Mental Health in the Horse Industry – Survey Results
A few things to remember when you read this article. I ran a totally voluntary and anonymous survey several months ago about mental health in the horse industry. A few disclaimers – this isn’t a formal scientific study. The information is for awareness and not to make assumptions, such as “if you work in the horse industry you will become depressed.” And, while the numbers are interesting, the comments are more telling. Do take the time to read through to the end.
I received 181 responses to the survey. Most of the respondents are currently working in the horse industry or had worked in the horse industry, although 40 participants don’t work in the horse industry but are involved with horses. I’ve included them in the “big picture” results.
I also have a few tidbits of survey results when I asked about harassment and assault in the horse industry, those results are here.
The big picture:
- 58% of all people responding have mental health challenges.
- 22% of all people responding might have mental health challenges.
- Out of this group, only 62% sought medical attention and diagnosis.
- The top three conditions, which are often concurrent, of those diagnosed, are:
- 83% Depression
- 77% Anxiety
- 28% Panic Attacks
Now let’s look at only current and former horse industry workers.
- 56.8% Have mental health challenges
- 24.2% Might have mental health challenges
- 19% Do not have mental health challenges
Of this group,
- 56.3% Sought medical attention and diagnosis.
- 43.8% Did not seek medical attention and diagnosis.
But why not? The top reasons for not seeking medical attention and diagnosis are:
- 46.2% Did not think it was needed.
- 30.8% No insurance.
- 25.6% Afraid someone would find out.
- 15.4% Not allowed time off from work.
What were the most common diagnoses? Again, these often are concurrent.
- 84.4% Depression
- 71.1% Anxiety
- 26.7% Panic Attacks
- 22.2% PTSD
- 13.3% BiPolar
- 11.1% Obsessive Compulsive Disorder
- 11.1% Body Dysmorphic Disorder
91.1% of those diagnosed received treatment and care.
Then I asked EVERYONE some questions about mental health and the horse industry in general.
Is there a stigma about mental health in the horse industry?
- 31.5% Yes
- 12.9% No
- 52.2% Unsure
- The other 3.4% were a slew of creative answers, which I’ll share.
- Yes – in that ALL “horse people” are “crazy.” Owners are excused from a great deal of behavior because they’re just “crazy horse people.”
- No more or less than the stigma anywhere else. Truly unstable individuals actually seem to be MORE accepted amongst the “racetrack family” than they are in society in general.
- It wasn’t talked about.
- We’re all mad here. (Very clever, Cheshire Cat)
- I don’t think it’s a stigma but it is recognized
- Maybe no more than any other industry
On to another question about the lifestyle and working conditions in the horse industry.
How does the horse industry lifestyle contribute to the mental health of those that work with horses? Multiple choices were allowed here.
- 77% Long hours
- 74.2% Low pay
- 62.4% Few days off
- 61.8% Impression that the horse industry looks down on Grooms, hot walkers, stall cleaners, etc.
- 56.7% No insurance
- 51.1% Emotional toll of sick, injured, lame horses
- 50.6% Not respected by the employer
- 44.4% Grunt work
- 39.3% Jealousy of others with fancier horses, better jobs, more of what you want
- 36% Competitive nature of horse shows
- 34.8% Emotional toll of horses bought and sold
- 32% Illegal employment practices
- 31.5% Stigma of mental health
- 29.8% Demanding travel schedules
- 25.3% Harassment by employers
- 24.7% Scandals in the horse world
- 15.2% Harassment by a co-worker
And here were your suggestions for what to do about it:
- Talk about it
- Allow your employees the time and insurance to make it happen!
- Work on changing attitudes about mental health.
- Encourage employees to take PTO and practice self-care
- Support with adequate Time off and insurance to cover it
- More conversations
- Talk more about it and be more open.
- Talk about it more and make the pressures of working as a groom aware to the bosses
- Educate and emphasis kindness and compassion when interacting with those suffering
- Be open to mental health discussion and offer workshops with sports psychologists and other counselors.
- Treat their grooms better, most are overworked and greatly mistreated. Or at least pay them a salary that fits all the craziness they go through.
- Make decisions and policies based on logic instead of emotion.
