Getting Back in the Saddle After a Setback


“Two feet move your body, four feet move your soul…”

I know you know that feeling. AND you likely also know what it feels like to lose it.

There are really no other sports as challenging- athletically, mentally, financially, psychologically and spiritually as equestrian sports. We rely on the well-being of two bodies and two souls. Think about the major setbacks you’ve had. Was it the loss of a horse? A lameness or illness in your horse? Your own injury? Was it a fall or a spook that triggered a loss of confidence?  Was it a horse you love not working out as a partner? Was it a financial loss? Or a damaged relationship? A devastating show? This list could go on and on. There is double the trouble possible compared with other sports. This means we need to get pretty damn good at, literally and figuratively, getting back in the saddle.

After going through all of these myself at one time or another, bearing witness for my friends and students, feeling heart break for my eventing crazy kid and now years of navigating setbacks with my clients, I have come to understand some things about what it takes to get back in the saddle. Getting to the other side of heart break and disappointment will never be easy. But we can become more resilient as individuals and build strength as a community by understanding the setback cycle.

As humans, we do better when we know what to expect- when we know we’re not alone and that our experience is shared. In this sport, we share risk. We share passion. We share deep partnership with our animals. And we share the inevitability of spirit breaking, soul crushing disappointment and loss. This is why I’ve defined what I call the setback cycle. So that we know what to expect. So that we can support each other through a shared experience rather than suffer alone.

When a bad thing occurs, the setback cycle tends to go like this…

  1. Shock & Awe

You cannot believe this is happening. Your heart sinks. You feel devastated- grief and disappointment are strong and you want to resist reality. In this sport there is a lot of joy and a lot of loss. The loss of animals we love more than anything. Loss of dreams, identity and relationships that can come with these losses and setbacks. You may feel like no one can possibly understand how you feel. Crying, taking some time away and talking to someone who really listens and won’t try to talk you out of your upset are all helpful at this point. Self-care- whatever it looks like for you, is also extremely important when you’re in the shock & awe phase.

  1. Dismay & Disillusion

You feel like a victim of your situation. Or like a failure. “What have I done wrong? I have the worst luck. I guess I’m never meant to do the thing or have the things. I should just give up. Everyone else has better luck and more success than I do.” You may feel annoyed and frustrated by others trying to help or comfort you.

  1. Courage

You start to clear some of the pain. As you process your emotions of disappointment, anger and grief, they start to move. The passion you have for your sport begins to reemerge. You start to feel inspired again. You’re adjusting to a new reality and clarity makes a comeback. Anger becomes courage. You’re able to ask for help and begin to feel determined again.

  1. Call to Action

You accept your situation. You reorient around a new goal. You’re able to think strategically again. You start to plan and identify resources. You’re able to see opportunities where you could not before.

  1. Back on Track

You start to find joy in the journey again. You’re healing. Optimism returns. You’re able to resume your routines and high performance habits. You’re able to have a big picture perspective. The proverbial silver lining becomes visible. This is not to say that you forget or that the loss is less real but your human resilience means that it can take a backseat to the other things that are important to you. Most often, you come out of the setback cycle stronger and wiser than you were before.

It’s not only  important we understand how to move through these stages ourselves but it’s also important that we can be present to them with our friends. Most of the time, in our desire to help someone feel better, we try to rush them though the first two stages. It’s human instinct to want to fix things for the people we care about. The reality is, though, that when you’re in shock and awe or disillusionment, and someone tries to rush you to courage or get you to quickly reorient around a new goal, you’re likely to want to strangle them.

During these first two stages, the very best thing you can do is LISTEN. BE PRESENT. Allow them their anger, their grief and their pain. Empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of another. Empathy is what is needed during the first two stages of the setback cycle. It’s ok to cry or swear alongside someone who has just experienced a big setback. I recently lost my shit in the presence of my vet and her assistants upon receiving some super disappointing news. I was crying and I might have said the “f” word multiple times very loudly. They were so cool. They just let me do my thing- didn’t try to placate me or talk me out of my upset. I could feel their compassion and understanding. It helped me be where I needed to be and process the shock and awe.

What is not needed during the first two stages is sympathy. Sympathy is a feeling of pity or sorrow for someone else’s misfortune. Most of us don’t like pity. We don’t want people to feel sorry for us- it actually can make the dismay and disillusionment stage last longer. Sympathy is often well intentioned but it is not usually constructive.

What is also not needed during the first two stages is fixing and solving. Be patient with yourself and your friends. You’ll notice signs of courage when they get to stage three- they may start to talk about what’s next. They might seem a little less down or stressed. During this stage, you can often begin to offer ideas and help problem solve. I find that horse people tend to get back to courage sooner than most, simply because their passion for the horse and the sport is so powerful. There is, however, no timetable. Each person is different.

There are three strategies that can help us all move through the setback cycle faster:

  1. Talk to someone about it in the beginning. Choose someone who’s a good listener. Someone who will not make it all about themselves or just try to fix things or make you feel better. Feel what you feel what you feel.
  2. Maintain healthy habits to whatever degree you’re able. Self-care will help you so much! For some people that is exercise and eating well. For some people it is sleep and rest. For some people it’s staying active. For some people it is writing or journaling, praying, meditating or talking it out. We process emotions physically, mentally and spiritually so it’s important to figure out how to take care of yourself in all the ways.
  3. Trust in the human and equine capacity for healing. Even when you’re at your lowest emotionally, your pre-frontal lobe still has the capacity to hold knowledge. You can still cultivate faith and know that things are going to get better and that you will be back in the proverbial and hopefully literal saddle!

I hope that, the next time you or one of your friends is faced with a big disappointment, understanding the setback cycle will help you get to courage with grace and give you strength.


If you’re ready to become more resilient AND take your riding and the joy you get from it to the next level, The Performance Project is my online coaching course that will help you do just that! Check it out here:

Hope to see you inside!

(Thank you to Cadence Client, Lauren Sprieser for the photo.)