It's a true honor to have Catherine take over The Blonde & The Bay today. Catherine has been a huge role model for me since my NAJYRC ambitions years ago. In fact, we've known each other for quite sometime; she actually used to compete my previous horse! She is a true horsewoman, an incredibly gifted dressage rider, and one of the kindest, strongest women I've ever had the privilege of knowing. We adore you, Catherine, and thank you for sharing this important topic via my platform!
The world of equestrian sports tends to breed a lot of hardworking, dedicated, and perfectionist-minded people. After all, horses take a lot of time and care and we can all attest that the work involved is never truly done. There’s always one more bucket you could scrub, one more piece of tack you could clean, one more set of bandages that could be rolled… the list goes on and on. It can be hard to set boundaries and decide when it’s time to call it a day and leave the work for tomorrow. This can be especially difficult as a young person when you are hungry and motivated, willing to push yourself past what may be healthy. And then when you take into account a common stigma in equestrian sports that you have to ride as many horses as possible in a day, work from before dawn until after dusk, and push through injuries in order to prove you want it, it’s no wonder we see many unhealthy relationships between up-and-coming riders and their mentors when that’s the expectation. It can begin to feel like nothing is ever enough and you have to keep pushing and pushing yourself until you have nothing left. So, if you find yourself in this position, how do you learn to set boundaries first for yourself, and then be able to communicate those boundaries with other people? It’s definitely a challenge, but it’s a process that can first and foremost teach you how to respect yourself, followed by expecting that same level of respect from others.
As young or developing riders, we all often have mentors and instructors that we look up to. They hold the knowledge that we so desperately seek and they hold the key to us improving as riders and accomplishing our dreams. When I was younger, I was so motivated to be the best rider I could be that I would do literally anything that my instructors told me to. I idolized and admired them so much, and I trusted that they had my best interests in mind. In an ideal situation, these mentors will recognize the lopsided power dynamic at play and will not use their position to manipulate or exploit the dedication and passion of their pupils. However, in some unfortunate situations, this is not the case. The power of the mentor is utilized for their own gain with little thought or consideration to the mental and physical health of their students. And sadly, I believe that sometimes this even happens unintentionally. As people get busy, stressed out, and overwhelmed with their own personal and professional lives, they might not even be aware that what they are asking of their students and employees is unrealistic or unachievable.
I think this behavior becomes especially prevalent in working student situations where the work that is done is supposed to be equal to compensation in lessons/training that is received. But lines can become blurred when deciding how valuable someone else’s time and physical effort is when often there is no actual salary calculated or given. Is two hours of work, a day of work, or a whole week of work enough to earn a one-hour lesson? It depends on who you ask. But from what I’ve seen, it seems fairly typical that no matter how hard the working student works or how many hours they put in, they still owe their instructor/mentor for the opportunity to work in the first place. While it is definitely important to be grateful and appreciative of opportunities and help, I think it is common for working students to be undervalued and underappreciated. This can lead to a low level of self-respect and self-esteem, stemming to unhealthy behaviors such as working through injuries or falling behind on other important things in life because they feel like they have to commit all of their time, energy, and effort towards completing jobs for their mentor in order to deserve the chance to continue working.
So, how can this cycle be broken and how can we make the stereotypical relationships between working students, pupils, instructors, and mentors become more symbiotic? It is a complex issue with no one simple solution, but I think various changes can be made in the equestrian industry that would help this problem and would be beneficial for everyone involved. These positive changes could lead to less burnout from developing riders and better treatment of employees moving forward. How often have you heard someone say that even though they are tough or even mean with their students, it’s nothing compared to what they had to deal with? Why should that be the standard? That just because someone mistreated you, you should then go on to mistreat those that look up to you and are willing to work hard for you? I think we should strive to be better than the past and create a culture focused on balanced relationships and mutual appreciation.
