Seana Adamson Ph.D, USDF Gold Medalist and equestrian sport psychologist, fields a question about the mixed feelings that can arise from discovering that there’s more to life than horses.
For as long as I can remember my life has revolved around horses. As a young person I had dreams of competing at the Olympics and fully committed myself to riding at the top level — and I got pretty darn far up the ladder. I was a professional rider/trainer in my 20s, had a thriving business and loved pretty much every minute of it.
Truthfully, I never really had a life outside the barn until the past few years: I got married, developed a network of amazing “real world” friends, took a great job that wasn’t in a barn, and discovered that I had interest in some “normal” things (even, gasp, other sports). Meanwhile, while I still own a horse whom I love dearly, my commitment to riding and competing has waned — I’ve become a bit of a weekend warrior, which I never in a million years imagined that I would be.
I guess it’s healthy to be well-rounded but I harbor a lot of guilt that all my years of training and dedication are going to waste. Also, my identity has always been so bound up in being an equestrian, finding out who I am outside of horses has been a confusing process. Horses will always have a place in my life; I’m just really struggling to find out what that place is. Any advice?
Washed Up… or Woken Up?
Your question reminds me of a joke I heard several years ago. The comedian told a story about how his parents always warned him that he should never open the cellar door. His whole life he heard the same warning every day. “Never EVER open the cellar door!!” Finally one day when no one was watching he opened the door to see what terrible secret lurked there. He saw blue sky, and trees, and grass … (get it? he was locked IN the cellar). There is a wide wonderful world out there and horses are just one part of it!
The wonderful thing about equestrian sports is that riders can stay actively competitive for a very long time. At the 2012 Olympics in London one of the dressage riders was 72 years old! The difficult thing about equestrian sports is also that riders can stay actively competitive for a very long time. There is no clear ending point unlike so many other types of sport.
A gymnast knows they have a very short window of opportunity to compete at the top levels. They know that at some point they will stop the intensive life style and move on to another phase of life. A football player or baseball player may be considered old at age 40. For these athletes there is a difficult but clear time to transition into “real” life. That short window of opportunity certainly exists for our equine partners, but for riders there is such wonderful, terrible longevity that we are not forced into making “normal” life path decisions.
Horses are also incredibly labor intensive, and of course time consuming, which makes it difficult to have a rich and involved horse life as well as a rich and involved “other” life. The best way to have it all is to be financially secure enough that you can pay someone to do a lot of the work! But barring that option your decision to step in one direction will always involve moving away from something else. However none of your former skills or drive as an equestrian will in any way be wasted on your new path. Here are a few ideas to consider on your journey.
None of your prior skills are in any way wasted. You simply need to cross pollinate your old skills into the new realms of your life. The discipline of daily training, the understanding that small, incremental steps can climb a mountain, and the resolve to work through problems in pursuit of your goals will serve you in every endeavor. Horses can teach us a delicacy of communication and sensitivity to nuance that is a great strength to take into human relationships. And if you were a successful equestrian professional you certainly have learned to work with all sorts of personality types. You’ve also learned to manage stress and push through performance anxiety. Undoubtedly you will find a time and place to use all of these skills.
2. Get real.
When we leave one phase of our life behind it is easy to romanticize that former time. That is not a bad thing. It’s nice to have good memories! But sometimes it is helpful to get real and remember the hard parts too. Like the amazingly talented gelding that goes lame, or the potential Olympic partner that colics and dies. In literally the blink of an eye years of hard work, emotion and financial investment can dissolve to dust. And yes the ecstasy of a great ride can make it all seem worth it, sometimes … I’m glad to hear that you still have horses in your life, but it is nice for you to have them be a little further removed from the core of your happiness.
3. Goal shift.
Use your unfulfilled goals and desires to drive your motivation in a new direction. We have all had failures that were painful. So let the sting of those unfulfilled goals drive you towards excellence in your new direction. Any time we strive towards excellence in any realm I believe we grow as a human being, and make the world a better place. Any attempt is a noble one, it does not have to have a result that brings the world to its feet.
Enjoy the less competitive, lower pressure aspects of your new horse world. Focus on the friendship with your horses, the joy of cross species collaboration, and the pure fun of a good ride. Now your horses can be a true haven on earth! And appreciate the richness of texture that you have built into your new life. There is a wide, wonderful world out there.
If Gandolf the Wizard were to consult his crystal ball and tell you that you would never win another ribbon, what qualities would you strive for to become a winning human being? Journalist Douglas Preston in his article “The Dalai Lamas’s Ski Trip” describes a moment when a waitress asked the Dalai Lama, “What is the meaning of life?” The Dalai Lama answered. “The meaning of life is happiness. [But] the hard question is not ‘what is meaning of life? That is easy question to answer! No, hard question is what make happiness. Money? Big house? Accomplishment? Or,” he paused, “compassion and a good heart? This is the question all human beings must try to answer.”
If you have any questions you’d like me to answer I may not be as good as the Dalai Lama, but I’ll do my best! You can email me at [email protected], or visit my web site www.seanaadamson.com.
Seana Adamson Ph.D, is a psychologist specializing in Sport Psychology for equestrians. She is a United States Dressage Federation Gold Medalist, has been training dressage horses and riders for over 30 years, and is the author of “Memorize That Dressage Test: A workbook of mental games to improve focus and flow.” Learn more by visiting seanaadamson.com.