Big Jumps, Bigger Stakes: Part One

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Chapter One

There are dozens of types of equestrians. You’ve got your backyardigans, your country cowboys, your self-made professionals, your experienced old-timers, your up-and-comers, your born naturals, your know-it-alls, and the people that have more money than God himself who live at the tippy-top levels of this sport.

My world is full of glitz, glam, and six hundred dollar GPA helmets. I spend my summers traveling across the country to various horse shows, where I pay thousands of dollars to have my two minutes in the ring to hopefully earn a ribbon that costs approximately ninety-nine cents to produce. Where I show, the parking lots are lined with glittering Mercedes sedans and Range Rovers. The moms wear three hundred dollar jeans and five hundred dollar sandals to watch their perfectly outfitted daughters ride their six-figure mounts in a neatly groomed ring of dirt. Small children are handed daddy’s credit card and are given free range. Horses are important from Europe and barn workers and grooms are imported from Mexico.

Not only does this sport come with a hefty price tag, it comes with a high personal price to pay, too. Beautiful young teenagers sacrifice their weekends to jump their horses over obstacles instead of partying with their friends. Small children spend all of their time and energy pining over the older girls and wishing for their talent and fame. Extramarital affairs are common, drugs are done on the regular, and horses are pushed past their limits in a way that PETA probably wouldn’t approve of. This isn’t your normal after-school activity.

This story is about the three months I’ll never forget.

As soon as the temperature dips below 50 degrees, equestrians flock to Florida to hibernate for the winter. West Palm Beach and Wellington are filled with horses from December to March; in fact, there may be more horses than actual people. Porsches and Teslas hum quietly while they wait for horses to cross the street. Children far below the driving age giggle wildly as they race their golf carts, their braids and bow flying behind them. The Palm Beach International Equestrian Center is a humming center of activity, day and night, day in and day out. The energy is electric and it’s easy to know why everyone loves it down here.

Samantha and I are watching the older Amateur Owners go, their expensive horses making up for the fact that they still can’t find a distance to anything despite their advanced age. Yet another one crashes her horse into an oxer and screams that her most recent facelift is ruined. Sam snorts without even looking up from her iPhone, her perfectly manicured nails tapping away at the screen without missing a beat.

I have known Sam since we were both six years old, bopping along on our small ponies. She oozes gorgeous in a way that seems effortless and natural. A smattering of freckles covers her perfect ski-slope nose, and her large green eyes seem to pierce your soul. Her auburn hair falls in loose waves down to the middle of her back. Today she wears a large pair of Tom Ford sunglasses with her show clothes and is easily draped over the front seat of the golf cart.

“Let’s grab a bite to eat. Lord knows we won’t miss much here,” Sam says, making fun of the old ladies who struggle to even pick up the canter. She slams the golf cart into reverse, spooking a large dappled-grey gelding, eliciting another chorus of screams. “Oops! So sorry!” Sam says to the glaring group of grandmas as we drive past the in-gate. “She’ll probably have that horse sold by the end of the day,” I murmur.

Once we’ve navigated through the crowd of horses and grooms, Sam floors it.

Out of the corner of my eye, I see two young men, about our age, both with flawless olive skin and shiny, dark hair. My eyes widen in shock, and I nudge Sam in the ribs. “SAM!” I whisper through gritted teeth.

“What? You know I’m hungry, and when I’m hungry, I get angry.”             “I know, I know. But I’ve got some bad news. She follows my gaze over to the two hotties who are engrossed in conversation with each other.      “Oh. My. God.” Samantha rarely gets flustered for anyone or anything, but I see the blood creep into her cheeks and her breathing start to quicken. “I can’t believe they’re here.”

“Let’s get out of here before they see us,” I suggest. But it’s too late. I watch as Samantha gulps and pushes her sunglasses onto the top of her head.

We’ve been spotted. Shit.

Guest Post: One Rider’s Battle with Anorexia Nervosa

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Although the author of this post has chosen to remain anonymous, I commend her for the incredible amount of bravery and strength it took for her to write this.  Her real-life experiences with an eating disorder should be taken as a warning, but her ability to overcome her battle with anorexia proves that the love of horses is an amazing thing.

I think I’ve always had unhealthy feelings and tendencies towards food. I’m average, a size 2-4, but my natural size doesn’t stop me from comparing myself to others. I have ridden and competed my entire life, and for as long as I can remember I would look at photos and pick out pieces of my equitation that needed to improve, trying everything I could to look prettier on my horses. I would constantly look at my friends and my trainers, saying to myself, “Well if I was that size, I would look and ride better.” At one point, like many girls do, I gained a little weight during puberty. I was okay for a while, but then one day something changed. As I looked in the mirror I began to hate myself. I would pick out the parts of me I so badly wanted to change. I started working out and eating healthier and I was able to drop a couple of pounds, but I reached a point where I couldn’t seem to lose any more.

In the spring of 2013, I had just gotten my new horse when I had a horrible riding accident that landed me in the hospital with multiple facial fractures in need of surgery. This made eating anything solid impossible, which for some would seem like the end of the world, but it instead made me happy when I found out that I had lost five more pounds. This is where it all really began. Suddenly, losing weight had become so easy, and so I continued to eat less and lose more. I dropped it quickly, setting a goal of a certain weight, getting there, and then setting a new one because it was never enough.

When I came back to riding after my injury, I was riding well and people began to comment on how good I looked—on the ground and in the saddle. This was only adding fuel to the fire. My weight loss went hand in hand with my riding; when I didn’t do well in the ring, I would eat less because at least I was better at that one thing than everyone else. Things were coming together; I looked good and my riding was improving. In the fall of that year, I won my first classic on my new horse. This moment was what the climb was all about, but unfortunately for me, I would go tumbling back down the hill.

Within a matter of one month, I lost almost ten pounds. At the following show, I was warming up for my class when my horse spooked, shifting slightly and landing me easily onto the arena sand. I got back on, finished warming up, and headed to the ring. Jumps one and two were good as was the first half of the course, but by the middle I was getting tired. My horse is super careful, so when we cantered to a jump with big log standards, it immediately doubled in size. He popped me lose and I landed on the ground for the second time in a matter of 30 minutes. Again, I thought it was just a fluke. The next day I was warming up and I was nailing it. I went into the ring with confidence, only to find the same fate two days in a row. My warm-ups always went well, but by the time I got to the ring my body was so physically drained I had no more strength to hold on.

This trend continued, and I didn’t make it around a single course the whole weekend. On Sunday, it wasn’t even that I couldn’t stay on, it was that I couldn’t keep my horse straight between my legs to steer him to the first fence. When I came out of the ring after being eliminated, my trainer looked at me and said, “So, what do you think happened?” I responded with yet another excuse, but she knew something was up. She had spent the whole week with me, watching what I had eaten, and knew me well enough to tell the difference. She had been noticing for some time, making sly comments on how I would need smaller breeches if the loss continued. One month earlier, people were commenting on how nice I looked on a horse. Now they became comments of concern. Other trainers and parents were approaching my trainer to see what was going on with me and why I had lost so much weight so suddenly. My trainer told me to go for a walk and come talk to her when I got off.

This is where my battle with anorexia began. I didn’t even know I had a problem. My trainer talked to me about it; she was worried that I had lost so much weight and was smaller than the 12-year-old rider in my barn despite the fact that I was 18. She told me that I was not allowed to ride until I had gotten help. What I didn’t know at this point is how long this road to recovery would be.

When I got home from the show, I went to a series of appointments with nutritionists, therapists, and eating disorder specialists. Still, I continued to get worse. I was getting close to 100 pounds at 5’5’’ with goals to go further, when the whole thing came to a head. With my weight still deteriorating, I went to my weekly check-up to find that my condition was worsening. My blood pressure and heart rate were way below what was safe—a normal heart beats between 60-100 times per minute and mine was beating around 34. It was then that they decided they needed to give me an EKG to check if my heart was suffering any damage. Let’s just say the results weren’t good, because I was admitted that afternoon to the hospital. My body had no energy, literally. A healthy heart pumps from three valves, but mine was only pumping from two. My body had started rationing its supply of energy. The doctor told me that if I didn’t get healthy, I would eventually pass away in my sleep because my body wouldn’t be able to survive.

After this day, I spent about two weeks in a hospital ward that specialized in children with eating disorders. This experience saved my life. I had started this endeavor to look prettier on a horse, but it turned out to only ruin my riding completely. I wasn’t allowed back in the saddle for almost six months after the horse show where it all went down.

When I was in the hospital, my therapist told me I needed to find a goal. I needed to find something that made everything I was doing worth it, so that when the little voice in my head told me to skip a meal, I could fight back. It is probably easy to guess what my goal was: to ride again, to compete, and to be better than I ever was. In all of this, I was lucky to have the support of my trainers because they never gave me the idea that I needed to be skinny to ride. In reality I was told the opposite, how I needed to have more muscle in order to do what we do.

