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.”