Mental health: A little help from our friends
Being involved in eventing is about much more than just physical fitness; it can have a positive impact on mental wellbeing too.
Ella Richardson had been to hell and back during a battle to tame her newly diagnosed bipolar, while also dealing with the trials of the first Covid-19 lockdown last spring.
In January 2020, the 24 year old had keyhole surgery to explore the chronic pain she’d suffered for more than a year and was diagnosed with endometriosis, shortly before anxiety and depression took hold. It became more severe when Covid-19 hit, leading to her discovering she had bipolar.
“I had lots of goals before lockdown, we all did. We all wanted to go to the lovely shows and win all the red rosettes and sashes,” says Ella.
“But at that point when the first lockdown came and we weren’t able to see those horses, all of those wishes of wanting a nice truck, the lovely gear or going to the lovely shows and jumping big fences, that all went out the window.
“I said ‘I really don’t care about that stuff anymore, I just want to see my horses’. The simplicity of being able to sit in their stable and hearing them munching, and getting up early and going for a ride morning ride in the field on a winter’s morning, that for me was bringing me more joy than going to a show.
“It really put things into perspective for me and I think it showed a bit. We probably all took that time to reflect and while it’s great thing to do and have, but we’re all doing it for the love of the horses, not the love of the sport.”
It was months later when the amateur rider was out in the field with her horses that she experienced a wave of calm washing over her.
“I had a 6am timeslot and went out hacking. It felt like divine intervention because it was the most amazing sunrise,” recalls Ella of the moment she reunited with her beloved horses.
“Getting back on was completely surreal and serene because it was almost like we were back where we belonged, seeing the horses again and having connection. It made me feel like me again at a time when I really didn’t feel that way.”
The sense of escapism Ella felt as she got back in the saddle is typical of many riders who combine their love for horses with eventing. It was this essence and the mental health benefits that inspired professional rider Matthew Wright to set up mental health charity, Riders Minds, which offers support and guidance for equine lovers in the UK.
Wright, who sadly lost his long-term battle with depression in February 2021, represented Great Britain at junior, young rider and senior level, but all that promise shattered after suffering a series of injuries that left with mental and physical health problems. A cancer diagnosis soon after further compounded his struggle.
“When my head was a mess, it was like a black cloak wrapped around me and everything I had was clouded by a fear of my own past failures,” Matthew wrote in a blog on the Riders Minds website.
“I had no recollection of any of the good things I’d done, past achievements or happy thoughts, only things that were bad.
“To people on the outside, I think I appeared lazy and ungrateful because the simplest of tasks seemed difficult to do. And to be honest, I didn’t want to go back onto the yard feeling a fraction of the person I used to be.”
Riders Minds became Matthew’s passion and he aimed to use the charity to provide a platform for people with a shared love for riding to help each other when they too were suffering from dark times.
“One of the biggest things that can help anyone overcome depression or anxiety is an understanding as to why they might be feeling the way they are,” Matthew’s post continued. “It will also hopefully encourage people to talk or have a courageous conversation.”
By inspiring people to get support and find the motivation to get back on their horse, Riders Minds could be unlocking one of the keys to making a recovery – time doing what they love.
Horses as therapy
“Horses are a fantastic source of mental health support and therapy,” Ella says. “They are incredible animals and are incredibly emotive. I found the simplicity of being with them and just grooming them, your mind goes into autopilot and all the noise and stresses you’re dealing with kind of stop for a little bit.”
Sessions working with horses are proven to have a positive impact on people with various mental health issues and have formed part of recovery programmes for professional sportspeople at ex-England footballer Tony Adams’ renowned Sporting Chance clinic.
But the influence of creating a relationship with a horse isn’t exclusive to people with seeking treatment, it can be the perfect remedy for anyone wanting to maintain mental wellness.
“I think animals in general, but horses in particular, read you,” says amateur rider Jay Mossman, who works as a dermatology nurse at University Hospital of Wales and was thrust into a front-line care ward when Covid hit last March.
“My horse at the time, Cash, is such a cuddly horse and would almost know it I was having a tough time. It was that breath of fresh air you needed after a tough shift or week.
“That’s not just coming from working in a hospital, that’s for anything – anybody who’s lucky enough to have a horse through the pandemic because they still need riding, mucking out and feeding.”
Jay and her horse shot to prominence thanks to her Cash for the NHS Facebook page, which followed their journey – and that of professional rider Fiona Davidson who volunteered to support Jay – during the pandemic.
For Jay, the benefit of having Cash as an outlet during those initial months couldn’t be underestimated.
“It was life-saving,” she remembers. “That might sound dramatic, but I know lots of people who seriously struggled throughout lockdown because they couldn’t do what made them happy.
“But us riders and owners have been so lucky throughout because there’s almost a sense of normality. The horses have no idea what’s going on outside and just being able to go to the yard and muck out or feed them or do their last rug change at the end of the day provided a sense of normality that lots of people weren’t fortunate enough to have.”
Ella started the Short Strides podcast last April and has developed a strong network since – including people heavily involved with Riders Minds – that means she never has to feel as if she’s dealing with her challenges alone. She also found support and openness among the people in the yard where her horses were living last year.
“When I was on livery, I was surrounded by some incredibly supportive people,” Ella says. “When I was having a hard day, I remember my yard manager found me crying in my horse’s stable and he was like ‘come on Ella, what’s going on?’ and was incredibly supportive.
“I was very lucky to be in an environment where people were very open to talk about if they were having a bad day or a bad brain day instead of wanting to squash it down so as not to burden anyone or be a hindrance.”
While the pandemic has accentuated certain benefits of eventing, that allure has always existed. It’s why once many people make their first foray into the sport, they’re hooked. And to top is all off, it’s a great way to keep physically in shape too.
“You don’t realise how many muscles you use just to point that horse in a direction you want it to go – it’s amazing physically,” adds Jay. “Because you’re doing something physical you help your mental side as well. I’m not afraid to say I suffer from depression myself and have done for a few years now, but physically and mentally, they do intertwine.
“If you feel rubbish and are just having a bit of a low day and it’s hard to get yourself out or get the motivation to do something, if you go for a ride that physical aspect releases all of those endorphins and they in turn help your mental health as well.”
There’s little wonder why sitting in the saddle provides solace for so many.
First published in the Summer 2021 issue of British Eventing Life magazine