How Illness Made Me A Better Equestrian
March is National Autoimmune Disease Awareness Month. According to American Autoimmune Related Diseases Association, approximately 50 million Americans have some form of autoimmune disease, seventy five percent are women. From those numbers, I'm not sure how many are equestrians but I am one of them.
I was born to a mother who has spent most of her life as a professional trainer and instructor, making horses as big a role in my life as the air I breathe. As a result, I grew up strong and confident in my body and mind. From stacking hundreds of bales of hay and fixing fences to riding multiple horses per day, working hard was always easy for me, until it wasn’t.
After college, I returned to working as a professional equestrian by training carriage horses for a historic estate. After meeting and marrying my husband, I also took on the management of our training business. From 7 a.m. to - 11 p.m. I was applying my skills to teaching lessons, training and managing care for up to 28 horses. There was no such thing as a day off or vacation, maybe you can relate?
I started feeling run down all the time, but I put it off as a result of my lifestyle. By age twenty-six I could no longer lift a bale of hay. Mono-like symptoms started recurring every two months and lasted longer every time, though I tested negative for the virus. I was in chronic pain and at my worst, spent almost three weeks in bed. I was a prisoner in my own body. I was depressed, scared, and hopeless. My body and mind were broken. I would never let a horse in my care live like this, yet I continued to push myself through the onslaught of symptoms.
After repeated visits over four years, my doctor told me that I had an unknown virus and I began to feel desperate. I went to an endocrinologist, an infectious disease specialist and a rheumatologist. I had more tests run than I can count and more blood drawn than I thought humanly possible. My symptoms were vague enough that no one could offer a diagnosis beyond saying, “you have an autoimmune syndrome that will eventually develop to the point where you can be properly diagnosed.”
That was not an acceptable prognosis and the side-effects for the prescribed immuno-
suppressant steroids were just as scary as the symptoms I was experiencing. Despite my own tendency to downplay my symptoms and outwardly looking healthy, I knew something was very wrong. I decided right then that I was going to fight tooth and nail to find a way to heal rather than just suppress what my body was telling me.
My journey to date has been a long one. It has been ten years since my symptoms initially started to spiral out of control. The last six have been a monumental education in self care, nutrition, stress management, and my own body’s ability to recover. Others might see my lifestyle as high-maintenance (I know I would have before this experience), but I’ve worked hard to discover what I need to survive. I had to treat myself with the same care and attention that I would provide one of my horses, and learning to do that was a struggle.
I’m now gluten-free, low carb, sugar-free, mostly paleo, sometimes keto, and very attuned to what my body tells me. I practice meditation, breathing exercises, and I take on much less stress. I have learned to set healthy relationship boundaries and that I can’t be there for anyone else if I’m not there for myself.
I’m about ten years behind where I wanted to be as a rider, but I’ve gained a world of insight about the human body and its power to come back from the precipice of almost complete disability. The knowledge that I gained contributed to my ability to become healthier and stronger. The added bonus was how my relationship with the horses in my life changed. I became more grounded and patient and as a result, I became a better trainer, rider, and even riding coach. This discovery inspired me to keep going beyond being “just ok” to thriving!
Somewhere along this journey with my autoimmune disease, I found peace with the challenges and evolved. Eventually my peace turned into empowerment and I realized that whatever your starting point, you can always take steps towards improvements, which transfers to every part of your life. This was my inspiration for Equestrian Power. My purpose is to inspire our community to become their best for the benefit of the relationship with their horse.
Despite obstacles, you give your horse the best care possible, but this care starts with you. When you decide to care for yourself with the same dedication you show your horse, you can unlock a deeply rewarding experience as an equestrian.
That is Equestrian Power.
Disclaimer: This is just a fraction of my story. There are omissions for the sake of brevity. The decisions I made were the right ones for me, and they were discussed with many medical professionals as well as health and wellness experts.
Photography by Jeeray Tang & Dori Bjoss Photography