November 07, 2022
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Illustration by Brittany England
Horses were the heart of my childhood. When my depression worsened as an adult, I was amazed at how returning to these animals helped me heal.
I unhinge the stall door like I’ve done countless times in my 32 years. A beautiful Fjord mare gives me a soft-eyed stare between mouthfuls of hay. After coaxing her away from the bale, I swoop the bridle over her head, fix her forelock (basically horse bangs), and make a fist below her jaw to buckle the throat latch loosely.
“Door!” I bellow, as her hooves clack until they reach the arena’s soft footing, muffling her steel shoes. I lead her gently to the mounting block as my rider appears right on time, wheeling himself through the door, instructor close behind. He’s one of the thousands of students here in one of seventeen programs, receiving some form of equine-assisted therapy.
Growing up, I lived in the saddle, easily hitting the 10,000 hours Malcolm Gladwell claims to beget mastery. Now, most of my time around horses is spent volunteering at a therapeutic riding center, where children and adults come to engage in a spiritually powerful and clinically proven treatment for everything from Major Depression to Multiple Sclerosis — though diagnoses aren’t revealed or relevant to volunteers most of the time. I can confidently say that I’ve learned just as much about horses, and myself, from the ground as I have from those 10,000 hours spent in stirrups.
Trying to pinpoint my equine obsession is challenging — did it start with My Little Pony? Cruising by the rolling pastures of Carmel Valley on our annual summer vacations?
I have long related to animals, my childhood-self wrote in a school assignment, “animals can communicate without talking … Plus animals just seem to like you for who you are on the inside.” My adoration persisted through cross-country moves, while many other pastimes came and went in seasons.
Months before my 8th birthday, the milestone for eligibility, I begged my parents for horseback riding lessons, and, spoiler alert: they obliged. Horses morphed from a hobby, to a passion, to life itself.
Being at the barn brought me consistent solace through my masked discomfort of adolescence. Something stable, literally, in the years when my body, friends, likes and dislikes, and moods were changing rapidly. Horses helped. This sentiment is widespread, so much so that equine-assisted therapy has proliferated as a modality.
According to a 2019 concept analysis by Sharon White Lewis, outcomes of equine-assisted therapy can include increases in well‐being, quality of life, trust, self‐efficacy, pleasure, and more.
Horses, as cited by another study, have been shown to help increase confidence, self-esteem, and assertiveness in teens living with depression and anxiety.
Horses are naturally prey animals, so they are constantly on the lookout for potential threats from which to flee. Though they do so with swiftness and equanimity, using emotions, sounds, and visuals purely as data and information. They desire integrity and emotional congruence, so it’s hard to hide how you feel from a horse. Communicating with a horse requires vulnerability and presence, and horses return no judgment.
Despite copious time with these wise and sensitive creatures, I can now trace seeds of my mental health struggles back to my teen years. As anxiety and depression tend to do, they can poison even things we love with insidious worry and low self-worth. My time at the barn became less about bonding with my horses, or practicing presence and joy, and became a breeding ground for insecurity.
This looked like pushing myself to compete at levels and with horses that, at times, activated me beyond the point of safety. This also looked like a never-ending comparison game with the competitors around me. If I couldn’t ride the best, I could have the newest helmet, know all the right people, or be the thinnest instead.
This spiral led me to give up riding altogether when I left for college and throughout my 20s. I thought I was running toward college life, but I now see I was running away from a painful sadness I couldn’t quite identify, let alone articulate.
Pain itself brought me back to horses nearly a decade later in a completely different way. On a collective level, the COVID-19 pandemic rocked us all. Depression and anxiety symptoms increased by 25% during the pandemic. Intuitively, I craved the freedom, fresh air, and safety that horseback riding had once offered me: the polar opposite of the limitations of a masked, homebound existence so many were experiencing.
On a personal level, my relatively recent marriage was enduring hardship and my depressive symptoms had returned too. I felt lost, I felt like a failure, and I felt completely unsure of who I was. Then I remembered: I’m a Horse Girl.
I feared falling into my competitive patterns of the horse show circuit, so instead of taking lessons with a show barn, I began volunteering at a nearby equine therapy center. Craving a coveted “exercise rider” spot, I had to start somewhere, which turned out to be a stall cleaner.
While shoveling mountains of horse poop each week, I had time to think, be, and feel in what I remembered was my sanctuary. I got to know the horses, their preferences, and their stories. Some had been rescued from thoroughbred racing and others had overcome injuries that had rendered them “worthless” to owners that sounded a lot like 18-year-old me.
Here they were being loved on, turned out to graze daily, smuggled treats, and when their years of service were over, they would retire to acres of pasture in Texas. The horses shared so much wisdom, and in turn, they were revered. On days when I felt too sad to get out of bed, I knew if I could get myself inside a stall, alchemy would happen.
Here, I was good enough. I was great, even! I was quickly added to the leadership’s speed dial to help groom, tack, and yes, exercise, the horses. My essence was a confident, thoughtful rider and worker who had little to prove and a lot to learn.
The only requirement here was willingness: for students, horses, and volunteers alike. We were all giving up little of our time, energy, and egos to gain a lot of perspective, compassion, and healing. I’ve been moved to tears multiple times just by walking into the center, let alone after hearing the brave stories of every being in the building.
I’ve come to cognitively understand my story, my heartaches, and my depression as a part of my life’s journey.
One day, I hope to open an equine therapy program of my own. I’ve also pivoted careers to work for an animal welfare nonprofit that sponsors a well-known medal in the equestrian world that I used to compete for — talk about full circle. This organization also works closely with the very equine sanctuaries and rescues I hope to adopt from when the time comes.
Until then, on Sundays, as self-care and service, I commune with myself, others, and definitely with something much, much bigger than all of us. I go to my version of church; it’s a big building where sacred work takes place, it’s just painted bright red. Instead of a steeple, there’s a hay loft, and instead of preachers, there are ponies.
Medically reviewed on November 07, 2022
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