Can the relationship with have with our horse help our mental health? Sarah tells the story of how finding her horse Anna, helped them both.
When our wonderful physio asked if I would write something about horses and mental health I knew this would be emotional to write but, not that I would actually cry all the way through! Happy and sad tears!
I am a 47 year old mother of a teenage son – I’ve suffered with my mental health since I was a teenager for various reasons. Childhood traumas, abusive relationships and drug addiction set me on a rocky road and some days, I know I am lucky to be where I am. Some days anxiety cripples me so badly that I feel I cannot carry on – I have been on medication for decades to manage it all.
Two years ago I decided to make a change – I was incredibly lucky to have found a strong and supportive relationship, keep a good job, have a wonderful healthy son and an amazing counsellor so, I decided to buy a horse to help me with my journey. I’ve ridden since I was five, horses are my passion but I never ever thought I’d be in a position to be able to have one of my own so it was, and is, a dream come true. I embarked on my hunt (nothing prepares you for how long that bit takes!) and I almost gave up when a friend of a friend was selling on a riding school mare who had had enough and was going fairly cheaply – so I went to see her and when I saw her standing there – I knew she was the one – I knew she had in her what I had in me and that we needed each other.
Anna is 16.1hh bay mare with a really big head, massive heart and a huge buck! She came home to me in November 2019 and I began to work with her and, work with myself to come off my medication and face up to past events. I think most of us feel that the touch of a horse’s soft nostrils, that hearing them breathe and watching them move and, to gallop, to wander aimlessly together through fields and to have them trust you is a privilege most will not have, and I like to hope we all realise how lucky we are – please take time to remember that. As we began our life together it soon became clear that Anna was unhappy – she didn’t behave well when ridden, she threw me pretty quickly and although she was kind in the stable, she was distant and I spent many weeks wondering what I had done. I lost my confidence in riding and I felt like maybe my anxiety was on the rise as I couldn’t connect, and couldn’t work out how we could fit together. It turned out that Anna was in significant pain – from her saddle; from bad confirmation; from arthritis and, from feeling like that a long time. This made me feel determined to help her as I knew how she was feeling.
When you’ve been feeling bad for a long time, you just think it’s never going to change – well it can, it does and we are doing it, still doing it, still working on it and we know now we will never give up on each other. I faced so many different opinions – so much advice I felt uncomfortable with, so much opposition to how I wanted to be with my horse – I know we all face it. Everyone’s different and that’s fine, but if you truly want to connect – follow your gut – always, even when those around you who have had horses all their lives and you are new and feeling insecure and, you don’t always know what you are doing but it’s your horse, your choice, your bond; when I look back I am so glad I did what I did. I found an amazing vet I trusted, an even more amazing physio to work with in Suzannah, I found Anna and her true character. As her pain started to ease through treatments her anxiety reduced along with mine; with exercises, care, empathy and, informed knowledge of what she needed in order to feel her best self – we began to grow.
I started to come down off my medication step by step and sometimes, that meant I just didn’t feel I could ride so we just cuddled and sat and listened to music. Sometimes I would get to the yard and feel so unhappy and stressed, feeling like I couldn’t do my life but I would get on and instantly, I would feel better. I put a lot of pressure on myself to try to do more but, I wasn’t ready and she wasn’t ready, so we would step back again. I know that Anna won’t be a cross country or showjumping horse and, we won’t be out doing competitions – recently her back legs started to give her grief so we stopped again, going back to our walking and trotting and making her as strong and comfortable as possible – she’s only 16 and I am only 47; we have many years of plodding to do together – no doubt more tears and horse rollercoasters to ride.
I recently had a really bad setback, panic attacks came and made me feel like I couldn’t look after her anymore, that I couldn’t even go to see her. Again, incredibly wonderful people have got me back on track and so far, I’ve managed not to go back on medication and Anna has been patient and kind – when she whinnies at me as I fetch her in – it makes my heart lift a little where it didn’t before. When she yawns and rests her head on my shoulder, it makes me breathe easier than I did, when I see how happy she is, her whole body is relaxed, she is home, she is safe, she is loved, all the things I aspire to feel too. So here it is, we still have a long way to to go on our journey – but whether you have your horse as a pet; a competing eventer; dressage star; pony club diva; companion pony – please don’t forget to just take a moment every day to rest easy next to them, to feel their breathe, to say thank you; don’t be afraid to follow your own path together and you will never regret it.
To Anna – this is my love letter to you – you’ve saved me more times than I could remember and I would save you right back in a heartbeat without question – thank you. Do horses help with mental health? Absolutely – always!