In the evening I take Ottille for a walk and set her free. Her carefree happiness is palpable and her beauty takes my breathe away every time. I still can not fathom how anyone would work this sweet girl until she reached 17 only to send her to a slaughter auction. Welcome to the rest of your life, sweet girl! Like I promised the first day we met, you can trust me to take care of you the rest of your days. ❤️
Pivoting During a Pandemic
— Read on horsenetwork.com/2020/04/pivoting-during-a-pandemic/
Learn equine biosecurity basics for the farm, horse show, and breeding shed to protect your horses from infectious diseases.
— Read on thehorse.com/features/practical-biosecurity-tips-to-protect-your-horse/
When I teach horse riding to friends and family, I use like and as like trailer hitches: they pull my students into different concepts while they are in the saddle.
“Hold the reins like a baby bird.”
“Imagine the horse as a river, and your legs as the banks guiding the river along.”
“I want you to push down through your heels like you could break the stirrups.”
Unlike riding, the metaphors I use for depression never describe it with much accuracy. Depression is at once an absence of things and a too much of things, a void, a slowing down, a speeding up, it’s too much and too little.
Instead, my depressive episodes are blotted, memories. They are moments half-vacant. The first time I remember having symptoms, all I could pull up from the database of my memory was the hum of my parents’ air conditioner at eleven in the morning. It was gurgling. Droning thuds right outside the door where I slept. It was the summer of 2008, the gas prices rose, the economy crumbled, and the coda of my existence was staying in bed because there was no point in getting out of it.
It went away when I went back to school the following autumn. Or, at least, I thought it did. I can still hear the echoes of school friends, telling me that maybe there was more to my melancholy than just sadness and being a chronic overachiever.
I ignored them.
After college, I lived on a horse farm in rural Colorado. It had a million-dollar view of slotted canyons and farm fields stretching for miles. Most days I rolled out of bed by 7:00am, fed 20 horses, cleaned out their runs for the day, did chores, and then wrote website copy for a marketing agency in a little office that faced east.
I remember the raccoons squabbling over the dumpster at night, the echo of coyotes after a kill, and the thrill of a shooting star streaking the sky with luminous urgency. I loved riding just before sunset, watching the red dust cast clouds behind the horses hooves. I can also remember waves of nauseating numb and a strange sense of dread that never really lifted. Some days didn’t pass, they army-crawled.
The rhythm of farm life masked my symptoms. I have what doctors call “high functioning” clinical depression: it never mattered how crappy I felt or how existential I got or how much of a mess my relationships became, horses still needed to be fed, water troughs cleaned, and manure cleared away. Cowgirls don’t cry.
I DIDN’T UNDERSTAND THAT I WAS SICK.
Now almost five years since I first lived on that farm, I know that I can do most basic things when I am depressed. I can go to the grocery store, pay bills and answer the phone. I am one of the lucky ones.
What I can’t do is notice details. I can’t write, stay organized, or meet deadlines. I stop being able to pick up after myself or see anything as worthwhile. I eat too much or too little; sleep becomes a curse and a blessing. Before I knew I had depression, I would just blame my lack of self-discipline. I thought it was my dyslexia, a character flaw, or maybe I just wasn’t getting enough sleep. I told myself I needed to get up earlier, eat better, or drink more coffee. I didn’t understand that I was sick.
It is very unlikely I could have known I had depression. I had no idea what depression was.
My understanding of mental illness came from one high school production of David and Lisa and two 100 level psychology courses that still presented mental illness as uncommon. I thought anxiety was a normal state of being and depression was just bouncing, egg-shaped heads that smiled and talked about sexual side effects in Zoloft commercials.
Besides, I got to spend a lot of time with horses; my beliefs told me that if I had everything I wanted there was just no way I could be depressed. But that was exactly what was happening.
Depression or major depressive disorder as defined by the American Psychiatric Association is “a common and serious medical illness that negatively affects how you feel, the way you think and how you act.” Common symptoms include lack of energy, becoming withdrawn and numb to your environment, a sense of dread, despair, guilt, or worthlessness. It is also common for depressives to isolate themselves and stop doing the things they care about. It can impact sleeping and eating patterns and can show a drastic shift in behavior and personality. While these are the most common symptoms, each case varies from person to person, episode to episode.
