Ask the Equishrink: When Overprotection Becomes Anxiety

We all joke that we want to wrap our horses in bubble wrap — but today Seana Adamson, the “Equishrink,” answers a reader letter about overprotection becoming full-blown anxiety.

Flickr/S. Carter/CC

Flickr/S. Carter/CC

Seana Adamson, Ph.D, is a psychologist specializing in Sport Psychology for equestrians and also is a USDF Gold Medalist. Click the #equishrink hashtag above to see more of her columns!

Hi Seana,

I am an eventer who has been competing lower-level eventing for 12 years. I truly enjoy competitions and it has been great motivation to keep improving my riding every time I get on. I have an ex-racehorse who is 14 years old with only some minor hock stiffness but otherwise completely healthy. I am reaching out to you because my anxiety about my horse has started to rule my life.

I have always been a very protective horse mother: strict blanketing schedules, very carefully planned diet, constant observation for any signs of strange behavior or lameness etc. It has served me well in the past as my horses always seem happy and healthy. A year ago I moved to a different state to a barn where I didn’t know anyone. In the past, I relied on my friends to keep me grounded and they would talk me through any irrational concerns I might have about my horse (“Was that a lame step or just a stumble? Is she rolling to scratch or is she collicking?”) It helped me keep my cool and be more relaxed around my horses.

Now, I don’t have them there to take me down a little bit and my anxiety has increased exponentially. Some days it is so bad that I can’t even ride. My brain starts asking ridiculous questions. “Was that a flinch under the brush? Is her back sore? Maybe I shouldn’t ride. Why does she keep sneezing? Can she breathe alright? Maybe I shouldn’t ride.” And if I manage to get on then more questions start. “Is she fit enough to do this? Should we even trot today? Is she sweating too much? Is she breathing too hard?” And I end up cutting the ride short and going back inside. The only time I feel better is when she is back in her stall and I walk away.

I love horses and I love riding but I dread going to the barn these days because everything has become worrisome. Logically, I know she is fine because she just saw the vet a month ago and she used to be in much more demanding training. But I don’t want to feel like this anymore. I feel like the anxiety is winning and eventually I won’t be able to stand being around her at all. Can you give me some advice on how to talk myself down? 

Frozen with Fear

Dear Frozen In Fear,

Thank you so much for your interesting question. I could begin by reassuring you that your horse is not lame or struggling with her breathing, but of course you already know that. In your question you describe feeling tremendous anxiety about your horse; however I think your immobilizing anxiety may be occurring with a related but slightly different source. I have never met or talked with you, but in reading your message I wonder if may be suffering from a subtle form of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, or OCD. Anxiety and OCD are closely related, but also distinctly different. Those with OCD often experience anxiety, but it is also possible to have anxiety but not have OCD.

Top riders often joke about having OCD. There is a fine line between the meticulous behavior that can lead to excellence and success, and the overly meticulous, obsessive thoughts of subtle OCD that can be so painful and immobilizing. MANY very successful people have an OCD aspect to their personality. Achieving true excellence requires such a commitment of repetitive, often monotonous practice that a little OCD tendency can be very helpful. But here is the important question: Is your meticulous nature HELPING your performance or HURTING your performance? In your case your performance is being impacted to the point of immobility and the inability to ride.

Here is how it works. All of us have random thoughts floating around in our head.  Some of our thoughts are predictable (I love chocolate chip cookies), and some are weird and crazy (I wonder what it would feel like to drive off that cliff?). Think of these random thoughts as space junk: They are just junk floating around, and are not necessarily significant in any way. Most people ignore a lot of their space junk, but with the subtle form of OCD your brain may pay extra attention to any space junk related to your horse’s health.  This attention to your horsie space junk causes you great anxiety, and leads you to do anything to ensure your horse’s safety, and in doing so decrease your anxiety.

The support system at your last barn helped you to negotiate this anxiety, but also reinforced your pattern by teaching you that the answer to your discomfort is to pay attention to your space junk. Reassurance about your worries will only serve to make you more convinced that your worries are real. Unfortunately in the end, this only convinces you that these random thoughts are important. In fact, the solution is to learn to recognize your space junk for what it is, just random junk: This is easier said than done. Of course it is good to consider your horse’s health and well being. But when the goal of your behavior is to decrease your anxiety rather than to improve your performance, you’re paying too much attention to space junk. Think of these worrisome thoughts as a very itchy mosquito bite. Though it itches like crazy, if you pay attention to the itch and start scratching, the itch only gets worse.

Subtle OCD seems to have a strong genetic component, so think about your family members. Do any of them seem to get stuck on a train of thought, even when that train is taking them to an unwanted destination? OCD also can be triggered by any other forms of stress in your life such as moving, relationship issues, births or deaths. People with subtle OCD are often helped by taking Selective Seratonin Reuptake Inhibitors, or SSRIs. The SSRI Zoloft seems to be particularly effective.

Only you can determine whether you are struggling with general anxiety, or anxiety paired with subtle OCD.  I strongly suggest you search for help with a therapist in your area who can help you negotiate this mental maze. You CAN learn to make your intelligent, meticulous brain work for you, rather than against you.

Have a question for Seana regarding your mental game? Send it her way!

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


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