As a therapist working with equestrians, I see clients suffering from anxiety, depression, PTSD, chronic worry and stress. Everybody’s story and symptoms are unique, but the root cause seems to be the same: these riders, like most people, have difficulty accepting life when it sucks. But often, trying to change the things life has handed them only increases their discomfort and emotional pain.
In his book The Five Things We Cannot Change … and the Happiness We Find by Embracing Them, psychologist David Richo shares the five “givens of life”:
- Everything changes and ends.
- Things do not always go according to plan.
- Life is not always fair.
- Pain is part of life.
- People are not loving and loyal all the time.
These apply in the equestrian world, too. The more we resist them, the more we suffer mentally. Mindful acceptance of the five givens helps us look at equestrian and life problems in a different, more constructive way.
Everything changes and ends. As riders, we know that horses can react differently on different days. The horse we trained with yesterday may not be the same tomorrow in the ring. But when it comes to other types of change, we want to hold on tight and keep everything just the way it is. For example: We try to hold on to relationships that aren’t working. We try to hold on to good feelings when they are happening. Have you ever caught yourself having a great time and thinking “I wish it could always be like this”? Of course, nothing in life stays the same. We might be injured in a fall. Our winning streak might end. The loyal jumper that taught us everything we know will eventually die.
Trying to keep things the same leads to anxiety and stress. When we deny or resist change, we turn regular grief into unbearable suffering. Dwelling on thoughts like I’ll never love another horse that much adds to our grief. We might even get angry at ourselves for being sad. We do this because we don’t want to experience the pain we are in. We want to push it away. However, this only adds shame to our pain.
We adapt to change and recover from loss faster with an attitude of acceptance. Accept the sadness, experience it, tolerate it and move through it. Don’t complicate it, add to it or magnify it with your thoughts. The good news is that everything changes, so your pain will eventually end too.
Things do not always go according to plan. How many times have you planned a five-stride in a line, but ended up doing six, or even the dreaded five-and-a-half? When this happens, we may beat ourselves up emotionally for not making the five-stride work. We add to our suffering by not accepting that sometimes things just don’t go according to plan or that we need a new plan.
My favourite way of looking at mistakes is simply as choices that didn’t work out. They are not a measure of my worthiness as a human being. I now know that five strides wasn’t the best choice for that line, which is useful information. Six was a better choice in that moment, given the resources available to me.
We all do the best we can in the moment with what we know how to do. Accepting that not everything goes according to plan helps us let go of the need for perfection and control.
Life is not always fair. Riders know that in the ring there is no fairness. Ribbons go to the riders who happened to get the job done in their classes on that day. They may not be the riders who worked the hardest or trained the longest. Sometimes the winners are the ones who can afford better horses or can train more because they don’t have to work three jobs to pay for it.
Although we understand this fact of life, we don’t always accept it. We allow anger, bitterness or jealousy to creep in. When we rail against injustice (hopefully only mentally), we hurt ourselves by dwelling on the unfairness and multiplying our negative feelings. This takes our focus away from our training and ultimately interferes with our riding goals.
You win some and you lose some. If we accept that life is not always fair, we don’t lose sleep over it.
Pain is part of life. Riders are familiar with pain. Some is physical, like a broken collarbone. Some is emotional, like an argument with a trusted coach. We can’t eliminate it, but we can control how much we suffer from the pain.
Suffering occurs when we resist the regular pain of life. If we have an argument with a coach, we may feel hurt by that person’s words. This is normal life pain. But if we ruminate on the argument, spending hours thinking of the stupid things we said or the things we should have said, we magnify our pain and anger and turn it into emotional suffering. When we add blame and shame, we make things even worse.
If you sprained your ankle, you wouldn’t keep walking on it, telling yourself This shouldn’t hurt. I’m being a baby! You would accept that your ankle hurts and that you need time to recover. You would take care of yourself, and you would heal more quickly.
We can learn to do the same with emotional pain. When we accept regular life pain as it is, and show ourselves compassion, we enable ourselves to move past it faster.
People are not loving and loyal all the time. In my experience as a psychotherapist, this is the fact of life that is hardest for most people to accept. We want to believe that those we love will always be there for us emotionally. We hope that others will always be kind and truthful with us. In reality, even those who care about us the most will sometimes let us down. Our coach, trainer and other riders have their own problems. They may say something more harshly than they mean to, or they may not have time to discuss our thoughts on changing our horse’s bit at the moment we approach them.
If we accept this fact, we can allow moments of human imperfection to pass without taking them personally and feeling crushed. We must remind ourselves that people make mistakes and that their reactions are not always about us. Of course, we should speak up when our feelings have been hurt, but we don’t hold a grudge, seek revenge or try to punish other people for failing to meet our needs.
The key to accepting this given of life is the word all. People are not loving and considerate all the time. Hopefully, you have people around you who are generous most of the time. However, if someone, especially a coach or trainer, is usually impatient, dismissive, not empathetic, critical or abusive, it’s time to move on. Nobody should tolerate chronic nastiness.
Resisting the five givens of life leads to unhappiness and prevents us from fully enjoying this amazing sport. When we fully accept these five givens, we gain courage and release ourselves from worry and fear, making our journey with our equine partners more fun and more successful.