If you’re in the Equestrian industry either full-time or recreationally there’s no doubt that you identify as an Equestrian. The time, money, and sacrifices that are required to be involved in the sport are enough to tie up the idea of who you are into what you do. Athletic identity is defined as the extent to which an individual in sports identifies with their athletic role (Brewer, Van Raalte and Linder, 1993). In some cases, identifying as an Equestrian athlete or even just an athlete, in general, lifts us up; it makes us feel like we are part of something beyond ourselves, helps us find a place in our community, and fosters long term enjoyment for sport and life. On the other hand, when athletic identity becomes all that we rely on for self-image we find roadblocks in times of struggle, injury, or failure. The traditional model that most of us follow dictates we have to do something to be something, but when we can focus more on the process of learning and mastering our craft instead of tying our self-worth to the image of success that we are working towards, suddenly much of the anxiety surrounding sports and performance gets stripped away.
Most of the time when I talk with an Equestrian athlete about what draws them to participate in Equestrian sports the athlete will tell me that riding is interesting because it is challenging, and because every so often when the pieces fit into place the feeling of harmony between them and their horse is beyond compare. As a general rule of thumb, Equestrian sports provide little to no opportunity to make money, they require early mornings, long days, and hard work. And yet, we still show up. This by definition, makes participating in Equestrian sports an autotelic experience, or an end in itself. The activity becomes intrinsically motivating, and that feeling when a rider is in complete harmony? That’s likened to the optimal psychological phenomenon termed “flow” where “one’s skills are adequate to cope with the challenges at hand, in a goal-directed, rule-bound action system that provides clear clues as to how well one is performing” (Csikszentmihslyi, 1990, p. 71). This state involves complete concentration and a lack of self-criticism, so let’s ponder this: how can you achieve peak performance (and flow states) while you are so worried about maintaining your identity as an athlete? The answer is, you can’t. Wolpe’s principle of reciprocal inhibition states that “you can’t do two opposite things at the same time” so when you’re worried about preserving who you are as an Equestrian, or holding yourself to unrealistic ideals you will not be able to focus on the aspects of the sport that are more important to your success (Erford, 2020).
Herein lies the danger of this "Equestrian" label, because it has the potential to cause more harm than good. You are not just an Equestrian, you are so much more. And if you get hurt, your horse gets hurt or you just decide you want to take a break from riding, that doesn't make you any less 'you'.
Brewer, B. W., Van Raatle, J. L., Linder, D. E. (1993). Athletic identity: Hercules’ muscles or
Achilles heel? Int J Sport Psychol.; 24: 237-254.
Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1990). Flow: The psychology of optimal experience. New York: Harper
Erford, B. T. (2020). 45 techniques every counselor should know. (3rd. ed.). Hoboken, NJ: