Psychologist Sara Markham had been practicing her profession for seven years when it occurred to her that her fellow equestrians might appreciate her expertise. Armed with a Masters in psychology, with an emphasis in family therapy and a lifetime’s involvement on the hunter/jumper circuit, Markham floated the idea of equestrian-oriented counseling on her Facebook group, Counseling For The Equestrian Community. With encouragement from amateur and professional friends, word spread quickly and the Facebook group is now an active online gathering spot. As of early September, the group had 88 members, approximately two-thirds of which were newcomers to Markham’s services.
Markham says her new direction feels totally natural and she is excited about the early enthusiasm. “In particular, I look forward to working with the teenage competitors that face the stresses of showing, school pressures, plus family dynamics, and peer pressure,” she says. “Many times this can manifest in forms of depression and anxiety that these kids have difficulty managing.
“Having ridden since I was little, my hope is to bring an understanding of the rigors of this age and all that riding and showing bring with it. I also see adults with a variety of issues, ranging from anxiety and depression to relationship difficulties.” For adults and kids, there is no shortage of stresses associated with riding at any competitive level. Some of these are strictly related to riding goals and success, but few issues exist in a vacuum, Markham notes. Kids and adults have family dynamics to deal with and relationships with barn friends, trainers and their horses.
In working with teenagers, Markham has the edge of her own history to draw on. “I remember that learning how to manage stress and deal with nerves was difficult,” she recalls. “I would have benefited from seeing somebody to help with that.”
As a hunter/jumper competitor in training with Lynn Morrow, Markham has an ongoing passion for equestrian pursuits that enables her to relate to her adult clients, too.
In a perfect world, the student or their parents would recognize that help is needed and take the lead in finding it. But often Markham’s services are not sought through such a direct route. Sometimes it’s trainers who see the first signs of trouble in a student and gently recommend outside help.
Improperly managed stress can manifest itself in many ways. “What I see a lot is people withdrawing from friends, peers and/or family members,” Markham notes. “Sometimes they’ll take it out on their horses.” In some cases, riders spend so much time with their trainers that they notice a negative behavioral change before the parents see it. “Sometimes the trainer is able to step in and make a suggestion and sometimes they don’t know how to handle it,” Markham explains.
Markham offers the basics of a recent case to illustrate the complexities of emotional challenges in the equestrian world. The patient was a rider who had undergone treatment for anorexia, then later began to exhibit signs of an exercise addiction, all in response to problematic family dynamics. Intending to help, the student’s trainer gave her more horses to ride, hoping she would gain confidence and feel productive during her time at the stable. The well-intentioned gesture, however, may have fostered the exercise addiction for the rider.
Markham hopes that group sessions will reveal the benefits of counseling for riders. The group setting makes it easier for participants to see that they are not alone in their challenges to balance riding with school, work and/or family life. Her approach shares many aspects with sports psychology, primarily the use of relaxation techniques and imagery to manage anxiety. The main goal of any session is to uncover the root of the problem and switch maladaptive responses to healthy reactions and coping mechanisms.
Markham welcomes clients tackling emotional challenges from any angle: as a rider, a parent, trainer or friend. She has offices in West Los Angeles and Calabasas and is happy to make appointments at barns in the surrounding area. “I want to be a flexible resource for trainers, riders and parents when they see something they are concerned about.”
For more information on Sara Markham, MFT, e-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org, call 310-310-0925 or visit the Facebook group Counseling For Equestrian Community.