I have battled anxiety for almost as long as I can remember. Not only is the worry gene a strong component of my DNA, but my family has also always been safety-oriented and focused on minimizing risk. So you can imagine my parents’ hesitation when I, as a small child, put my hand on my hip and firmly declared that I wanted to ride horses. My mom and dad had visions of me in a hospital bed with a broken neck before I even had the chance to set foot in a stirrup iron.
But after my relentless, determined pleading, they eventually signed me up for my very first riding lessons. We had no experience with horses at the time, so our choice in barns was a shot in the dark. In fact, we made our selection based only on the criteria that it had horses and was close to our home. It happened to be a traditional German dressage barn, so my first lessons were vaulting lessons. They took place on Saturday mornings with a group of six or seven other excitable little girls and a patient, cheerful instructor. I felt butterflies in my stomach each time we turned off the busy road and slowly rolled down the bumpy gravel driveway toward the old green barn that sat quietly tucked away from the rest of the city. I could hardly wait to take in the smell of fresh hay and clean leather and to feel the soft ends of the horse’s noses. And the chance to actually ride was thrilling.
But as the years rolled by and I progressed from vaulting to riding in a real dressage saddle on the longe and finally to regular group lessons with a tougher and more demanding trainer, things started to change. I could handle the horses who were grouchy in their stalls. I could handle the horses who were spooky under saddle. I could handle the competitive nature of the other girls and the blisters and sore muscles I got from riding without stirrups. But what tore me apart was the trainer.
She was a Grand Prix rider who, like many, was tough as nails. In my memory, she was blunt, even demoralizing, and unafraid to raise her voice, bellowing commands from her post in the corner of the ring. But she was knowledgeable and accomplished and I was desperate to earn her approval. I would have done almost anything to please her. I gave each lesson everything I had, but it never felt like enough. It wasn’t unusual to see her reduce someone to tears, and I fought every fiber of my sensitive being not to break down each time she barked my name.
The butterflies I once felt on the way to the barn went away. Rather, they morphed into an entirely different beast. Instead, acid poured into my stomach as we slowly rolled down the long gravel driveway approaching the barn. I felt nauseous every time I got on a horse. My palms got sweaty just tacking up. When I was in school, I would sit at my desk staring at the clock, dreading the time my mom would pick me up to go to the barn. I didn’t know the word “anxiety” at the time, but I now know that was the name of the beast I faced.
I went to those weekly lessons for nearly five years, until my family moved to a new city. The horse community there was small, and my only option to continue with dressage was at a small lesson barn that focused on eventing. At this new barn, I was excited to discover a fun and encouraging trainer, happy and willing school horses and, much to my parents’ dismay, the new thrill of jumping. But it should come as no surprise that as I moved forward with eventing, that old mental monster always haunted me. Even with the strong support of my wonderful trainer, jumping, especially at competitions, grew into a huge mental battle. When things on course went right, the feeling was euphoric. But when they went wrong, it was a disaster. There were times I couldn’t eat for days leading up to a show and there were countless times I entered and left the ring literally on the verge of hysterics.
It destroyed me to know that the weakest link in my riding was not a matter of physical capability or theoretical knowledge. It was my mental and emotional weakness. There were times I questioned whether or not to continue with eventing. But when my anxiety was debilitating to the point that it prevented me from making safe decisions on course, I knew I needed to make a change. I found myself back in dressage, where I still struggle with moments of severe anxiousness, but the nature of the sport generally suits me better. I often wonder why I stuck out those tough times for as long as I did. I could have quit. Why did I keep riding when so much of me was screaming to run the other way?
Hindsight has offered me some clarity on this long road I have walked with anxiety. While I know this is a battle I will begrudgingly always fight, I am strangely thankful for it. For example, I learned early on that part of being a good rider is learning to accept and grow from criticism, regardless of the harshness of its delivery. Having a thick skin is a necessity, especially for sensitive people like myself. Mental control and toughness are muscles that must be grown and flexed regularly.
But most importantly, my anxiety has also shown me something deep within myself I otherwise would have never known existed. I think about all the times we drove down that barn driveway and I was overwhelmed with dread. But even in the face of that dread, I chose to show up and ride anyway. I think about all the times I felt consumed and crippled by my anxiety but I rode anyway. Although that beast within me was strong and powerful, there was a little girl with butterflies in her stomach who was there all along, too. And she was always stronger than that beast could ever be. She was the small, yet constant voice that told me to just keep going.