The fight against anorexia is not an easy one. The battle still lasts today and will probably be something I will have to deal with forever, but I learned something very important. Riding and an eating disorder can’t survive in the same place. Being an equestrian is being an athlete. We are putting our lives at risk every time we put our trust into a 1,200-pound animal. Food needs to be something we use in order to be healthy, have energy, and to make ourselves strong enough to jump around a full course. Riding at a top level isn’t about being pretty; it’s about being effective and accurate. Starving ourselves and depriving our bodies of what they need to function is not the way to reach the top of this sport. Every time I get on a horse and walk into the show ring, I realize how badly things could have gone and how lucky I was to have something that makes fighting this battle worth it. I have my ups and downs, but pasted in my notes are the phrases I came up with my first night in the hospital, “I am doing this so I can ride my horse. I am eating so I can ride my horse. I am going to stay healthy so I can ride my horse.”

Guest Post: Emma on Teaching Ourselves to Love Our Bodies

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Today’s guest post is brought to us by Emma Rodwin.  Emma reached out to me yesterday after seeing my article in Horse Nation, and was so inspired that she wrote a blog post about her personal experiences with body-image.  Emma, thank you so much for contacting us and for writing this great piece!

Not being a serious competitor in my childhood, I was spared much of the very intense body image negativity that surrounds equestrian sports. However, that doesn’t mean I didn’t have my fair share of comments made about my body throughout the years. From my thighs, to my butt, to my breasts, it seems that trainers feel that they have free reign to say what they will about our bodies. In some cases this helps make us better riders. In most, however, it only serves to make us conscious of how our bodies are somehow “failing” us.

Riding on the intercollegiate circuit opened my eyes to all sorts of disparaging comments about girls and their bodies. Standing on the sidelines, I heard a barrage of comments any time someone who was fatter, shorter, or less well proportioned entered the ring. Girls and their coaches would say to one another, “Well, clearly she isn’t going to place, so maybe you have a shot, if you don’t blow it.” Suddenly, denigrating a rider has become a clever way to put down and add pressure to other competitors. It’s enough to make me want to give up on this sport all together.

But I never will.

Because I love to ride. I love to show. And I love to place. It doesn’t matter how much I weigh, or how many calories I eat in a day. I am strong because I work hard, I eat right, I exercise, I sleep enough, and I take care of myself. That is what being healthy means.

Now I’m a middle school teacher, and I see positive and negative body image scenarios play out every day in the classroom. Furthermore, when I teach lessons at the barn, I see those issues present particularly among the working students. They are beautiful girls, all between the ages of 12 and 15, which are probably some of the most vulnerable ages for body image issues to arise. Some of the girls are tall, some are short; some are skinny, some are curvy; some are more developed than others; some are gangly and awkward. But wherever they fall on the spectrum of size and shape, they are excellent and hard working riders.

My advice to them on a daily basis is this: the aspects of our bodies that we see as faults we need to see as strengths. They are part of who we are, and they don’t determine our worth as a person, or as a rider. When we embrace our bodies, and ourselves, we find out what kind of riders we really are—strong, passionate, healthy ones, who win in the show ring, and in life.

Emma Rodwin is a middle school teacher, riding instructor, and a recent college graduate. She has been riding for nearly 14 years, and has done a little bit of everything, including hunter/jumper, equitation, eventing, and dressage. Her great loves in life are working with Konor, an amazing OTTB, connecting with her students, and supporting her family and friends. In the future, Emma hopes to go to graduate school, become a certified trainer, and continue to ride and compete.

