Kino McFarland shares her story.
Our sport is notorious for its “crazy horse people.” This is a name that even horse people give to each other on occasion and not usually with affection. A crazy horse person (CHP) has terrible interpersonal skills, might be flighty, and may cause a lot of barn drama. There are a number of other unpleasant qualities a CHP might have as well. One thing is for certain, dealing with a CHP can be so psychologically damaging that it can persuade you to leave the sport as a whole.
This happened to me. I moved from across the country in order to pursue a working student position in eventing and everything was great for awhile, despite a few warning signs that I ignored. Eventually, treatment toward me turned for the worse and I decided that I would rather be homeless than work for this woman anymore. So I packed up my things the day she cornered me in the barn and listed all the things I had ever done wrong in the three months that I worked for her.
Luckily, I found someone to take me in for the years it took me to get back on my feet, which I eventually did. Unfortunately, my experience with this trainer burned me out on horses despite the fact that I never had any problems with the horses. Yet, I experienced what felt like the same psychological damage as someone who experienced a bad fall. Of course, I do not mean to downplay the PTSD experienced by riders who have had traumatic falls, but the anxiety I felt about going back to the horse world was crippling.
A part of me knew that I wanted to continue riding and continue on the path of working student to professional rider, but every time I reached out to someone, I had the fears of not being liked and not being good enough. I started to think that my experience proved that I wasn’t tough enough to be an equestrian. All of the negativity was actually my fault. As a result of all this anxiety, I became overly cautious around horses and horse people. I questioned my skills and ability and because of this, my 12-plus years of horse experience disappeared and I acted like a complete beginner again when I was given the opportunity to be around horses. Eventually, I gave up on my eventing dreams.
Fast forward to three years later and I’m volunteering at a horse rescue. At this rescue, I found someone who experienced the same damaging working student/trainer relationship I had with the exact same person. Our conversation helped me realize that it wasn’t just me that had problems with this trainer and I remembered the warning signs when I started: she was rude to wait staff at restaurants, women in the tack store knew her name and said, “I hope you’re not being used as slave labor,” and the person who picked me up from the airport made it sound like the trainer was difficult to get along with when I said, “I can get along with just about anyone.” The horse rescue has helped me gain back my confidence around horses and I’m realizing that my abilities with horses haven’t been the issue. I’m now afraid of people.
Every time someone talks to me, I’m afraid I’m going to get yelled at for not cleaning a stall well-enough. I’m afraid I’m going to get reprimanded for any other mundane reason and that I’m going to get fired from a job that I’m not even paid to do. I feel like I’m walking on broken glass despite the fact that the people at the rescue have been nothing but nice to me. They even promoted me to volunteer shift lead. But I have nagging doubts about my skills and abilities that I know have come from my experience as a working student. The doubts lurk in my mind and wait to pounce at every opportunity.
So what does one do when it’s not the horses who cause psychological damage to your ability to ride and work with horses, but the people? I’m still learning the answer to this question, but slow and steady work with horses and people has gotten me back into the sport and industry. I started volunteering once a week and then twice a week. I do extra things for the rescue when I can and I’m learning their methods of horse handling. I started reading Brain Training for Riders by Andrea Monsarrat Waldo and the reflection exercises have helped me see that I’m not as bad of a horsewoman as someone had made me believe. When the negative thoughts creep up on me, I delete them with a flick of my tongue. I am making a habit of noticing when things go well.
It is my hope that eventually, I won’t be so nervous around other horse people, crazy or otherwise. The fact is, we’re all crazy horse people whether we like it or not. Each one of us has our own issues and vices. Some of us more than others. It is my thought that we should stop using “Crazy Horse Person” in a negative light and start owning it. Own it for being completely crazy about horses, not for being psychologically disturbed. When used in the negative light, we give power to those who have hurt us. If a person truly needs help, we shouldn’t bash them for it, but instead take pity on them and assist them in seeking help if they want it. We are more than a sport and more than an industry. We are a community. We should act like it.
Kino McFarland is a Pacific Northwest based filmmaker, writer, and aspiring trainer. Most of her free time is spent volunteering at and making videos for a horse rescue.