Getting Through Winter: Seasonal Depression and the Equestrian

Photo © Thomas (flickr @photommo)


For those of us who don’t have the budget to go to Florida or live somewhere warm and sunny year-round, winter can be tough on both our riding and psyche. It’s harder to find motivation to get and ride when the wind is whipping in my face and stirring up my fit, young horse into wild antics. When my frozen fingers are hanging on my horse’s expressionistic leaps, I just want to be snuggling my cat on the couch.

But because I have seasonal affective disorder, I have to push myself to get out there and go ride whenever the ground isn’t frozen.

Seasonal affective disorder (SAD), also sometimes called seasonal depression, is a real medical condition. It’s not something to just be brushed off as “the winter blues,” which is actually good news because that means doctors have advice on how we can manage our symptoms.

The Mayo Clinic says symptoms of SAD can include:

  • Feeling depressed most of the day, nearly every day
  • Losing interest in activities you once enjoyed
  • Having low energy
  • Having problems with sleeping
  • Experiencing changes in your appetite or weight
  • Feeling sluggish or agitated
  • Having difficulty concentrating
  • Feeling hopeless, worthless or guilty
  • Having frequent thoughts of death or suicide

These symptoms come from our biological clock changing with the decrease in sunlight which can trigger a decrease in serotonin (a neurotransmitter) and/or a disruption in melatonin production (a hormone that affects sleep patterns and mood).

If you are experiencing these symptoms, it’s very important that you speak to your physician or therapist in addition to trying out some of the things here. Depression is no joke, and we’re not medical professionals here at The Plaid Horse. Your doctor might be able to prescribe medication for you, recommend psychotherapy, or have other treatment options to help.

But in the meantime, here are things I have learned that help me a lot.

Getting Outside

This is a huge one. Even when the air is cold and I hate it, I’m still always glad I got outside. I play fetch with my dog, do barn chores, and ride when the ground isn’t frozen. I don’t put any pressure on myself to meet any particular goals beyond getting my work done and breathing fresh air. I notice that on days when I’m only inside in artificial light and inside air, I feel crummy.

Brushing Horses

There’s just something about getting horse dirt on me that’s good for my soul. My Thoroughbred, Mo, loves to be curried, and I always feel good about spending time with him. If I really get in there with the curry comb, I get my own circulation going a little bit too. Plus I feel good about pulling his rug off, making sure his weight looks good and checking that he doesn’t have any nicks or bites I need to worry about.

Photo © turcottes78 at flickr

Light Therapy

There are a bunch of UV lights made specifically for this, but if you’re lucky enough to ride at a farm with an indoor and if you’re allowed to turn on all the lights to make it bright, you’ve got a good tool at your disposal. A pediatrician friend of mine has an indoor. When she gets home from work this time of year it’s often already dark outside, but she can turn on all the bright lights in her indoor and ride a couple of horses. She says that helps her.

Hanging With Barn Buddies

One of the yuckiest things depression does is encourage us to isolate ourselves. Make a plan with your barn friends to meet up even if it’s too cold to ride. Hang out and enjoy the company of the horses. Maybe bring some special treats to share. I’ll go pretty far for a peanut butter brownie — even in freezing temperatures.

Focus on the Mental Game

When I can’t ride, I like to read books or watch videos that help me improve my mental game. That way I still feel like I’m moving my goals forward, which helps me feel less stuck in a rut. I watch videos of riders I admire on YouTube or study an aspect of horsemanship I need to learn more about. There is always something more to learn!

Fill Your Space with Life

On the days I really can’t be outside or see Mo because the weather is just that bad, I enjoy the space I’ve created for myself indoors. I’m a houseplant junkie, and having all of my beautiful plants growing through the winter months makes me feel better about how dormant everything is outside. I also have two cats, a dog, and a hedgehog who live inside with me and bring a coziness and happiness to our space. It helps me a lot to have the critters and the plants to take care of. Sometimes taking care of others can pull us out of the funk, even temporarily.

Photo © Five Furlongs at flickr

Reach Out

Those barn buddies you get together with regularly in the winter? Is there anyone in that group who gets it and can listen without offering unsolicited advice or minimizing your feelings? Is there someone else around who can be that person for you? If you don’t know where else to turn, reach out to me! I probably don’t have the answers, but just connecting with another person can be so liberating.

Be Kind To Yourself

Winter always comes, but so does the spring. Your job is to be good to yourself, do the things you need to do to thrive, and get yourself through the tough season. Be kind to yourself and remember that this isn’t just a matter of thinking more positive or being more grateful–there are real chemical things happening that the changes in daylight cause in you. Learn what helps you feel better, but don’t be upset with yourself when you feel bad. It’s okay, and you’re not alone.

Remember: winter can be hard, but you can do this. Spend as much time with the ponies as you can, and before you know it, those dandelions and daylilies will be popping back up.

About the Author: Jess is a professional historian and educator who lives in northwestern Virginia. They completed their undergraduate degree in English at William & Mary, and did their masters and doctoral work at the University of Florida. Jess is an event rider with a passion for thoroughbreds, and has extensive experience in community organizing around queer identities, racial marginalization, and labor.
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