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“How can a therapist like you be so bad at helping yourself?!”

Over dinner one night at a horse show, someone said “How can a therapist like you be so bad at helping yourself?!” to me. We had spent all day at the horse show competing. I circled in my class, I pulled out of the jump on course. Over dinner that night, a friend looked over at me and said: “How can you be a therapist and not be able to help yourself?! It’s like you’re terrible at it!” This hurt. It truly broke me down. I spent the rest of the night, quiet and secluded from others. I thought, “Well shoot, what am I doing?! Are they right?”

After a traumatic riding accident when I was 16 years old, I spent years trying to regain my mental and physical strength. I always had a dream of doing the High Junior/Amateurs and competing in National Grand Prixs. But, after I aged out of my junior years, I spent years circling out of .80m classes. I could not finish one class without pulling up at least once or excusing myself from the show ring. It was one of the most embarrassing times in my riding career. I had a successful riding career beforehand, I had competed in the Big Eq, at the National Finals and had done the junior jumpers for years. But after I aged out, something stopped me. I had a couple of the nicest horses I ever had the privilege of riding. I trained with everyone from International Grand Prix riders to Olympians. And all the same time it felt like everyone had given up on me. I could not make it around a course. I just kept circling.

People would say to me; “I just don’t get it, you ride well! Just go to the jump!”. I couldn’t verbalize what I was feeling, nor counter my actions. I just froze. Whenever anyone would talk to me, ask me about it or ask me how the show went, I would just freeze. I could not say anything. Literally! No words would come out of my mouth.

But slowly, it started to change. It wasn’t overnight. I did not wake up one morning and just all of a sudden stop circling. I did not go out and buy a 1-million-dollar horse that “made all my troubles disappear”. At this point, I just wanted to jump around the Low Amateur ring. It was my new goal and my new ambition.

It took a couple years and a couple horses. And a trainer that believed in me, more than I did in myself. It wasn’t just one mare that changed it all for me. Which, I think adds to the piece that it truly was ‘all in my head’. Sure, a great horse and a good connection make a difference. I am not denying that. However, after having the same struggle for so many years with a variation of horses and trainers, I knew it was truly me who had to change.

The years I spent circling, I also spent studying. I am a clinical social worker with a speciality in trauma. I have been working with children, adolescents, adults, and families for the last five years. I can’t say I have the “magic pill” that will propel you into the land of ‘accomplished dreams’. I do have lived experience of frustration, anxiety and depression, and years of self-gratification and accomplishment. Since setting my goal to compete and jump around the low amateur jumpers, without circling, I continued on and competed in the High Amateur Owner Jumpers. I competed in multiple National Grand Prix classes. I even got a ribbon at the Pennsylvania National Horse Show in the Amateur Owner jumpers. A goal of mine, I had dreamed about since I was 14. I accomplished it more than 10 years later.

I am a clinical social worker and proven evidenced based psychotherapist and no I am not “bad at helping myself”. My history of circling does not define me, it has allowed me to become that much more vulnerable and aware of my surroundings. I use my lived experience and professional training to help other riders learn and build emotional regulation skills, accomplish goals, and increase their mental strength.

- Jenny Swanson, LICSW

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