Real Life Stories
Historically, mental health has been a bit of a 'taboo' subject and people who suffer with their mental health often try to hide it. However, opening up and talking about mental health can be one of the first steps towards improving it. One of our missions for The Great Horses For Health Relay is to raise awareness of mental health and get people to open up and talk about it. This is why we asked our Relay participants if anyone would like to tell their own story about a time in their life when horses have helped their mental health. We would like to thank all of those who shared their inspiring stories with us and hope they can help others to do the same. Read some of their incredible stories below.
"I’m 49 and have suffered with clinical depression all my life as did my father who was bi-polar and who took his own life in 2005. Nobody knew my mother was also suffering with mental illness and in 2014 she was reported missing. For three months we searched for her, uncovering multiple reasons for her disappearance. Sadly she was eventually found in a peaceful place where she had also taken her own life.
I tried to dis-associate myself from the person I thought I was and struggled hard to fight against being the victim of both parents taking their own lives. Then after months of counselling and an evaluation I was told by the psychiatrist following that I needed to grab my life and live it. She told me to find something that matters and fight the feeling that I thought suicide was my destiny.
I’d always loved horses as a child but never actually rode until a kind young temp in my office taught me and my son to ride on her retired pony. She got us to the point where we were off the lead rein and off we went on a journey to continue our horsey life. My son eventually decided he didn’t really want to ride any more and he just kept me company so I found a place to have proper weekly lessons which led me to my part loan horse Romeo (owned by Emily Troy) who I have now been riding and enjoying for a year.
There have been some bumps along the way and in many ways my confidence is generally low in life but horses (Romeo in particular), being outside in the fresh air and doing all the jobs on the yard on my three days a week has been the best therapy in the world. Being with like-minded people who understand how lifted I feel when I’m in my wellies with hay in my hair and mud under my nails is such a good feeling.
I imagine I will probably always need anti-depressants but I really don’t know if I would be here without horses in my life. I don’t care if I’m not a great rider, you just can’t beat a horse to lift you when you’re down!"
"My horses have remained the one constant thing throughout life and all of its experiences... that overriding thing that requires your attention, devotion and responsibility to get you out of bed on those days you don't want to face the world I know for one I wouldn't still be here without them".
"My husband died a year ago and my lovely horse Dobby has been a lifeline, giving me a reason to get up and out each day and gives great cuddles too!"
*I’ve suffered with depression and self harm since the age of 13 (I managed to stop the self harm in 2005). I've tried all the therapies and medication but decided to stop the tablets as they just numbed me. Thankfully my friend got me back into horse riding after me losing my confidence and two years ago this May I bought the amazing Henry. Spending time just brushing him, doing ground work, riding and even his smell are what lift me up everyday. I really couldn’t be without him*
"I suffer badly with my mental health. In 2016 I was hospitalized and spent Two and a half years in hospital. During that time my animals really kept me going. The thought that we could be together again. I was allowed to visit my ponies and the staff were always amazed at how much the visits helped. I was finally discharged in 2019. It's not been easy for me but my boys give me a reason to get up every day and a reason to keep going. Without them I honestly don't think I would be here anymore. I still struggle but it's worth it for them".
"Six years ago I was diagnosed with depression and I was going to counselling at my local doctors which I found wasn't helping very much. At the time I was helping a lady with her horses as she had broken her ankle (this was before I got my horse). I was in a very dark place, sinking fast and it felt like I was at the bottom of a well with no hope of getting out. My husband used to phone me every day at lunchtime to make sure I was ok when one day I just decided enough was enough and I was going to take my own life. I was just about to go ahead when my husband called. That was the only thing that stopped me that day. Fast forward to six months later when Bluebell came into my life and she is now my reason for getting up every day. She is my lifeline and always makes me smile."
My son suffers with ADHD and has autism and his ponies have really helped him. Some days he will be so overwhelmed after school and a trip to the stables and a cuddle with his pony makes life so much better for him. I also suffered previously from depression and when I have down days after being at the yard for 10 minutes I can instantly feel my mood lifting.
