Recently on horse forums on Facebook & Twitter, I have been seeing a lot of conversation around depression and horseback riding. Many people are suffering from depression, and reaching out to their online horse friends: wondering why this amorphous, gloomy monster has sapped all their desire to do the one thing they love most. I have seen girls display photos with their horses, and ask their peers why they don’t even care about being around them anymore. They may have gone through hard times before, but never have they wanted to stop riding because of it.
The majority of us horse fanatics go to the barn for solace from the stresses and heartache that life brings. It is a scary thought that amid our darkest times, we may be losing our desire to do the one thing that always seemed to bring us life. Carrying these cries close to my heart, I started wondering how these horse-crazy girls could be so depressed that they didn’t even want to go to the barn anymore.
Then I remembered: I was once one of these girls.
It feels so long ago and so far-removed from my life today, that I’d nearly forgotten that depression once swallowed my desire to ride, too. I remember that it didn’t even make sense to me at the time. I just woke up one morning, and didn’t want to do it anymore. I couldn’t articulate to my family or my trainer why; I just couldn’t muster the emotional or physical energy to go to the barn.
Horses had been a part of me since I was five years old. The craze had started sooner than that, but the obsession became real when I had my first riding lesson at that age. I rode a beautiful bay Arab/Quarter Horse gelding named Shadow. Shadow taught me the basics of turning, “hoa”, and “go!”, and was my first heartthrob. I continued my riding journey at competition barns, where I moved on from the comfort of Shadow’s big leather bucket of a western saddle and dusty withers to an English hunter’s saddle and jumping classes.
My appetite for equestrian sporting continued to grow through my pre-adolescent and early teenage years. I found a trainer that I absolutely adored, who taught me the most about the beautiful basics and details of horsemanship and horseback riding. Every week was both a challenge and a thrill, and I loved every second of it.
Then, out of nowhere, my dad got sick and died.
I hate to put it that way, but that is the gist of what happened. I’ll spare you the details, because the thing I want to stress here is that shit happens, and my life is not unique in that regard. I didn’t deal with it right away. I just pretended it didn’t happen, because I had no idea how to cope with that devastation.
I started high school shortly after and kept riding. I welcomed the distraction that the lessons brought from the loss that was waiting for me the other 165 hours of the week.
And then, one day, I just quit. I frankly don’t remember that conversation with my trainer. I don’t remember that conversation with my mom. I just stopped. One week I was riding, and the next week I wasn’t. And I didn’t return to it for a couple of years.
Needless to say, the grief had caught up with me in a bad way. When you don’t confront traumatic loss, it doesn’t stop hurting. I chose not to even acknowledge that I was sad, or angry, or that I felt betrayed (by God, by life, by myself, by my late father). I chose to simply not feel. And in all my not feeling, the feelings became something else. It turned into a deep depression that took a lot of time and retarded emotional processes to tease out.
My mom, bless her heart, had tried everything to get me to deal with losing my father. She was never not trying. She could see that I was no longer caring about my life or well-being anymore. I was doing destructive things and not caring that I put myself in danger. And it got to the point where she put her foot down and made me go to therapy. When I went, it wasn’t at all what I thought it would be. The therapist understood me and my process: that I could only handle feeling a little bit at a time. Week after week, she helped me unpack my grief for an hour so that I could heal through a bite-sized chunk of it. Then she helped me pack the rest of it back up, and go about my week feeling a little lighter, a little stronger, and a little more comforted.
And as I started to feel again, I started to miss riding. I didn’t feel like I could go back to lessons, per se. I guess I thought I’d flushed that opportunity down the toilet. But we got a call one day that my grandparents’ neighbors and close friends had bought a new horse. He was a beautiful bay Arab/Quarter Horse gelding named Shadow. The trainer I took my first lessons from had been downsizing and needed to sell some of her horses to good homes.
During the next trip to my grandparents’ house, I was oozing anticipation and nerves. I tried everything I could to not let the excitement overwhelm me. I couldn’t handle the disappointment if it was disastrous. Or worse: if I still didn’t feel anything during the ride. To myself, this was an experiment to see if I still had something I looked forward to.
We went to their neighbor’s house and I tacked up Shadow. The neighbor’s daughter was my age and enjoyed a good trail ride, so she rode their other horse. We set out down the wooded back roads towards the Sierra Nevada hills of Central California. With one deep inhale of the pine-swollen air, bluejays whirling around us, and Shadow’s dusty withers, I was back.
It was as though I could finally breathe again. I felt something strange that I hadn’t felt in a long time—happiness. And it wasn’t fleeting, either. It was a feeling I could hold onto. We rounded a gravel road up towards the mountain trail. My friend looked at me and dared me to go for a good run. I didn’t hesitate to open Shadow up to a full gallop up that long hill. And in that moment, holding his thick black mane and moving my hips to the rhythm of his stride, I felt utterly free.
When the ride was over, circumstances in my life didn’t change. My depression didn’t go away right away. Grief was still there to be dealt with. But I had seen the other side of life—that I could feel good again—and my heart began to heal. How God knew that my childhood horse could bring me back to the land of the living still amazes me. I rode Shadow before anything bad had happened, when everything was still new and magical about horseback riding. All I can say is that I’m grateful.
The road out of depression was hard, and there wasn’t just one thing that made it go away. It was a combination of choosing to move forward, people reaching out in my ugliest stages, and accepting the help that I needed. Some people reach a point in their mental health journey where they need to take medication or see a therapist. I needed therapy. I know there’s a stigma (which I believe is slowly going away now) that mental health is something people should just fix in their own. But when we get a broken leg, why wouldn’t we put a cast on it? Mental health shouldn’t be any different.
My journey out of depression and grief also took time. Every little moment in depression seems to count, because time seems to drag on and vanish all at once. Like an alternate reality where your mind and emotions don’t follow the normal rules of time and space.
All I can say is that for those who are struggling with depression (no matter how cliché this sounds, I need to say it): You’re Not Alone. And secondly, you are not powerless. You need to keep fighting. Find your reasons to live—not just your reasons to stay alive, but reasons to live fully. They are there, I promise. Reach out to your close friends and family, so they know you need extra support. See a therapist or psychologist to help you with things family might not be able to. Eat a bit healthier and perhaps try light exercise. And keep doing the things that you remember to be life-giving to you before the depression set in.
Because one day, one of those things will cause the fog to lift, even for just a moment. And that moment will remind you that there’s life to be lived on the other side of, in the midst of, and in spite of depression. You will get to the other side, filled with more strength and compassion than you ever had before.
For resources on dealing with depression, check out this list of Depression Resources on Everyday Health.
Have you had an experience with mental health taking you away from riding? I’d love to hear your story and your process, no matter where you are in your journey. Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org