For us farm folk of the world, this may seem flowery and self-involved. Me, a few years ago would have said, “Oh how sad for you, now get up and get stuff done.”
No matter my shame and judgment, the dollar signs in front of depression are staggering and very, very real. A 2015 study showed depression cost the United States $210 billion every year, this accounts for everything from lost wages, to treatment and other direct and indirect costs and losses. If it was a fake disease like I once believed it was, shouldn’t it be cheaper?
If the cost in dollars and cents weren’t enough to leave us blushing over the manure pile, the number of people with the disease should do the trick. The National Alliance on Mental Illness reports that more that 43.8 million Americans suffered from some form of mental illness in 2015. This is just under one in five Americans.
Depression, which is the most common mood disorder, is also recognized by the Center for Disease Control as “a serious medical illness and an important public health issue.” Thus while we would all love to say, that depression and other mental illness never enters into the barn, the facts are stacked against us.
There is a t-shirt in many horse catalogs that says “My horse is my therapist.” I once would have purchased it in a couple of different colors. Now, as the resident Captain Killjoy of the barn, I want to say, “Cool, maybe they’ll make ‘My horse is my Chemotherapy,’ or how about this potential best-seller ‘My horse is my fast-acting inhaler.’”
If you just found the second two offensive, then yes, the first one is too. The reason it is problematic is not because our time with horses isn’t therapeutic. But rather because it diminishes mental illness as a lesser, illegitimate disease.
I, too, fell for the ethos of the horse as a cure-all for mental illness. I once thought therapy and psychiatric medication was for bored, wealthy people and the occasional hypochondriac. I also thought it was only effective for those with really low functioning diagnoses and meth addicts.
I WAS A FARM GIRL, STRANGERS TOLD ME I SEEMED TOUGH. WHO WAS I IF I LOST THAT?
On the other hand, I was also terrified. My imagination told me that if I went to a therapist, I’d be institutionalized like I had seen in the movies or I’d be the one thing I had convinced myself I was not: weak.
I was a horse person; I was a farm girl, strangers told me I seemed tough. Who was I if I lost that?
I would never think I was weak if I went to the emergency room because I got chucked off a horse and landed badly. I also wouldn’t think I was weak if I went to a doctor because I caught pneumonia after breaking the ice out of water buckets. The same logic should have applied to seeking treatment for depression.
Yet, when I talked myself into making an appointment with the mental health department I spent the entire phone call to the doctor in a cold sweat. I also considered running out of the waiting room in a panic before my first consultation had even started. Old stigmas against mental illness are a hard thing to silence, even if that mental illness is slowly trying to kill you.
Treatment turned out to be nothing like I imagined. There was minimal mood lighting, pedantic banter or forced breathing exercises. Therapy and treatment turned out to be very much like taking riding lessons. I paid a therapist for the same reason I paid a riding instructor: to notice things. They used their training and expertise and made me better. Just like a riding instructor had shown me that I had a nasty habit of letting the horse fall in at the corner, a therapist showed me how my emotional patterns were making me sicker. After noting the problem, they then gave me strategies to improve.
IT IS STILL A PART OF MY LIFE, BUT IT NO LONGER CONTROLS MY LIFE.
I know that if I had treated my depression sooner, I would have enjoyed my days on the farm more, I would have ridden more, worked harder, and laughed more. I would have been a better advocate for the horses I rode. If I had started therapy sooner, I would have ridden better, too. I would have spent the time noting reality, instead of simply trying to stay afloat in a soup of depression induced self-deprecation.
I am still not free of depression but because I understand it, I am better at taking care of myself when it appears. It is still a part of my life, it probably always will be, but it no longer controls my life.
You may, at this point, think I have sworn off horses as medicine altogether. If I had struggled that hard with depression when I was around horses every day, you might be surprised to hear that I do believe that horses are a valid way to help treat depression and other mental illnesses.
