• Ashleigh Kendall

Horses and my mental health recovery

Horses and pets have always been a huge part of my life, giving me a refuge after a hard day. Being around them just seemed to make the world and any troubles fall away, at least while I was lost in their company. 

At 10 years old, I started a new school and with that came into my life a few girls who decided they didn't like me because I was different. I was the weird horse girl and an easy target to pick on. I would spend the days trying to be invisible, ignoring the hate flung at me, while yearning to get home to my four-legged friends, to lose myself in their company. And every afternoon after school I would get to go home and be myself. The animals never judged me, only accepted for who I was, their soft eyes meeting mine and somehow I could breathe in the clean air and knew that one day everything would be all okay. The horses gave me the wings I needed to rise above, they inspired and gave me hope. Even in my darkest times, as depression and anxiety visited, I couldn’t leave them behind. 

This has been especially important during my latest battle with PTSD, anxiety and depression. Six years ago, by chance, I found the horse of my dreams. He was beautiful, gentle, talented but also troubled. I didn’t realise it at the time, but he and I were exactly what we needed for each other, not for the reasons that I had anticipated. I bought Gio as a dressage prospect. He was everything I had dreamed about growing up and I was super excited to feel like success in the competition arena, which seemed within reach with Gio. 

It has only been in the last couple of years I have learned that life has a funny way of presenting you with lessons and they will keep reappearing until you learn from them. Gio was my catalyst for change. He was the reason I was finally able to help myself. 

Throughout my life, I managed to move through trauma by avoiding the painful memories and anything that triggered them. Anyone who has experience PTSD will know this approach can only work for so long before the issue catches up with you. Many people relate PTSD to nightmares and flashbacks but for me it mostly involved avoidance. I didn't understand it at all until – following various tests – my psychologist made the official diagnosis, explained my patterns and their relation to PTSD. Even then it took me well over a year to accept it. PTSD was a ticking bomb in my mind. Avoiding pain only worked for so long before it all boiled over. 

This is where Gio came to help me. A few months after I got him, we had an accident and I ended up with a broken pelvis. I spent the next couple of months on bed rest with plenty of time to think. The darkness crept in slowly. At first I didn't notice it there, consumed by the pain of my broken bones more than the pain of my broken mind. I didn't really understand anything was out of sorts within, but in hindsight I realise the warning signs were there. I had previously been very bubbly and energetic, passionate about my work as an international flight attendant. Normally, I would be very enthusiastic about getting back to work and my own life after a few months off, but honesty, that light within me had gone out. I thought I would get it back but when I stepped back into my role on the aircraft, I realised just how much my spirit had been overtaken by fear. 

It wasn't the fear directly from the accident taking over, but rather every trauma that I had experienced, of which there had been quite a few by that point in my life. Traumatic memories came home to roost collectively. My avoidance only got stronger. I tried to soothe the monster by doing what I had always done and immersing myself in riding my horse. Except for this time it didn't work because I had the additional fear of breaking my pelvis on top of the rest of my difficult emotions. My fear and anxiety led to depression and feeling of worthlessness. It took over and got so bad I could no longer ignore it. 

I felt like I made no sense anymore, I pushed people away, I was resentful, hurting, I felt no self-worth. The more my riding confidence fell, the more I was consumed with desire to end this life. Everything I had previously lived for, the one thing that was always there helping me through, was no longer a safe place. I had no escape. I was no longer myself and every part of my life started falling apart as a result. I ended up resigning from my dream job because I was so overwhelmed by my crisis within. But I still didn't understand that everything was falling apart around me because I had crumbled within. 

With the help of family and friends I was able to get going with Gio again and we did enjoy some successes that I had envisioned when we had first begun. I spent many hours trying to help Gio through his own struggles and as he became more confident, I became more assured about riding. The process taught me that I needed to be confident about myself as a rider rather than relying on the horse behaving perfectly. Because that is not possible with horses! They aren't robots. Things were starting to get better, but still weren't right. I just didn't know it. My mind made no connection yet that to find security within the rest of my life I needed to apply the same philosophy as I did with riding Gio. 

Then one day, my mum came with me to a practice day and, as we were driving home, I completely fell apart. I just broke down in tears, not feeling good enough. Something was holding me back and I couldn’t break through it on my own anymore. I hated showing vulnerability in front of others and I hated feeling like I was weak or flawed. I hated thinking I wasn't okay and I needed help. My mum finally convinced me to talk to a sports psychologist (which turned into a regular therapy and recovery before we could even get to discussing mind set and mental skills for performance). Mum was honest and I needed it. She pointed out how much time and effort I had put into trying to understand and fix my horse, while neglecting to do the same for myself. Armed with belief that I could become better at my sport, I finally found the courage to make that appointment. 

It was in our second session that my psychologist turned and said to me that she would like to see me more often. It was becoming apparent to her, after a relapse of self-harm, that I did have some bigger and more critical things going on, with which I needed support first. I still didn't realise how important this work was going to be and for the next two and a bit years I continued to see her weekly to – essentially – learn how to cope with life. When I fell, she would pick me back up, lend me hope and be there without judgement. I learnt it was okay not to be okay. I learnt how to ask for help, how to communicate, how to be brave about what I was going through. I slowly became braver with the important people in my life too.

It was hard, hard work but one thing that I continued to live for was my quirky horse. The horse that would probably have been a wreck himself if I didn’t take the time to help heal his mental wounds. When I felt suicidal my therapist sat me down and we made a safety plan together. At the top of my list of things to live for was Gio. This may sound unusual to some but, honestly, I felt like – if for nothing else – he needed me and I was worried about what might happen to him if I wasn't there to make sure he was okay. He was the little light that would get me through those difficult times, of which there were many. Each time Gio, unknowingly, gave me something to continue to live for. 

We all need a Gio. We all need something to get out of bed for in the morning. We need something to hold onto and to keep close to us. We all need the meaning in our life that will pull us through when we think we no longer can. My horse was my driving force to inspire me to live, and then to thrive.