"My mental health story started on the 30th September 2011 when I headed to the farm to help my sister get her horse ready for a competition. I had both my daughters with me as well as my now ex. We were about to load the horse and my ex took the children around to the van as they were hungry. He came back a few moments later but was acting very strange and within minutes of him coming back to the stable we heard a scream and we all ran towards it. What I saw when I got around the corner haunts me every day. My children were screaming and the barn, the trailer and the van were ablaze. We managed to get my youngest daughter Sarah out, but we couldn't get to my eldest Isobel. There was an explosion and isobel's cries stopped, the blaze continued to spread until the emergency services arrived. It was determined by the police that my ex had started the fire, but to this day we do not know why. For years I forced myself to believe it hadn't happened, I was becoming a horrible person to be around. On 11th March 2019 I had a mental break down and was diagnosed with PTSD. It is not an easy thing to deal with but my horse has been my saviour. I came to be with Verna three years ago and the bond we share is like none that I have known in my 32 years of owning horses. Verna isn't just a horse, Verna is my heart and my soul, she has helped me in ways that therapy couldn't. I owe my life to Verna"
"Archie is my sanity. My job is tough and can be extremely testing, yet life seems normal when I am riding or with him. Over the years horses have got me through childhood abuse, domestic issues in a marriage and the divorce that followed. If I didn't have any of the horses that I have had and do have in my life I wouldn't be here.
Archie (aka the big grey beasty) is my life line as much as my partner and newborn son is. He has been in my life since the day he was born on 11th April 2010. Archie listens to my problems and doesn't offer advice, he feels my tears and stay close and most of all he doesn't judge me in anyway just offers me comfort in hard times. I love Archie so much and he owes me nothing yet I owe him everything"
Becca Louise Sadler
"I did not ride for 25 years and during that time I had cervical cancer then five months later breast cancer. The usual treatments followed and all through it I thought that if I get through this I'm riding again. Within the year following treatment I had two horses and they helped me recover.
I have been a nurse throughout the covid-19 pandemic and the best therapy has been the views on the moors, the silence of the forest and the horses. They are the best therapy ever"
"After late 2014/15, when we lost five friends and family in five months, including my best friend, my children's lovely father (on Christmas Day) and my favourite Auntie; I was very depressed and having nightly panic attacks. That winter I took the plunge and re-learnt to ride after having not ridden since I was a teen (almost 40 years). It gave me something to focus on despite my total lack of confidence - I was such an anxious rider and still am - but now it's a big part of my life and I wouldn't be without my naughty Nancie Just hanging out with her helps and it's brought me some new friends, which is lovely"
Jules Bowes Davies
"Whenever I feel like I'm losing everything. My misfits pick me up and give me the reason I need to get on with it. I'm strong as heck because of then giving me the willpower"
"I suffer from. ME/CFS, depression and anxiety. If it wasn't for my pony I wouldn't go out some days. On top of that, he shares a field with other ponies, whose owners and loaners are fantastic people and we all support each other. Sometimes they can be the only contact I have in a day (apart from the kids and fiance) so it does me good to come out of my shell and have to talk to someone.
Before my first child was born, I actually tried to commit suicide. My son was extremely ill at birth and we were released from hospital with a menagerie of support workers. One of them for me as they were worried about postnatal depression. I bought this pony from the Dartmoor sales. Nobody wanted him, from what I can gather because he was plain black. Just as the hammer was going down, I stuck my hand up. I wasn't there to buy a pony, a friend and I had gone just to be nosy. We had to scrape together the £25 to get him passported, pay the auction fees etc. He cost 10 guineas, or, £11.11. He would have been at most 8 months old. I tamed him, trained him and have managed to keep hold of him through three moves and a divorce. My son is in the process of being diagnosed as Autistic and this pony has built his confidence, got him out and about and he loves driving him in his cart. So it's not just me this pony supports, but gives Isaac a belief in himself, and is teaching him to trust (he doesn't like strangers, or anything unpredictable - dogs, animals in general) we went for his very first hack a couple of months ago across the moors, and he was so proud of himself. It was uneven terrain, steep tracks. A year ago, he was nervous of even riding him in the barn. Midnight is only six this year but has helped both of us in so many ways. He is invaluable to us as a family.
"I have worked in mental health for 22 years and my horses got me through some tough times. My mum had dementia and while I looked after her for many many years my horses were my saviours. They got me through the bad times and now I have some lovely times with my horse of a lifetime"
"My horses helped me get over the stillbirth of our only son, Fergus, in 1997. Having them gave me an outlet for the love which I had wanted to give to our precious baby. I remember being with the horses one day a couple of months after Fergus died and understanding that I had a choice about whether I would allow myself to be happy again. The horses have helped me to see that, whilst life has thrown me many challenges, I can choose to celebrate the good things. Three years after Fergus died my mare Judy gave birth to Luna who is still here and now 21 yrs old. She has brought great joy and, of course, doesn't replace our son but she is a much loved member of our little family. I thank my horses every day for the joy they bring"
"I lost my dad back in 2000 and my lovely late mare got me out of bed in the morning and listened to me. I only cried when I was with her as I'm not one to show emotion so the release was what I needed. The same as when my son went through aggressive chemotherapy for 12 months and major surgery.