- It’s not just the horse industry that judges and doesn’t understand, etc.,
- Have a larger focus on sport psychology
- Culture needs to change. “You should be grateful just to work with horses every day!” Well, grateful doesn’t pay my bills. It doesn’t get me 8 hours of sleep a night. It doesn’t give me a healthy diet, take care of me when I get injured or keep me from turning to alcohol in order to cope. The idea of grooming or even just mucking stalls as a low/no-skills job needs to change to. I think any real horseperson can tell you – even the simple jobs still require knowledge and skills to do, and too many employers think they can just hire the next random person in the chain. The normalization and even glorification of alcoholism (and other substance abuse disorders) in the equestrian industry is also a HUGE problem.
- I realized I had more to say! Many horse jobs require that you live on site, often in close quarters with other employees – leading to a lack of separation between work life and personal life that is a horrible mental health situation for many. It also leads to a lot of situations where when you DO get a rare day off, you still end up getting pulled in to work for “just this one thing.” Which spirals into more things… if you want to get a real day off you practically have to go check yourself into a hotel to get any peace and quiet and of course, none of us can really afford to do that. There’s this assumption that if you want to work in the horse industry it means you automatically forfeit any other hobbies and interests and parts of your social life. NO ONE should be putting all their eggs in one basket – whether your other hobbies are going out to eat or quilting or going out dancing or playing MMOs or just gossipping with your non-horsey friends it’s an important part of your mental health to be able to have some time to spend on those things and any therapist or doctor worth their salt will tell you so. It’s not healthy for your job to be your only hobby – a lot of people working in artistic fields have this problem too, and a lot of the literature on it is regarding those fields, but it’s eminently applicable to the horse industry as well. Your life can’t be only one thing, and the whole of equestrian culture, and especially many employers seem to think it should be. (Of course, many of those same employers seem to have no problem taking time off for their OWN travel and leisure…. sure you work hard, but how about a little appreciation for all the hard work *I* do?) There are plenty of other industries that have managed to balance tough long hours/potential injuries/living on the job conditions with equally good perks – industrial jobs like working on oil rigs have high base pay and have perks like three weeks on/two weeks off to make up for how demanding the work is. A lot of these industrial type jobs are also unionized – and workers who aren’t union still get the quality of life benefits that union workers fought for. I don’t think asking the horse industry to unionize is necessarily realistic – it’s too wide, and there’s far too much illegal employment – but it’s worth considering how a few people fighting for these types of benefits can eventually change the whole culture of an industry so that everyone has a better deal. (The film industry is like this too – the hours are crazy long but there are protections in place, like wait times before you can start shooting again after wrapping for the day, and mandatory breaks for lunch, that generally hold even when filming in right to work areas because it’s so much the norm.) We can’t change EVERYONE but there needs to start being some kind of change, and not just at the top.
- They can talk about it the same way they are talking about harassment through SafeSport training. I think they should have something mandatory that is similar to this.
- Honestly not sure. People seem to care about a lot in the Horse industry but things don’t really end up changing. Change is so so so slow
- open their eyes instead of ignoring it
- Less exploitation of workers
- I’m not honestly sure… the mental health stigma is pervasive throughout society and the horse industry is no different. I don’t know that there’s an effective way to address this, but I feel that awareness is the first step to acceptance.
- Create a non-judgemental environment where people can use their horses as a “safe place” and work towards improving their mental health
- I don’t feel anything can be done. The horse world is a very tiny bubble which requires a lot of pressure. I think the two go hand in hand.
- Be understanding and look for opportunities to have people fit in the right role – much as we try to find the right role for a horse
- Just help and support each other – talk to your fellow barn peeps about things whether it be things you are dealing with or if you are noticing something is off.
- Watch and listen!
- Be helpful and positive
- Being more understanding about having real time off
- Not sure there is a problem… maybe get equine facilitated psycho therapy more ‘mainstream’.
- Get honest especially about how they project their issues onto others
- Address racism and punish accordingly.
- Be more accepting of all body types
- Keep encouraging helmet usage. I believe a lot of these disorders stem from TBI
- Horses are used to help people with mental problems
- Be open and understanding to the challenges we all face
- Not sure.
- I would personally love to stop the bullying in the horse industry but as that has been proven hard to do even in other parts of clicks and in world situations.
- Take better care of the people at the backside
- Start talking about it.
- Offer assistance to those who need it.
- Offer a better support/therapy group. Like the BGA
- One would be fair treatment of employees.
- Personal problem, not an industry problem
- Talk more about problems.
- Health insurance availability
- Screen people tighten up industry.. monitor newcomers.. psychological test…anger manage mentioned…
- Educate, educate, educate
- Just be more open about it. There is nothing wrong with mental health problems. If I know that somebody is going through this, I would help them and not think they are crazy.
