate motivation. Those who wish to gain further experience in pursuit of their goals-or take up employment in their chosen field-can find themselves in a rather challenging new reality. The racing industry in Ireland and England offers structured training and education programmes for trainers, jockeys and grooms. Stable staff in many yards are afforded care and protection through organisations such as the Irish Stable Staff Association, who work tirelessly to ensure fair pay, conditions and hours for employees.

These kinds of protective services are largely lacking within the sports horse industry, and while many employers offer excellent staff terms and consideration, there are still many more who are less than transparent at time of employment. Enthusiastic, ambitious hopefuls can find themselves overworked, underpaid and, no nearer to achieving their dream. The old adage of needing to experience and survive these difficult environments to stand any chance of future success still, sadly, prevails. A combination of factors such as tiredness, a widening gap between what you are doing now and what you eventually want to do and, a lack of resources, can demoralise even the most upbeat and determined character. It can be difficult to objectively re-prioritise our goals in these or similar circumstances, and the knock on effect to our mental health can be significant.

We rarely win

Of course, winning a rosette or trophy is only ever the metaphorical ‘icing on the cake’. Winning is important in helping us to define our progress, to boost our confidence and to quantify effort versus return but, winning as a concept certainly needs to be redefined when embarking on a career with horses. For some, becoming an Olympic team rider, vet, physio or farrier is a win. For others, a win can be quantified as a client paying a bill on time or a horse not bucking them off. These are hardly life defining successes but, sometimes they are the only ones on offer. Horses going lame, client expectations not being met, difficult weather conditions and spiralling costs-day after day with no obvious end in sight, can be mentally debilitating.

Isolation and loneliness

The equestrian industry worldwide is full of people, and with many folk having so much in common, it might seem logical that friendship and support is available in abundance. Sadly, the reality is quite different. With common goals comes fierce competition, rivalry and jealousy. Rather than an expansive and communal helping hand that allows everyone to progress, there instead very often exists a dog-eat-dog environment with a survival of the fittest ethos. This combined with other factors such as long hours, early starts and busy working days can contribute towards a somewhat singular existence and, a lack of inclination to mix with others.

Insufficient resources

Building a career in the equestrian industry requires resources – lots of them. The most obvious of these is money. Others might include things such as infrastructure, transportation, and equipment, which still all require money to achieve. Attracting clients and creating opportunities to continue progressing, is fractionally less challenging when you are an established, reputable provider with consistent results and testimonials to support your business. However, for those early on in their career it can be very difficult to initiate new business potential. As a result, newcomers are often pushed to find ways to make their businesses and services more appealing, often by undercutting others on price. Folk can easily end up in a ‘double the work for half the price’ type scenario. On the flip side, those further up their chosen career ladders are subject to greater running costs, more wages to pay and so on – the grass is not always greener on the other side. All of these criteria can have a negative impact on some other, less often discussed resources, such as mental wellbeing, nutrition, and rest.

Social media

There have been many articles written around the potential negative and far reaching impacts of the misuse of social media. We truly do live in the era of the ‘information superhighway’, and people are more accessible now than ever before. For those attempting to live and work in the equestrian industry, social media provides plentiful and invaluable opportunities to raise profiles, to promote businesses or services, to attract prospective clients and to engage with followers. However, this in turn creates a vulnerability which can be easily exploited by trolls and hate campaigners alike. Dealing with targeted negativity can be extremely difficult and distressing, and can contribute in no small part to a decline in a person’s overall mental health.

What can be done?

Learning to pay attention to our emotions, thoughts and feelings is an important first step. Sometimes, we get so busy being busy, that we don’t necessarily notice our everyday emotional base state. Being tired becomes normal however, often the first sign of conditions such as depression is an overwhelming tiredness that just can’t be shaken off. Waking up each morning with no enthusiasm, or going through the motions with disinterest and feeling sad or despairing, blank or empty, for a period of two weeks or more may be indicative of a shift in mindset.

Observing how you respond to any given situation is also important. Do you find yourself ‘catastrophising’ and/or becoming stressed in the run up to or during an event, perhaps more than is usual or comfortable for you? Are you suffering from nightmares, or an inability to sleep? Are you suddenly more or less interested in food and/or drink, or in social interactions? Do you feel completely overwhelmed, demotivated or completely apathetic? Gauge your present overall state of being with a time when you felt you were at your mental and physical best, and be completely honest with yourself. If you feel that you could benefit from a little support, then consider making an appointment with your GP. Discuss your concerns with them, and don’t be afraid to ask questions. Some options may include assorted types of therapy, perhaps a psychologist or councillor or, referral to a healthcare professional.

Other potential options might include medication, alterations to lifestyle and diet, finding support based resources, and rest. Talking to a trusted friend or family member can also really help to unburden your mind and, achieve a clearer picture of what’s really going on. Some of the resources available within the equestrian industry include the Riders Minds hotline, the BGA Grooms Minds, EEA’s Employers Minds, and Racing Welfare. Outside of the industry, help and advice can be found with The Samaritans, Mental Health Foundation and the 50808 text-to-callback service.

It is completely, totally normal throughout the course of your everyday life, to occasionally experience periods of time where your mental health and wellbeing needs to be prioritised. Our minds are no different to our bodies – we think nothing of going to a physio or an osteopath for a sore back, yet we shy away from a councillor or a therapist in case it means we are somehow ‘crazy’, or unreliable, damaged goods.

It is a great tragedy that the fear of being honest about any mental health difficulties may influence clients, sponsors, friends and family and, prevents more people within the industry from speaking out.

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