“Help treat” is the key statement here. My feelings on equine therapy for mental illness simply hold more specific parameters than they once did. I believe that if equine therapy is a primary treatment then it should be done in the company of a trained professional. In fact, this kind of therapy on horseback or in the company of horses is done all over the world and has been used to treat everyone from teens with severe anxiety, to veterans with PTSD, to those incarcerated. While research on the effectiveness of equine-based therapy for mental illness is still in its early stages, early studies show promise.
Time with horses have proven to be one of my best forms of secondary treatment to supplement therapy and medication. One of the beautiful things about depression, notes psychology writer Andrew Solomon, is that it is a disease that impacts the way we feel. If someone has diabetes, lunges a horse, and feels better, they will still leave the round pen with diabetes. If someone goes into a round pen with depression and lunges a horse makes them feel better, then for that moment it is an effective treatment for depression.
Exercise is also often a key component in treating depression and, for many, being around horses is a good excuse for doing just that. It also can provide a low-stress way to cut down on isolation as our interactions with horses can have lower social stakes than those with other people.
I now understand that cowgirls do cry and we should. Our time with horses should be a safe time to struggle and change and talk and perhaps find some relief from what ails us. If it is not, then it’s important to find out the reason why and do what we can to address it.
Asking for help isn’t a sign of weakness, it is a sign of agency and self-awareness and these are two things that I, as a horse person, have learned to admire.
Even if I can’t use metaphors to describe depression, I can use one to describe what it is like when it lifts. When the depression first lifts, it feels like the first time I correctly rode a flying lead change. There is a moment of flight, of release, of understanding and clarity that is so delicious I wish I could bottle it and keep it on a windowsill. It’s as if the mysterious thing that I had been prevented from understanding is now understood.
When depression is gone, I can see the steam curl from a sweaty horse in the morning light with a renewed sense of wonder. I can laugh at horse galloping at play in a pasture.
When my depression lifts, it is as though I can pull myself out of the dingy trailer of my despair and a long trail ride awaits, and my horse is already saddled.
About the Author
Gretchen Lida is an essayist and equestrian. Her work has appeared in Brevity, Earth Island Journal, Washington Independent Review of Books, and many others. She has an MFA in Creative Nonfiction from Columbia College Chicago and currently lives in Wisconsin. Follow her on Twitter at @GC_Lida.
I had the opportunity to work with a “horse communicator” today. She was recommended to me by an equine vet who, after reading my blog, felt that I would be open to the idea, and introduced me to her via email. According to the vet, she often works with this particular equine communicator due to her ability to point out exactly where the horse’s issues are, allowing the vet to adjust/manipulate/treat the main issue.
I chatted with her at length a few days ago as she explained the process and we scheduled an appointment.
Today I gave her a call, as she explained, connecting remotely allows for the horse to be in his natural setting without the influence of an unknown person. That way the horse could be relaxed and the owner can observe, ask questions, and engage. So, that is what I did. She went onto explain that sometimes the horse needs energy work in order to open up to the process and that the horse must trust the process, her, and obviously, the owner.
I was asked to have questions ready to ask my horse, along with something I would like to tell him at the end of the session. (If you have been following this blog then you will know I had some difficulty narrowing down a couple of questions- I have a lot! 😉 ) She began connecting with Chance.
I will not be able to convey all the details of what was said, Chance’s reactions, or even mine…It is almost a blur… I wish I could.
I was asked to feel around Chance’s right forehead/eye area for a lump or bump. I did as I was asked and didn’t feel anything abnormal…but remembered he had a gash that was healing right above his right eye. She informed me that he had a “headache”. She continued to move over him and explained that his “energy” was “blocked” on his right side. This makes sense…Chance has a “swagger” at the walk- he pokes his butt to the side and has a twist on the back right leg (Chance’s swagger has gone up and down- it was worse when he had the tendon issues, resolved after stem cell injections, came back when he got EPM, went away ish, and came back with his Lyme). While she was working on his energy, I massaged Chance’s back, neck, hip, and shoulders. She went on to explain that Chance had some right shoulder pain. Thankfully, Chance allowed her to work on his jaw (he pretty much has TMJ), his head, his back, etc. The energy was “pouring out” even on the hind end which, if I recall correctly, is commonly seen on horses with head injuries.