While I definitely don’t have all of the answers, I think one big step forward is creating an environment where people feel like they can use their voice and communicate with their mentors, instructors, and employers when they are struggling or feel like things could be done differently. But in order to have the confidence to communicate, they first need to learn to appreciate and value themselves. Looking back, there are so many instances where I wish I would have stuck up for myself and communicated when I couldn’t take on any more work or when I was struggling either mentally or physically. While it may feel to you like it should be obvious when you are struggling and need the pressure to be eased a bit, sometimes others either don’t see it or look the other way and will keep pushing until you speak up. It took me a long time to finally realize my own value and decide that I deserved to take care of myself and not constantly put the needs of others in front of my own. After all, the better you take care of yourself, the more you’ll have to give and the quality of what you do will rise. There were many times where I sacrificed time for schoolwork, time with family, and proper care of injuries in order to not seem weak or not let anyone down. I thought that if I just kept pushing, I would eventually be rewarded. But too often the more you give, the more people will take until you set boundaries. While it’s true that this sport requires sacrifice and commitment, figuring out where to draw the line between pushing yourself to improve and pushing yourself into burnout is crucially important.
One of the amazing things about equestrian sports is that they can be done competitively for almost the entirety of someone’s life. But this means that if an equestrian wants riding to remain a part of their life through adulthood, they’re in for a long haul. This is why learning about creating a healthy balance in life and taking care of both your physical and mental health from a young age is so important. While I know trying to “tough it out” and push through injuries is common and popular, I can’t stress enough how important it is to properly care for your body after injuries whether they be minor or major. We only have one body to work with, and if we don’t treat it properly and just consistently allow the wear and tear to add up, then we will be stuck with the lifelong consequences and lingering pain that will start to affect other parts of our lives. Also, to me this is a good test to see if you are in the right situation. Because if you become injured and feel like you are being pressured into continuing to ride or work and put yourself at further risk, chances are you’d be better off elsewhere. As hard as it can be in the moment, value yourself enough to remove yourself from a situation where your wellbeing is getting sacrificed for someone else’s convenience and needs.
If there’s one thing I could go back and tell my younger self, it would be to appreciate myself for who I am and to feel like I am good enough to deserve self-love and care. I would tell younger me to not be afraid to stand up for myself when I felt like things could be done differently or I felt like too much was being asked of me.
Looking back, it was always much easier for me to stand up for my horse in a lesson if I felt like they needed a break or less pressure because I thought they deserved my love and respect and to have me stand up for them. But what I didn’t realize was that I deserved to stand up for myself as well and to set healthy boundaries. I want to highlight too that communication can always be done in a respectful and amicable way. It doesn’t have to be confrontational or emotional. If you think out and even write down what you want to say beforehand, you can communicate clearly, calmly, and respectfully with mentors, instructors, and anyone else in your life. By speaking up for yourself and finding your voice, you are setting a precedent that you should be valued and treated well. And again, if you find yourself facing backlash or repercussions from this, it’s usually a blessing in disguise that will hopefully direct you to find a better and more supportive environment. It can be really hard and painful to process at the time, especially if you’re receiving negativity from someone you trusted and admired, but respecting yourself enough to move forward and find a better situation is worth the heartache. Your future self will thank you.
My takeaway message to all developing riders of any age is this; yes, work hard, be committed, and make sacrifices when necessary, but never lose sight of your self-worth and the value you have as a person.
Go through the struggle of figuring out how to accept yourself and care for yourself enough to be able to stand up for yourself when need be. Learn how to communicate respectfully, clearly, and maturely. Find your voice and don’t be afraid to use it to set healthy boundaries and to discuss any issues that may arise. While it can be scary, nerve-wracking, and overwhelming at first, over time you will develop self-confidence and communication skills that will help you in every aspect of your life. And if you are a trainer or mentor to others, do the hard work of self-reflection and be able to realize where you might be able to change some of your behaviors in order to provide the best environment you can for your pupils and employees. It’s never too late to make changes in life and try to be the best versions of ourselves as possible.
We all make mistakes in life, it’s inevitable. All we can do is be willing to learn from them and make changes to do better in the future. I truly believe that we can make positive and healthy changes to the culture of equestrian sports and the dynamics of the relationships within it in order to create an even more amazing community for the future generations of equestrians to come. So many outstanding equestrians are already out there doing their best to create positive change, and I know that if we all join together, speak up, and use our voices together to contribute to a healthy, respectful, and loving community, the noise will be deafening.
• Catherine Rose Chamberlain