- Fight Stigmas, recognize the signs and normalize seeking help. The culture needs to shift
- Start talking about it. It’s no different than having diabetes or any other chronic illness: it must be treated, sometimes requires daily medication, and is serious. But it’s not contagious, so reach out.
- Treat employees better and not drive them into the ground. Treat a human as a human.
- Talk more
- Challenge people beliefs and assumptions
- Keep their heads up and threaten the haters with our ‘extremely dangerous’ shedding combs.
- Open up conversation. Increase insurance.
- Better communication.
- Better thought and care for their workers
- not sure
- More people could speak out and normalize it. Not stigmatize certain disorders.
- I don’t think anything as to be a top rider you need to be tough in the mind. Others would view you as weak and your client business would suffer
- Don’t know of any stigma
- Talk about it more and get more grooms to join BGA!
- Horses give you confidence and calmness
- No idea
- Awareness and education of the mental disorder
- Be more open to diversity
- Put less pressure on young riders
- Put more emphasis on taking care of the people who put so much time, energy and love into the horses. People need to be valued over ribbons.
- Address it and offer options
- 5 day work week
- Have more conversations about mental health and change image of what the perfect rider looks like.
- Better mental health awareness
- Fair pay and understanding of different people
- Eventers think about being tough and consider mental health issues a weakness. You can’t fix stupid.
- Educate non-horse ppl that not all horse ppl are crazy
I also asked if there was anything else to be shared about your experiences in the horse industry.
- Those in the horse industry don’t have the opportunity to both keep their jobs AND maintain their mental health. It’s one or the other.
- Not my personal experience but in many stables, working students are overwhelmed and not always treated kindly.
- My personal experiences have always been pleasant, but I have a certain natural demeanor that seems to attract good employers. However, I have witnessed a great deal of harassment, gaslighting, neglect, and abuse of employees in this industry and have friends (plural – friendS) that have been negatively affected by this poor treatment. I have one friend whose mental health is so negatively affected by her job that I worry about her personal safety sometimes.
- I consider myself, as a female pro groom, blessed to have finally found a decent employer/trainer (also female) to work for. However, it took me several years of being verbally attacked, overworked, underappreciated, and disposable at the first incident of standing up for myself. My employer respects me and my opinion. That said the industry has a long way to go. I’m in California and can say from experience jobs are monopolized by male Mexicans many which are illegal immigrants and many who are not fluent speaking English. I could go on…….I’ll end with there are enough positive rewards for me to stay employed where I am.
- It can be brutal at times. I’ve felt the lowest of the low but also on top of the world when new opportunities arise. It is easy to feel replaceable and unappreciated, and I am constantly trying to set myself apart and offer something unique. I have not been able to make this happen yet, and it is really hurting my motivation to succeed. I always feel at risk of being let go.
- Since leaving my full time (actually more than full time with all the hours I put in) job to work part time and go to school, I’ve found that I’m doing far better than when I was working in show barns full time. I feel better being out of the tense, elitist environment that the horse shows created. I’m respected and treated well at my new job and am not looked down on for being a groom and not coming from a wealthy background the way I was when I worked in a show barn. I now work in a different discipline and have found that it was a much-needed change. Currently, I’m investing in my education so that eventually I can work towards my goals as a rider without relying on the hope that I find opportunities to reach those goals through work.
- Listen to your intuition. If it feels wrong, it probably is.
- Mental health is common in all jobs – or no jobs. Need to give access to health care to anyone who needs it. It is a common illness but can be managed with treatment.
- It’s just super hard to find the time to provide self-care for yourself when you are literally caring for everyone else around you. The need and want for attention is constant, even when you are off your shift.
- My mental illness was not caused by the industry, but it certainly doesn’t help
- I am in racing. Started as a farm hand, later a groom, exercise rider, pony person, then farm manager and, lastly, a trainer for almost 20 yrs now. The suicide rate among jockeys, esp former jockeys, is astronomical. The suicide rate in professional horsemen seems to be extremely high, as well but is certainly not as high as the rate of alcoholism.
- I have witnessed the negative treatment of grooms and employees in a barn. I find mistreatment of anyone, in any industry, reprehensible. I have and would again, call the offender out on it.
- Men in the horse industry often disregard women working the same jobs and see (and sometimes refer to) them as ‘that crazy horse girl playing with her my little ponies’. <Quote, coming from a woman who has been harassed and assaulted while ‘playing with the boys’, and has been discriminated against because I was a woman working ‘a man’s job’ (paid less, fired….)
