Creating Positive Communities: Marina Layton of “The Positive Equestrian”

In this week’s Best of Jumper Nation, Gillian Warner interviews Marina Layton to discuss the importance of making the equestrian world a positive space for our fellow rider and ourselves.

In a conversation I had with a few young riders at the barn the other day, the topic of positivity and the importance of a welcoming, inclusive equestrian environment came up. As some of us might have experienced, not all equestrian environments are positive and welcoming. Every environment should strive to be supporting and empowering of all riders, no matter their age, race, gender, sexuality, religion, body type, weight, physical appearance, experience, competitive status, or social class.

Horse sports are difficult enough as is, without the added stress and drama of struggling to feel accepted or “at home.” We often talk about equestrians needing a “village” to do what they do – so why can’t that village broaden into community and industry-wide support? How can we foster an environment which extends an invitation to all riders, cheering them on in their best days, and giving them a leg up in their worst? In what ways can we serve as a resource for other riders? What is our role as individuals to create positive change? 

In thinking through these questions, I came across “The Positive Equestrian”, a blog by Marina Layton. Curious about her work and dedication to building an increasingly welcoming and inclusive environment, I reached out to hear more about her passion and what she does. 

Photo from Marina’s Instagram

What do you promote through your work?

My goal since day one has been to promote positivity in horse sports, and create an inclusive space for like-minded individuals to connect with one another. My platform has allowed me to not only promote positivity and education / resources in horse sports, but connect and collaborate with others. It has allowed me to build a community with similar values, ethics, goals, and above all the same beautiful passion for horses. 

Why did you create The Positive Equestrian? 

I started TPE after struggling mentally and emotionally for many years. My trauma had accumulated over time into a lot of emotional and mental baggage. In the beginning, a lot of my writing was around horses, riding / training, mental health, and emotional wellbeing. It was a way to hold myself accountable in terms of cultivating my own positive attitude and growth mindset, while sharing my journey and process with others. It was also a way to shed light and discuss taboo topics in horse sports! Something we need greatly.

Horses can be physically and mentally challenging – how do you (personally) remain so positive?

I have bad days, I have good days. I struggle with anxiety, and waves of depression (since the COVID-19 pandemic has started it has been especially tough)! I have several tools in my wellness toolkit to support me, like meditation, breathwork, EFT tapping, positive affirmations / mantras. These things help me in and out of the saddle.

I also try to stay educated. I read many books on mental health and emotions, one of my all-time favourites being Choose Wonder over Worry by Amber Rae! I also enjoy the NF Masterclass, specifically Karl Cook’s course. I love podcasts like the Springen Equestrian podcast and The Willing Equine podcast.

The best tips that help me remain positive though, are the Progress Over Perfection mindset, and filtering content. I carefully pick the people I follow, hashtags I follow, the type of content that fills my feed. If someone’s content does not bring joy or value to my life, then I do not need it in my feed.

What is the Progress over Perfection mindset, and why is it significant to you?

I feel that a majority of equestrians are Type A personalities. We are hardworking, ambitious, competitive, impatient when delayed, highly focused on our goals… I was always so fixated on the destination, and forgot to appreciate the journey. If I had one thing go wrong in a lesson, it would deeply affect me emotionally and create mental barriers. 

I was listening to a podcast by my friend and amazing horsewoman, Adele Shaw, on Progress over Perfection. I was relating to everything, and she made so much sense. I have realized that focusing on Progress; what I am accomplishing presently (big & small wins) and what I can do now; is more productive than focusing on Perfection; being the perfect rider / trainer, letting perfection define your success and results.

What role does positivity play in your work with horses?

When working with horses, on the ground or in-saddle, I try to lead with positive reinforcement training, I also largely use clicker training and target training… I always give horses a choice, and let them tell me how I can support them and best work with them. I also try to create and maintain a positive environment for myself and my animals. When there is peace and calm, sessions and rides are much more productive. Animals are highly intelligent, and have more emotions than we know. They pick up on our mental and emotional challenges, and we can pick up on theirs too. So, maintaining a positive environment to train and ride in is essential.

The biggest thing for me and the horses is creating a consistent program, but allowing it to be flexible. Consistent in the sense that we show up to work on X days, we do Y on X days, and have Z amount of rest days. I keep it flexible in the sense that, again, the horse has input on what they need. If I show up to do pole work, but my horse really needs help reducing tension, then we are reducing tension. Pole work later (or tomorrow if we don’t get to it).

How would you like to see the equestrian world develop in the future?

In the next few years, I would specifically love to see us holding space for discussing and educating people on taboo topics; mental health, emotional intelligence, eating disorders, body image, diversity, bullying, sexual harassment, toxic relationships, trauma informed training, etc… We need to educate our riders and provide resources to them.

I am happy that the past year USEF has been holding discussion panels open to the public around topics like DEI, LGBTQ, etc… I would like to see more of this though from US Equestrian and Equestrian Canada. I want to start seeing these discussions and presentations at all events too. Have a speaking opportunity to educate on topics like this and provide resources. Make this accessible to riders, coaches, trainers, parents, spectators — EVERYONE!

I have heard hundreds of stories from my followers so far with countless challenges around bullying, eating disorders, anxiety, fat shaming, racism, etc. I think of how many situations could’ve been prevented, how many riders we could’ve helped, and how many would still be actively involved in riding, IF we had provided them with education and resources. I think of cases like Maggie Kehring and Rich Fellers. How that situation could’ve been prevented IF the industry leaders of this sport had done more to protect, provide support, education, and resources.

What are some actions individuals can take to help in this?

[In] this sport… toxicity has become a norm. We need to hold space for important discussions around taboo topics such as; mental health, emotional wellbeing, eating disorders, diversity, plus-size riders, body image, etc… We NEED to have safe, inclusive spaces for those who need support. We need more education and resources around these topics.

Some simple practices you can implement in your day-to-day life:

  • Share a positive affirmation daily (with yourself and someone else).
  • Pay a compliment to a rider at your barn.
  • Empower other riders on social media and in-person.
  • Share educational posts and resources on social media.
  • Challenge your own biases, and take the time to unlearn and relearn.
  • Be kind and loving to all; people and animals. Whether they deserve it or not.
  • Weed out judgement. Don’t surround yourself with people who make you feel judged or pressured.
  • Shift your thinking with a positive framework. Instead of saying “Wow my equitation is horrible, I need to do more no stirrup work” try saying “Wow I would like to develop a more stable leg, I’m going to do more no stirrup work!” — same goal, different wording, shift in tone, and it will also shift your motivation. The second phrase makes you feel empowered rather than put down!
  • Mediate. If you see someone in need of assistance, either notify security or someone who can help OR step in. Be supportive, get them the help they need.
  • Enforce rules at your barn. Simple rules like no racism tolerated, no bullying tolerated will go a long way. It will make people feel safe and protected at your facility as well. If someone reports a situation to you, investigate it further, and communicate with the parties involved. Enforce consequences if necessary.

Thank you, Marina, for sharing your story and your work. By referencing and applying just a few of the suggestions listed here and by keeping progress over perfection, we can all participate in shaping an equestrian community that is welcoming, positive, and inclusive for ourselves and our fellow riders.