Konor

Guest Post: Emma Hamilton Wants Us to be #StrongRiders

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Hi there!
I am Emma Hamilton (@smallEQprobs) and I am thrilled to be starting my journey with Riders for Well Being and promote being strong, happy, and healthy (both physically and mentally).
Most riders have dealt with self-consciousness, but more so in the past few years.  We cannot help but notice the “thin, tall, and well-proportioned” stereotype.  Healthy, to me, is not a breech size or fitting into extra-slim boots.  Healthy is being strong – physically, mentally and emotionally.  Sadly, many people still believe that to be the best you have to be skinny.  I want to remodel/eliminate/change this idea and make it so that everyone believes that to be the best you have to be strong. Strong is defined as “having the power to move heavy weights or perform other physically demanding tasks or able to withstand great force or pressure.”.  As riders and young adults, being strong is certainly something to strive for.
That is where you come in.  I want you to tweet or Instagram a photo using the hashtag #StrongRiders.  By doing so, we will promote a healthy and strong body image for fellow riders.  Being strong is important in the horse world and in everyday life.   From now on I will be using the word strong on social media in lieu of thin/skinny/etc. and ask that you do the same.  We must remember that “every rider possesses, to his advantage or disadvantage, whichever the case, a figure for riding” (George Morris).
Thank you,
Emma Hamilton
Emma Hamilton is a Grade 11 student from Ontario, somehow balancing school, horses, dogs and family/friends.  She has been riding for seven years and showing now for four years.  She is a Phyllis Stein Rider and is currently showing on the Central East Trillium Zone.  She is known for spoiling her horses and having sparkling tack.
EmmaGracie

What it’s All About: A Message from R4WB Founder Kate Kosnoff

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“Who taught me to suck in my stomach or my cheeks?

Who told me to stand with my legs apart and my hips thrust back to create the illusion of a gap between my thighs?

Who made me believe that the most beautiful part of me is my negative space?”

I found the above poem on Tumblr a few years ago and wrote it down because of how much it resonated with me.  I’ve reread it often, and it always startles me how powerful it is.  What doesn’t surprise me, however, is my ability to connect with this poem.  When I read this, I immediately think of my fellow equestrians who are tortured by eating disorders, low self-esteem, and mental disorders.  I think of how these issues have gone largely unnoticed in the equestrian community or how they have been covered up and ignored–until now.

I have loved horses for as long as I can remember, and for many years, I was ignorant.  I didn’t realize that young riders felt that they needed to be thin and well-proportioned in order to place in the show ring.  I didn’t know that trainers and judges told their students that they needed to lose weight in order to show, or that they put their riders on special diets that cannot adequately sustain growing tweens and teens.  I wasn’t aware that so many of my fellow horse-lovers suffered from eating disorders and mental issues like depression or anxiety because of the pressures they faced as equestrians.

I am no expert.  I’m not a psychologist or a doctor or an analyst.  However, what I do have is the experience of passing through adolescence and teen-hood on the A/AA circuit.  I have seen firsthand the weak and broken bodies of equitation riders.  I have seen strong women crack under pressure.  I have heard trainers tell their clients to lose weight, and I have heard the whispers of spectators when a heavier rider trotted into the show ring.  I have felt myself become increasingly self-conscious about how I looked in my show coat or worry about my breech size.  I’ve caught myself longing for the sleek, delicate limbs of our nation’s top eq riders.  I have cried, wondering why my metabolism can’t be just a little bit faster and my stomach a little flatter.  I have felt guilty for ordering dessert at dinner or eating anything other than salad.  I have even helped some of my closest friends through eating disorders and watched them torture themselves trying to stick to the “big eq” diet.

Recently, I started to wonder.  Why hasn’t anyone done anything to stop these horrible practices?  Why are we teaching short stirrup riders that they better grow up to be tall and thin so that they place well in the junior hunters?  Why does anyone believe this to be acceptable?

So, I decided to be the agent of change that our little community of horse people needs.  I can no longer stand idly by and watch people lose their passion and fire for riding thanks to the impossible standards they’re held to.  My goal is to reshape the horse industry into what I wish it had been during my junior years: more welcoming, less judgmental, and better at promoting healthy, positive lifestyles.  I want to remind people what it’s all about–a shared love of horses.

I encourage you to love yourself first; to admire your strength and beauty and amazing abilities as a human being.  Yes, riding is a sport and should be treated as such, but don’t lose sight of who you are just to wear a smaller pair of Tailored Sportsmans.  Use good judgement and be healthy.  I promise that you will have a renewed vigor for riding and showing once you alter your mindset.  I implore you to stop the body-shaming (this occurs on both ends of the spectrum, both thin and curvy–neither are acceptable), the nasty comments, and the overly-competitive attitudes.  Learn to be more accepting and positive towards every rider you meet; after all, we’re all the same crazy kids who never grew out of their pony phases.

In the short span of time that has passed since I decided to start R4WB, I have received an outpouring of love and support from horse people across the globe.  I am so touched by some of the personal stories and experiences people have shared with me, and I am so honored that you trust me to change the industry.  However, I can’t do this by myself.  If you identify with my message, or simply want to be the a part of the evolution of the equestrian world, please do not hesitate to reach out to me or share this mission with your friends and family.

