Horses Can’t Be Our Only Therapy

Photo © Heather N. Photography

BY LAUREN MAULDIN

I avoided therapy for a long time. Part of it was stubbornness. I come from tough stock. “No pain, no gain” and “Walk it off” were practically hung up as motivational posters in our house. Three days after my husband, I broached the subject of therapy with my dad.

“You don’t need therapy when you have a lot of friends,” he replied.

Logically, I knew he was wrong. I knew that my friends and family, an amazing support system, were not a replacement for professional mental health care. But his response validated a little voice growing inside me. One that said I was tough enough to do this all on my own.

Later that afternoon, we drove out to the barn. I was desperate to see my horse, Simon. My late husband always joked about him, I’m afraid to ask Lauren if she loves me or the horse more. Of course there was no contest. I certainly loved my husband more, but my horse was all I had left. I spent slow minutes with Simon that afternoon running my fingers over the curves of his muscles, digging my nails in to his favorite itchy spots.

My dad snapped a picture, and sent it to family members who were worried about me. He wrote “Horse Therapy” as the caption. And I thought that with my support system and my horse, I could be okay. It was impossible for me to see at the time, but moments like that made me believe that my horse would heal me. He wasn’t just an OTTB hunter/jumper anymore. We added ‘therapist’ to his résumé.

It’s not a unique perspective in the equestrian industry. Talk to your barn friends or spend any amount of time on social media, and you’ll see that idea spreading through our community. Horses are cheaper than therapy! Heading out to the barn for my mental health. Who needs a counselor when I have my horse?

I used to nod my head along with that sentiment. After all, riding is my meditation, my zen. It’s the only time I can completely shut off all the anxiety and inner-problems in my brain, and focus solely on the task at hand. Keeping my horse from dropping his shoulder in the corners. Holding the correct hip angle. Maintaining the proper cadence in our canter. Everything else melts away.

Photo © Heather N. Photography

For the three years following my husband’s death, horses were my therapy. I threw myself into them. On my worst days, I groomed or went for a bareback walk around the barn. When I needed a distraction from my pain, I signed up for extra lessons and horse shows. My heart hurt too much to deeply look into the loss and trauma I suffered, so I looked at my horse instead.

Not going to therapy became a point of pride. When well meaning friends asked if I would consider counseling, I brushed them off. “I’ve gone this long,” I told them. “I’m doing fine.”

Then in late December of 2018, my horse died on the table during colic surgery. Again, my world fell apart. The loss felt as primal and damaging as losing my husband. And no, it wasn’t because I loved Simon more (despite his worry). It was because I had so many wounds that hadn’t healed. Losing Simon ripped them all open, and I didn’t have horses anymore to help me push the pain away.

The National Alliance on Mental Illness reports that almost 44 million Americans experience mental illness in a given year. That’s 1 in 5 adults, and the horse world isn’t immune to these statistics. Individuals living with untreated mental illness face an increased risk of having chronic medical conditions, and adults living with serious mental illness die an average of 25 years earlier than others[1]. The conditions that affect them are largely treatable if the individual seeks help to begin with.

Simon and riding had been such a crutch for me after my husband died, that I didn’t know how to exist without it. My friends lifted me up like the amazing people they are, but I still found myself alone with dark thoughts. I couldn’t shake the depression. One afternoon lying in bed with my dog pretending to watch TV, I found myself making a plan for her well-being if I decided to harm myself. I decided which friend I would drop her off at, and what I would write. The thought terrified me. So I did the only other thing I knew—get help.

My first therapy appointment was terrible. For the price of a copay, I sobbed in front of a stranger for an hour. I did not feel better when I ran down the list of traumatic things that had happened to me in the last four years. I did not feel better that night when I went to bed, or the next day when I got up and drug myself to campus. But I went back the next week, and the week after. And while there are still moments where I hole myself up in my apartment and cry about my dead husband and my dead horse, something has shifted within me. I’m starting to feel better.

Going to my therapist isn’t as fun as riding a horse. There are no cute barn dogs running around, no blue ribbons to be won. But my horse never told me I’m too critical of myself. Never informed me that there is a middle ground between pretending you don’t have feelings functioning on a high level, and staying in bed all day feeling sorry for yourself while eating delivery pizza. My horse never looked me in the eyes and said, “You have a huge degree of strength to keep going, despite the fact that some days you don’t want to be here.”

Without going to therapy, I never would have known how much I needed to hear that.

Horse people are tough—that’s one of my favorite qualities about us. I don’t want to lose my “hospital or get back on” philosophy. It’s a huge part of who I’ve become today, and I’m better from this upbringing. I’m better from all the hours spent in the barn. But I think it’s time for us to recognize that seeking help is a different kind of tough. It is not an easy thing to walk up to a stranger and describe your worst moments. When you’re used to shrugging things off, it can feel impossible to allow yourself to be vulnerable.

Photo © Heather N. Photography

In the grand scheme of the horse world, I’m not brave. Just ask my trainer. I will whine about big oxers. I may never show higher than 3’. Rolltops give me heart palpitations. I’m not the kind of rider who can sit through a buck without melting into a puddle. But, starting therapy was one of the bravest things I’ve ever done.

Horses will always be part of my life and my mental health. They offer an experience that can’t be replicated by friends or pills or counselors. However, they are a component, not the foundation, of my overall wellness.

Simon was my heart. He was there for me in a way that no animal has ever been. I couldn’t have gotten through losing my husband without his quiet, steady friendship, and I will always be thankful for that. Our time together was a gift.

But he was not my therapist. My next horse can’t be either. For that, I have to keep doing the work and getting help from mental health professionals. Even when it’s less fun, inconvenient and hard. My health will be better for it.

And after my therapy session with those tough conversations about childhood, neurosis, and life… I’ll head to the barn. I’ll get my fingers deliciously dirty grooming, and practice canter transitions until my core throbs with a dull ache. And my heart will be happier for it.


[1] Colton, C.W. & Manderscheid, R.W. (2006). Congruencies in Increased Mortality Rates, Years of Potential Life Lost, and Causes of Death Among Public Mental Health Clients in Eight States. Preventing Chronic Disease: Public Health Research, Practice and Policy3(2), 1–14.

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