This is where my one question came in…I wanted to know what happened to Chance when he came to my college. I didn’t give many details…I didn’t know many details but I always wondered what may have happened on Chance’s trip down to my college.
I had gone off to college in January and decided to have someone trailer Chance down (about 3 and a 1/2 hours) once I got settled and found a barn, etc. Two months later Chance was arrived at her new barn. Despite the cool March weather, he was covered in sweat and was visibly scared. I didn’t inquire too much since he was in one piece and I chalked up the sweating and fear to exactly that- fear and anxiety. However, as the months progressed, Chance began bucking and rearing while under saddle….this was really strange..When he had left home we were doing dressage and jumping and he was sound and calm. Once again, I chalked it up to being in a new place- a barn that hosted Friday night Bullbucking no less. I decided to switch to a different farm, one preferably without bulls, even though the show was awesome to go and see, and work with a trainer. Still the behaviors persisted and the episodes of lameness increased. The vet finally diagnosed Chance with arthritic changes in his back and suggested I no longer jump him. I decided that summer instead of bringing Chance home and have him endure another long trailer ride, to board him at my new vet’s farm. Chance had the summer to recuperate while under the care of an equine vet.
Anyways, after that summer, I decided to retire Chance for good. I would occasionally get home him to walk around, I still can and do today. But, that was the beginning of a chronic condition that was never given a diagnosis. Instead, Chance’s symptoms were treated as they came.
Back to my session with my very own horse whisperer..
Chance “showed” her what happened on his trip to college- a trailer wheel falling off the side of the road. His head hitting one side of the trailer and slamming the other side. The pain. The concussion. His neck and back becoming misaligned. His jaw coming out of position. His body compensating. He showed the decline of his once functioning body- starting with the hit on his head, to his jaw, and his neck. Down his neck and through his back towards his hips and down his legs. The wear and tear of his body. Chance stated that he is still angry with the person driving the trailer; he wasn’t ready to forgive. I have forgiven them. I have no doubt it was a mistake and that there was no ill intent. But, I am not the one feeling the pain that he is. I am not the one who went from a racehorse to a jumper to practicing dressage to retirement long before I should have. And like the “horse whisperer” said, she will “hold the forgiveness for him until he is ready.” I will do the same.
She spoke of his time on the racetrack. Chance was happy to hear that he was being remembered for who he once was, and will always be to me- a strong, beautiful and crazy talented 17.1 hand red-headed thoroughbred and not a “weak old man” as he put it. When asked what his name was during his time on the track, he said, “Hot Stuff”, which could be a nickname and not his actual race name.
At one point during Chance’s session he fell asleep; standing in an odd way- hind legs spread out. Suddenly, his body gave out and he caught himself from falling. This entire time his eyes were still closed! They remained closed for another minute after this. His body reacting to something, perhaps a shift in his energies, and all the while he was a a state of peace; trusting that nothing bad would happen to him.
The session lasted an hour and a half. Honestly, we could have continued because of all the “blockages” but decided to stop for the day and pick up again another day. I was told that the effects of the energy work or Reiki, would continued throughout the week and that he would be emotionally vulnerable. As the session wrapped up Chance apparently said that he was the lucky one because I found him all those years ago.
Energy Work and Reiki Resources
Head Trauma and Headaches in Horses
This week Luck is staying with the goats due to there being a house guest staying at the barn and his early morning brayfests.
Even though he used to live with the goats at his previous home, Luck is less than enthuised to be with little guys this time around. He is so angry with me that he won’t even greet me when I come to see him or groom him.
Thankfully he only has until Tuesday until he can come back into the barn. This weekend I’ll be preparing a new stall for him so that he will be next to Chance. I’m hoping being closer they will get used to each other faster. And now that Lucky isn’t new to the farm and Chance doesn’t want to trample him any longer, I figured now would be the time.