In an April 2014 issue of “O Magazine”, Oprah Winfrey wrote in her editor’s note:

“I’ve spent way too many years resisting, neglecting, and negating my body…I can see clearly how futile it is for any of us to have anything but praise and awe for these vessels that house our humanity.  All the years I dieted, complained, and was less than satisfied with my shape have yielded to a new perspective, an appreciation for the body that’s brought me this far.”

I think Oprah couldn’t have said it better.  Love yourself for who you are, not what you wish you could (or should) be.

XOXO,

Kate Kosnoff, R4WB Founder

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Kate, pictured with the two mascots of Riders for Well-Being, Marley and Mac

Guest Post: @DringsnDapples

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Love and take care of yourself.

A simple task, but not easy. Too often in this sport we view our lives with tunnel vision–we see our end goal and we will do everything and anything it takes to get there–all the while blocking out the negative side effects of our well being. Too often we take criticism from irrelevant people personally and try to change ourselves to please them. We compare ourselves to others and strive to be like them; to be the same size, or the same weight, or showing at the same level.

If you are a perfectionist like me, I’m sure there have been many tears shed over a “bad” lesson or show, and moments where you have wanted to quit. Long story short, this is not healthy. Don’t get me wrong, there is absolutely nothing wrong with setting goals, or being determined and working hard, but we have to learn when to stop. The perfection we are striving for is unattainable. Even the people at the very top of our sport make mistakes; when you are dealing with animals, despite your best efforts, things will not always go “perfectly” or as planned.

So here’s my challenge for you: Take one day a month just for you.

Do the things you love to do and remove the stress, drama and the pressure. Treat yourself: buy your favorite sweet treat or Starbucks drink without worrying about the sugar content or calories, have a spa day, or do yoga. TREAT YOURSELF LIKE A PRINCESS, BECAUSE YOU ARE ONE. Read your favorite book, or have a solo dance party to your favorite song. It doesn’t matter what you do as long as you do what you love and what makes you happy. Do not think about what others are doing, do not compare yourself to unrealistic standards, and do not say a bad thing about yourself or anyone else for the entire day. Go to the barn and just groom your horse, or go for a nice hack or trail ride without the stress of a lesson or training. I promise it will be good for both of you. When the day is done reflect on how you feel–now try to apply this to your daily life. Make a list of the things you love to do and that make you feel good, then make a list of the things you do daily and adjust accordingly.  It will change your life, and if everyone tries it, we could change this sport.

Share your “princess day” with us on Twitter or Instagram with #princessday and #RidersforWellBeing

Michaela is a senior in high school, and will be attending university next year for journalism. She loves to travel and has a small photography company of her own. She was born and raised in Calgary, AB Canada and has been riding and showing for 12 years. She is lucky enough to own the horse of a lifetime, her incredible grey Oldenburg mare, Inzo, who she competes with in the jumpers and equitation. She rides daily, and has a love for fitness and being outdoors. She hopes to make it to the top levels of this sport and be able to change this industry for the better.

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Guest Post: Shannon of @SouthAfricanEQ

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Hey everyone,

I’m guest writing for Kate as I’m one of her #RidersForWellBeing ambassadors. I thought I’d share a story that happened the other day 🙂

I was at a big equestrian festival (show) here in South Africa and I went to buy a t-shirt that I liked. I asked the lady working at the stand for one and she brought me one… But I asked if she had a bigger size for me.

She went off on a rant about how she hates that small people always try and buy bigger sizes & kept insisting the shirt would look good on me because I’m a small built person. All this time my best friend, Ashlin, was agreeing with her.

After about 7ish minutes of them ranting at me about needing to feel better about my body, I tried on the shirt and eventually bought it (and its a tiny bit tight but it shows off the curves 😉 )

It was actually such a good feeling because I often feel very negative about my body & appearance. It was a nice self-esteem booster & it reminded me about how we all need to love and accept ourselves for who we are. The shirt is much more to me now than just a cool shirt, it’s a reminder that you’re perfect the way you are. It’s a reminder that how we see ourselves is often quite far from the truth.

I hope maybe this story helps a few of you…
Lots of love,
Shannon (@SouthAfricanEQ)

Here’s a picture of Shannon in her new shirt.  Doesn’t she look great?

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