She was my best friend and I miss her so much"
"My name is Max Johnson I am eight years old, I was born very early at 27 weeks, a very tiny 1lb 8oz, I’ve got cerebral palsy and I’m also epileptic. But that doesn’t stop me! My pony is called Elkie and my mum and dad bought him for me as I love horses. I love riding on Elkie, he makes me happy, I feel so much better when I’ve seen him and ridden around the arena with the help of my mum and dad. I love to clean his poo even though I get very messy! My aim is to be able to go for a hack with my mum on her horse Moonshine and me on Elkie. It will take time before I am strong enough, but I will do it. Elkie is the best pony ever!"
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"Elkie is Max's medicine, he doesn’t stop smiling from the minute he’s on him. It’s a genuine smile, it couldn’t be made up.
We have a lot of children with special needs who come to us to ride. People underestimate horses, they just think you ride them, but it’s much deeper then that, they make you feel whole and when you ride it is just you and your horse. That’s why I think max loves it so much. He struggles to walk so uses a wheelchair. He says Elkie is his legs"
"Horses have been my life and I share my obsession with my son. I've been in and out of depression since losing my husband 15 years ago. Keeping my career as a riding instructor running a livery yard and supporting my son in his eventing career are the reasons I'm still here today. All these years later I've had a lot of changes in my life but the one consistent thing has been my horses and dogs. Picture of Lola who I've owned for 10 years"
I am one of two daughters of an anglo/french mother and Austrian father - born in London 1966. At age 1 I was abducted with my sister to Vienna by our father. A two year legal battle ensued & my mother attempted to snatch us back. She was arrested by the Austrian police as she straddled my father with a pillow over his face....and spent a month in prison. Extradition wasn't possible as she was a dual national by marriage. Finally, in spring of 1969 we were re-united. However, I was now Three and a half years old, only spoke German and didn't recognise my mother nor understand what she was saying to me. I was petrified and was often found sitting in cupboards, sleeping in the toy box with the lid pulled closed and generally extremely withdrawn. I developed a stammer and was painfully shy.
In 1973 my mother met someone new and we moved to Hertfordshire from North London - it was awful. Within six months my mother was being beaten, we were thrown out of the house in the middle of the night in our pjs. This cycle continued for nine and a half years. During this time we moved schools numerous times and eventually moved to Kent. My sister and he had a very volatile relationship and within three weeks of arriving in Kent, at age 15, she ran away from home. Things calmed down for a little while but by 1980 I became the focus of his unwanted attention. His drinking and controlling nature escalated. My mother was working for a local travel agent as a french speaking day trip travel guide. She would leave at 0400 in the morning and return very late in the evening. She loved it and I loved that she loved it. He hated it. I would come home from school to find him drunk, abusive and intimidating. My mother had a Citroen Ami 8 with a very distinctive engine noise. I spent my nights on a bench in my nightclothes, waiting to hear the sound of her car before running to beat her home. She never knew.
I left school and got a job - at the same place that HE worked. I wasn't allowed to travel to work with him - I had to get the bus or make my own way there. One day I missed my bus and ran home to phone a taxi - but first I needed his key to get the lock off the phone. What ensued was horrific - I was chased through the house like an animal and beaten repeatedly. My abiding memory is seeing the knife block in the kitchen as my head was pounded against the dining table. For years after I would have a recurring dream that I had got hold of the largest kitchen knife and repeatedly stabbed him. I would wake sobbing - utterly distraught that it was only a dream and that I hadn't been able to kill him.
We left - at last. But it didn't end - for 3 years he stalked us. He knew when my mum was away - I'd get late night calls. A car followed me home from my evening pub job and I realised it was him trying to find out where we lived. I crawled under a parked car and lay there for an hour until I was sure he'd gone. Eventually it stopped but the mental anguish didn't go away - I detested any type of control from men. Life went on - it was good - I had fabulous friends, a great job, I was financially independent and proud of what I'd achieved. But the demons were always there in the background.
Three years ago I broke down following a prolonged period of abuse from a direct report in the workplace. I felt a failure and didn't recognise myself. I had counselling and was diagnosed with severe anxiety, depression and PTSD. I was shocked - PTSD?! What was that all about?
Now I see it - I had never worked through all that had happened as a child & teenager. The personal attacks on me at work took me back to those years - I felt isolated, vulnerable and hopeless.
My horse Jack was my calming influence. He didn't judge me - he was always happy to see me. He relied on me but made no demands. He would look at me with his big dark eyes and I would feel calm and centred. I could bury my head in his mane and feel the strength of him, but know that he wasn't ever going to hurt me. He made me smile and laugh and he felt my anguish and was gentle and kind with me. I could lose myself grooming him, riding him, loving him and not feel vulnerable or attacked.
I'm well and happy now. But I still remember...and I'll never forget how desperate I felt at my lowest.