- Racism does exist. Having an employer who brushes it off and says that an apology should fix everything is not a solution and leaves the offended party uncomfortable.
- Often they are forced to continue to work in the same space with the offender. Be proactive against employers/ees who verbally abuse others.
- See helmet comment
- Without horses in my life, I find it hard to be content
- The horse world is a tough place, but the people in it have the ability to make it a bit softer.
- This industry makes it EXTREMELY hard to take care of yourself when you’re either physically or mentally/emotionally not 100%.
- I’m part of a 2-person operation and finding qualified help to cover for such instances is impossible. Seeing great facilities facing closing their doors due to having to choose between barely breaking even month after month, or taking the time they need to get the help they so desperately deserve is heart-wrenching. It hits closer to home for all of us than we think… No one is immune.
- As a working student who looked at my position as getting to work for my idol rather than a real job, I allowed myself to go through much more than I should have. I was afraid that quitting meant giving up on my dreams and ignored the fact that I was being used. Even after my contract had been violated (yes, I had a contract), I endured months of verbal and emotional abuse and worked without appropriate compensation because I had been told for years that you need to have “grit” to make it to the top.
- For the most part, I’ve been happy working with and for other horsemen. There are a few oddballs out there, but they probably have their own demons to face. I think the more communication about problems like this in the workplace, the better the situation will get. The more we talk about it, the easier it is to ask for help.
- Some clients sometimes look at my job as an assistant trainer as a “dream job” but have no clue or appreciation for all that we do. I am a trainer, instructor, groom, and maintenance worker all in one, but most only see us doing a very small portion of that.
- I think as the World gets more understanding of mental problems and everything else that has something to do with mental health the equine World and gets better at it. Mental health is a serious concept and not talking about it makes it worse. To me, it doesn’t matter if you need my help because you have broken your leg or if you are struggling with something mental health related.
- Also is how some employers or co-workers mistreat the horses! Then there is the risk of losing your job to stand up to them. I did in the past and I’m glad but I was lucky to be in a position where I was able to. Now I have a management position where I can correct anyone not doing something that’s in the best interest of the horses! But I can see how frustrating and impossible it would feel to work somewhere with questionable or downright abusive practices but not be able to afford to leave.
- There is pressure to work hard every day for not a lot of money. I’ve even had clients upset when I say I am leaving town for a couple days, whether it be for horse related work, vacation, or even major holidays. In any other industry, working 9-5 and taking vacation and weekends off is normal. I think the horse industry has normalized because overworked (and underpaid) and that contributes to people’s emotional and mental states. I find it important to balance your life and find things to do outside the horses otherwise it is easy for me to burn myself out. I’ve stopped caring if people get upset because I need a mental health break.
- I’m in the process of leaving the industry for Social Work. I graduate in the spring with a BSW and will pursue an MSW from Chapel Hill along with an LCSW. The thing I see the most from all levels of the industry but especially in grooms and working students is Burnout and Compassion Fatigue. Im not talking someone who is tired, I’m referring to clinically significant exhaustion. Physically, mentally, emotionally. Left untreated it increases the risk of poor health, depression and even suicide. Workplace culture is a key factor in burnout. Management behavior, the environment they create and what the foster in employees (either positivity or negativity). The industry MUST acknowledge grooms as people not as robots. People who likely have struggles at home weighing on them just like anyone. I often see burnout in trainers and definitely the vets. We need to be teaching the warning signs, ways to mitigate early stage burnout and ways to find and seek help. While I never became suicidal I reached a level of burnout to where I quit my job and left the country for three months. It was good that opportunity came when it did. It saved my life and my marriage.
- High pressure to perform at a run for 9+ hours 6 days a week while dodging hooves and yelling employers got old; working retail now and I’m down to only internally smirking at yelling customers
- We have developed an industry in which the workers have no power. Employment is often scarce, incorrectly classified, or illegal. This removes the employee’s ability to fight for better conditions. First, we need to remove the idea that you’ve got to work your way up by being taken advantage of.
- Just don’t feel down about people being rude, and no matter what, always stand up for the horse!!
- For a high-functioning autistic person, like myself, the horses are the easy part. I struggle to negotiate wages or conditions. But now I know I’m good enough of they don’t agree to a wage, or offer dangerous living conditions, I walk away. Also, people get comfortable with me and think we can read each other. I don’t read anyone. But people think I’m being standoffish, or obtuse. Leads to misunderstanding.
