Love of horses is an innate part of some people. You’re born with it, and as much as your parents hope you “grow out of it,” your love never changes. You wake up in the morning thinking about horses. You breathe in the smell of a barn and sigh. You find hay in your underwear and don’t think a thing of it because it is just as it is supposed to be. I count myself in that group.
I grew up in a working-class family, the daughter of an immigrant who arrived here with nothing. There were no horses in my suburban neighborhood or horsemen in my family, and yet from the time I could talk I asked for horses. Stuffed animals. Breyer horses. A real pony. Somehow my parents scrimped the $10 a week to get me lessons, and somehow a generous and wonderful riding teacher saw my passion and let me ride more.
As a medical doctor, specifically a psychiatrist, I’ve been through a lot of school—25 years of formal education, in fact. There was a lot of time during that quarter century that I had no money, survived on ramen, and could not pay for lessons much less to support a horse. I still loved them. As I reached the end of the years and years (and years) of learning, the thing that seemed most salient to me was that we all go through bad times, and most of us come through them. I’ve been lucky. That passion has gotten me through some difficult things. I was always able to look forward and think of a time when I would hopefully be able to afford a horse of my own. To look back to remember how kind people have let me ride their horses in my past. I have found, however, that in many cases, passion for horses or anything else, isn’t enough.
This is all at least partially metaphorical, of course. Horses, grit, resiliency, boot-straps, whatever you want to call it, sometimes those things aren’t enough to “get through” what life throws at you. So many people out there suffer from mental illness. Anxiety, depression and substance abuse are so common you almost wouldn’t believe it. The idea that you can “power through” this kind of illness is like suggesting to a diabetic that they just tell their pancreas to start working again, or asking an asthmatic to breathe easy in the middle of an attack. Mental illness isn’t a choice or something you can “get out of” with strength of character, either.
Having said that, I think our love of horses provides us with a unique strength on which to fall back when we’re struggling. A funny story: A close friend of mine had a totally freak accident of a stroke. Seriously, she flipped her hair out of her face, and bam, she was in the hospital with a small brain bleed. I went to the hospital to be with her, and one of my colleagues (another psychiatrist) came to the room to check on my friend. She said she had been called by the ICU doctors because my friend was talking so much about horses while in critical condition, and they were worried she was delusional! My friend and I laughed so hard tears ran down our faces. She does struggle with depression, which was pretty dark and deep in the aftermath of having a stroke as a healthy young person, but her desire kept her focused through her recovery, gave her goals for being well, and helped return her to her normal life.
I’ve been watching closely, with a lot of love and relief, as mental health gets more air time in every venue. I have been thrilled to see some high-recognition names at the top of our sports speak about their fight with depression, anxiety and the like. Steffen Peters, the best American dressage rider of the 21st century, talked openly about how his mood and anxiety and struggle to find the right therapy almost kept him from competition in 2018. Matt Brown has very bravely discussed his own fight with depression and return to the top of eventing. They are both excellent examples of normal, functioning humans, who also happen to be super-athletes and also happen to have mental illness. I hope people continue to share and normalize these illnesses.
Now especially, when we are socially distancing, which is ABSOLUTELY the right thing to do, many of us are separated from the animals that we love. For amateurs, money is tight as jobs are tenuous, boarding barns are closed, and lesson programs are shuttered. For professionals, shows are canceled, people aren’t buying or selling, and owners are taking horses out of training. Stress is high; we wonder what life will be like on the other side of this.
We need to remember that we aren’t alone. I have seen a number of people with COVID-19 in consultation—I’ve put on the N95, the bunny suit, the face mask, and walked into the isolation room to examine these patients. I’m afraid, my nights are sleepless, and my husband wishes I wouldn’t watch Dr. Fauci on the television. I remember that my feelings are valid, and I have every right to feel them. I also know that millions, perhaps tens or even hundreds of millions, of other people in the United States are having the same fears, anxieties and obsessions.
Included among those many people are those in our equestrian community. We are in this together. Horses, while all on a competitive break, will be there for us at the other side of this disaster. We will go back to taking lessons, showing and seeing our heroes compete on the national stage. Our kids will return to leadline classes, and we will go back to the more mundane mental health crises of performance anxiety or persistently being unable to see a distance to a fence.
Until we can see a way forward to those comforting norms, I will hold the memory of galloping cross-country close. I will look forward to hacking through the mountains of North Carolina and working on the ever-elusive trot lengthening. Those things will help me through my anxiety. My passion will help me live today. If you need more than that right now, though, it’s OK. Our community will be resilient, gritty and pull itself up and out of this. For those that need a hand, I or one of my mental health professional colleagues will readily offer one.
Elena Perea graduated from the University of North Carolina School of Medicine (where she also completed residency training), has worked at some of the best hospitals and medical schools in the Southeast, and now teaches and practices in Asheville, North Carolina. She is an avid adult amateur eventer.
May is Mental Health Awareness Month, and this May the Chronicle is focusing on this important and timely topic by bringing you several blogs and articles on the subject. Visit nami.org/help for free resources regarding mental health. The U.S. Equestrian Federation also offers some free mental health services for members.