When 44-year old U.S. professional dressage rider Teresa Butta died by her own hand on 31 December 2019, a shock wave was sent through the American dressage community. Many riders, colleagues and friends posted messages highlighting the need for more empathy and a sensitivity in regards to mental health care amongst equestrian athletes.
Eurodressage published a column by Angelia Bean on how tough the horse business is and we want to follow it up with another guest article on the struggles and mental stress young equestrian professionals experience setting up a business.
German born Adriane Alvord established herself as a pro by paying her dues as a working student and taking on "difficult" horses after that. Read her account of the difficult path towards a professional career and why she advices aspiring young riders not to do it.
"The Pain that Lives Behind the Barn Door"
Dressage, or equestrian sports as a whole, is a luxury sport, but the majority of professionals don’t come from money. Yet still, we have to come up with the finances to achieve our goals in a sport that is driven so heavily by it.
You have to actually “make it” before you can be given opportunities, before you’ll be given your first sponsor, or have a nice horse sent to you for training. And if you’re like me who didn’t have financial backing to get started, then the odds are stacked against you even more.
It is possible, but I find myself telling young riders aspiring to be professionals NOT to do it, knowing how hard and bad for my mental health this journey has been. When I was a kid, this life was all I dreamed off, and we owe it to the next generation of dreamers to make changes, so we don’t end up having more tragic endings like Teresa Butta’s. While I didn’t know Teresa, I can’t help but feel a great sense of sadness that this industry led to her death. She too was once a girl with a big dream.
While I don’t know what the answer is for the change needed in this industry, I do think we should be open about our own struggles and our story. It’s easy to see the blue ribbons and high scores on Facebook and think, “wow what a great life," but many don’t realize the pain that lives behind the barn door. Or, the things some one endured to get there.
Maybe if we start sharing more, we can find similarities in our stories and begin to figure out where it starts. I think it’s starts with the stigma that this life is meant to be a hard one. And that the less you have, the harder it should be.
Working Student Life
When I left home at 18 I had nothing except my brother's beat-up car and about $1,500 from my $35 lessons and selling all my tack. With my beat-up car, a bit of cash, and a heart full of hopes and dreams I headed up to Hassler Dressage who graciously took me in as a working student on very short notice.
As a working student I worked 6 days a week. I ogled over the fancy barn, the fancy horses, and just getting to warm up one of the stallions for Scott, Susanne, or Ashley was enough to keep my wildest dreams alive. As a working student I wasn’t making any money, but was thankfully given a home and a foundation to get going. Because I didn’t have an income there, and $1,500 could only last so long, I would drive 3 hours down to northern VA every week on my day off to teach, just so I would have $150 or so to get me through the following week. If I ran out of time to drive home that night, then I would leave by 3am the following morning to get back in time for work at 7am.
I was working 7 days a week non stop, for months! A very typical working student scenario we so often hear. And what is expected . After an unfortunate freak riding accident during my time as a working student, my hand was forced to head back to Northern Virginia to recover .
In quest of the almighty dollar that rules our industry, I decided to stay in Virginia and ride anything and everything I could. Hoping I could save up enough to make my dream a reality. I began taking on all the horses no one else would. The ones that had been kicked out of barns, because those were the only options I had. I quickly became the girl to whom “difficult" horses were sent. I often heard people say, “send them to Adriane! She’s great with challenging horses;” not because that’s what I wanted, but because those were the only opportunities given to me at that point.
The Dark Side
While the dangerous and difficult horses were enough to pay the bills, it was not enough to ever grow my business beyond what it was. That’s what led me to a side job, 18 years young, that I still to this day look back on and can’t believe I made it out alive. Tragically, some of the people I worked with are no longer with us. This is a part of my life that very few know. And with time, I’ll eventually share. I survived and got out because of my dreams. I knew I wasn’t going to be given a financial backing, so I made my own. And because of that I regret nothing.
After about a year of living life like this, by 19 I had saved up enough to lease my first barn and say adiós to the dark part of my life. I gradually started showing results in myself, and my clients, which then turned into a full training barn. The horses that “made” my career were the horses no one else saw potential in, or no one else could ride. They were the ones I saw talent in. The ones I knew could turn into something special with my patience, undoubtable determination, and ridiculously low rates.
Because You're Worth It
My nothing-horses turned into something, and over time I realized I was worth more than the rates I was charging. When I realized this, that maybe I was worth more, or maybe I deserve to go away for a weekend, I gradually lost a fair share of my original clients. I call these, the “starter” clients: the ones you get when no boundaries are present, because when you first start out you have to put up with everything, literally everything, to have a fighting chance. These starter clients, that leave for the reasons of you setting boundaries, will go off to find the next you. The next person who is so eager to be a trainer and full of hopes and dreams that they will do it for basically nothing and risk injury. The ones still full of hope and untainted by this industry.
That’s where I believe this brutal cycle starts. It begins with the next poor unfortunate soul with a heart full of dreams. This idea that in order to be a trainer, and “make it” you must be overworked, and have no other life outside of your client’s horses. If you take a day off, or dare to pursue a sport outside of horses, then you most not be serious about it. This gets drilled into our brains from the very beginning, and then reinforced when we dare to make a change only to then loose clients because of it.
Even once you get your foot in the door, the anxiety and stress doesn’t stop. While you may finally be getting opportunities, like product sponsors, some great clients, or some cool training horses you’re really excited about, you’ll hear stories floating around that former clients are saying you only got to where you are because of them. If it weren’t for their horse, you wouldn’t be where you’re at. Or that difficult horse you had to ride at just the right time of day, with just the right tack, with just the right touch, and only trusted you, is now being difficult for the next rider or trainer, so now it’s your fault. You’re the reason the horse is “broken," even if just months prior it was winning in the FEI ring with you.
Self Worth is Getting Crushed
Once again, your little bit of self worth you mustered up, is crushed. Because as a professional in this industry we never forget the horses we’ve had with us. We only want the best for the horses that leave us, no matter how badly things may have ended with the client. To hear such rumors after already loosing a horse you treated and cared for as your own, will make you question yourself, and your reason for willingly choosing this life. Even if you do everything right, this will undoubtedly happen to all of us.
While I’ll be 26 in about a month, and to most, I seem so young, I’ve been experiencing this industry and all its fury for 8 years. It’s all I’ve done, for eight straight years. I got here the hard way, I should be overjoyed I overcame the odds, but instead I’m warning other young riders to choose a different path. At least until things change, because we can’t put other aspiring professionals with big dreams through this.
Break the Cycle
Somewhere, there’s a cycle that needs to be broke. To me, it’s the stigma given from the start that sets you up to be miserable later on down the line. Its the ridiculous expectations put on by both ourselves and others. It’s a hard realization when you achieve your goal, only to find yourself completely jaded from the journey to get there.
This stigma of what a professional should be exhausts us, breaks us down, and makes us forget why we even dreamed it in the first place. We do it for the love of the horse, to see the unimaginable achieved, to help our clients see their dreams are possible, and to give the horse a voice to be heard.
So why is it that we have to be miserable or go through such chaos to do it?
Surely, there is a better way.
- by Adriane Alvord