- One of the most disheartening things in the industry is the prevalence of unscrupulous behavior. It becomes a state of paranoia, wondering who is lying, someone always is. It’s emotionally wearing and frustrating.
- This is a hard lifestyle fueled by passion and dreams. The highs are so high and so fleeting, the lows are detrimental. The time you must spend in this sport traveling and working creates an island of people with little outside world connections and yet we still feel the need to participate in the functionality of the outside world. It’s like our lifestyle is bipolar disease.
- Overall I would say that I have received mostly support from people in the horse industry, people tend to be very kind and helpful. That being said though, it has become very difficult to find the time to take care of myself since I started working in this industry and the stress from my job can be very demanding.
- I came from a “backyard barn” and even though I knew the basics, there was a lot of finer horse care knowledge that I didn’t know about. I was never one to be over-ambitious, or to act like a know it all. I worked hard and learned A LOT. My employer saw this and rewarded me, but some people still treated me like a joke. “Oh I’ll wrap him, most people don’t know how to wrap properly.” Well, thanks but I actually went to school for that. Another example, after riding with this one instructor for a semester I went with another student to ask about what class we should pick for next semester. Let me preface by saying the instructors pretty much NEVER moved students down a level. My friend asked and the instructor told her she could go up a level. I asked, and the instructor TURNED AWAY FROM ME and said I could go down a level. She didn’t even have the decency to look me in the eye. I was blindsided. She had not communicated to me in any way that I had been doing poorly. I should have discussed this privately with her, but I was too upset and embarrassed at the time.
- There needs to be so much more love and recognition for the people behind the scenes. I’m very lucky at my current full-time grooming job I’m the fact that I do feel safe, I get a steady paycheck and I can actually take a sick day. Its been a huge challenge for me to heal from past abuse- being called at 2am to send med labels or change a blanket, or missing a midnight text that the schedule has changed and being petrified that I might wake up later, being screamed at for anything less than absolute perfection, cleaning dozens of saddles with a toothbrush until my hands cracked and bled. I developed so many anxieties, OCD and insomnia issues from these jobs. I spent the holidays alone. The most terrifying thing was when my roommate disappeared because she had to be admitted for a 72-hour hold after attempting suicide. She never spoke to me again after I left even tho she was one of my best friends. I know it is because she feels that I abandoned her and I wish every day that I could have helped her. On top of that, I made so little money thaI i had absolutely no way out. I have never been more grateful for my current job where I’m finally treated as a person. Trainers and owners need to realize that loyalty is not one way. Thank you for spreading more love for us.
- The industry needs to figure out how to make a five day work week work. It will result in smaller turnover rates, higher quality work, and a healthier work environment.
- The community you build is everything. Don’t stay somewhere if the community isn’t positive. If you have good people by your side everything becomes easier
- The stigma that exists in the horse industry exists in EVERY industry and every job. Most mental illnesses are ADA and FMLA protected yet with ignorance the stigma and prejudices continue to grow and that growth turns into the norm in society. This is an issue of prejudices, not the job description.
So I have one situation for all of us to ponder.
Does a stressed out and depressed or anxious worker (or boss) care for their horses in the best possible way? We already know that allowing this type of situation isn’t good for us – so how can it possibly be good for them? A horse can NEVER live his best life if the people who care for them are not living theirs.
As daunting as it seems, the change begins now, with each of us. We can allow this to go on, or we can say ENOUGH. If you are working in the horse industry – it’s absolutely unacceptable to be overworked and underpaid. Start to understand employment laws and make sure you are not being taken advantage of. This entire section of this website starts to explain the basics of working legally in the horse industry.
If you are an employer, be sure you are following state and federal employment laws.
For everyone – start to question why this antiquated and absolute BS of “this is how it’s always been done” should continue to apply. It shouldn’t.
Resources to help you:
Safesport.org is a place where you can report abusive individuals, in ANY sport. It’s not limited to Equestrian Sports. You can also search by name, location, or sport to see if someone around you has been reported.
The National Suicide Prevention Hotline https://suicidepreventionlifeline.org/ 1-800-273-8255 You can even visit their website and live chat.
The National Sexual Assault Hotline https://www.rainn.org/about-national-sexual-assault-telephone-hotline 800.656.HOPE (4673)
If you have issues with your employer, these resources can also help.