Drugs and Addiction in the Horse World: A Conversation with Andrew Ellis

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Lifelong equestrian and east coast native Andrew Ellis wears many hats within the hunter/jumper industry. Rider, horse show manager, announcer, USEF Safety Committee member, certified EMT. But he also has another label that we don’t talk about as much in our community—recovering addict. 

Andrew and I both share a passion for educating the public about opioid addiction. He has personal experience overcoming physical and mental dependence on drugs, and after losing my husband to an opioid addiction in 2015, I unfortunately have first-hand experience about the tragedy that comes from addiction. 

We took some time to chat about addiction, recovery and how we can tackle these important issues within our shared space in the horse world. 

LAUREN MAULDIN: You’re not shy about your history with substance abuse. 

ANDREW ELLIS: I have an addictive mind. I think some people have that chemistry, and are more prone to addiction, especially opiates, because of how they’re wired. My first problem actually started when I was a teenager, with food. 

Before drugs and alcohol?

I was overweight growing up, but had a riding accident when I was thirteen and spent six weeks in the hospital. My leg was fractured, and I was stuck in a traction device with a lot of pain. The nurses would bring me ice cream and things, and there was a comfort in the food. 

A way to cope with that rotten luck.

It was really a turning point for my weight. Food became my crutch, and I blossomed up to 480 pounds when I was in my 20’s. So in 1999, I had gastric bypass surgery, but didn’t address the psychological component about why I was addicted to food. 

Photo courtesy of Andrew Ellis

This is when TLC’s Dr. Nowzarden would send you to therapy. 

If I had known better, I would have immersed myself in psychological care at that point. I lost a lot of weight, but there was this insatiable appetite for something that I didn’t understand. The doctor shut off my ability to use food, but something was taken from me that was left unfulfilled. 

So you looked for it elsewhere.

Growing up in the horse world was an easy environment for parties. There was a lot of casual drugs in the late ‘80s and ‘90s, and an acceptance for that behavior. After my surgery, I found that drinking gave me a new feeling. I absorbed it differently. Drinking a lot of vodka and scotch, I found it quenched that psychological need the weight loss surgery left me yearning for. 

A new way to self-medicate.

Maybe there was an insecurity that I needed to fill. I’m not sure if I was born with it, but I’ve always had this yearning. When I was high or intoxicated, the anxiety around that feeling was gone. Alcohol initially filled it. 

When did you start using opiates?

In a ten-year period, I had 14 different surgeries due to my hips and prior accident. After each surgery, I was put on heavy opiate painkillers. They’ve done tests on addicts, and they show that opiates light up a certain area of our brain.

The mid-brain. It tricks your body into thinking that the drug is essential. That you need it as badly as you need any other primal resource. 

The opiates the doctors prescribed were a bridge from one surgery to the next. It went on and on in this vicious, out of control cycle. 

Was it hard to get your prescription filled?

It was easier than I thought it’d be until about 2010 when people became aware of the opioid epidemic. Doctors got wiser, so I started searching for non-conventional ways to get pills. Asking a friend, buying off the street, even looking through my parent’s cabinets to steal Percocet. 

Finding that relief however you could manage.

You do whatever you can. I’ll say 80% of my drugs were obtained legally from doctors, but I was able to manipulate the system to feed my addiction. I remember getting Xanax from a psychiatrist and lying, saying “Oh my life is a mess, I have all of this anxiety” when what really happened was I ran out of my opiates for the month and I was frantic trying to get something to replace that high.

You were afraid of withdrawal?

There’s nothing more frustrating, disgusting and horrifying than withdrawing from opiates. It’s one of the most scary, helpless feelings you can have. Not only is your mind going crazy, but your body is so physically addicted. If I ran out of opiates, I would run home and chug two bottles of wine because I knew I would start withdrawing. Alcohol would mask or cover up some of those feelings.

That sounds really scary.

I believe to get better, you have to hit your bottom. There were times when I was driving around looking for the guy I bought drugs from that I thought it’d be a lot easier and less painful if I drove off a bridge. I just wanted to end my life, because I couldn’t find the drugs to make those feelings go away. It’s like you’re in a private hell. 

A private hell you don’t know how to get out of.

I was so physically sick from the drugs. There were times I passed out drinking after taking opiates and Xanax. I woke up heaving and retching. Sometimes I wonder why I didn’t die, because I easily could have. 

Was that when you realized you were an addict?

All I knew was that my life was spiraling in many ways because of my drug use. My personal life was a mess. My relationships were a mess. I had an awareness that my life had been taken over by opiates, but getting to the point where I could say that I was an addict didn’t happen until my first day of recovery. 

And what got you through the doors of a treatment center?

Everyone knew my life had become unmanageable. I was working a horse show in Texas when my family talked to a close friend. He told me that he thought I had a problem, and offered to get me help. At that moment, I just caved in. I was tired of the battle. I knew I was destroying my career and my life. He got me a bed in a treatment center in North Carolina. I went out for my last drink ever Sunday night in Texas, and flew home for treatment the next day.  

Photo courtesy of Andrew Ellis

The first day of the rest of your life, if I’m allowed to be cliché.

When I went to rehab, I didn’t think, Oh gosh! I can’t wait to be sober. I just wanted the battle to be over. I didn’t want to be held hostage by those drugs anymore. But it saved my life. 

It’s not easy to go through that process. 

The biggest thing I did when I got sober was deciding to be honest with everyone involved in my health care. It’s so tough because there are doctors who will write prescriptions. It’s a tough, complex animal. 

Was it hard to hide the worst of your addiction while working in the horse industry?

Those of us who work professionally in the industry don’t have an office 9-5 where we see the same people every day. For me, it was very easy to maintain my addiction in that environment because I was always going different places and seeing different people. Plus there is a socio-economic component.

High-class drugs for high-class parties?

I don’t want to single out the horse world, but drugs and alcohol can flourish in it because many people have an economic support system to sustain addiction longer than the average Joe. Partying is okay, and the bottom doesn’t come as fast when you have the financial resources.

Wealth can hide a lot sometimes. 

I wouldn’t say there’s an industry wide problem where the horse show staff, trainers or grooms are sharing drugs, but the opportunity is there. I could go work a new horse show, and it would take me half a day to identify someone I thought might be a fellow addict. I would ask them if they had a source for what I was looking for, and a lot of that time it would materialize. People on the horse show staff, tractor drivers, jump crew, announcers, even judges. I have been approached by people asking for pills, and asked for pills myself, but it’s like that in other aspects of life too. It’s not just the horse world. 

No, this problem certainly isn’t limited to our industry, but our environment is no better or less protected than any other area.

I do believe the horse show world is more accepting and tolerant of drinking and drugs. I’m not sure why. 

I mean, I don’t do drugs but I drink, and I often joke about how I’m a weenie adult amateur who needs a glass of Chardonnay to make it through the handy round. Am I part of the problem?

I think it’s a good thing for you to be aware of. We all play a role in everyone’s lives, but the only person responsible for my addiction is myself. At the end of the day, doctors make mistakes but I made the choice to do the drugs that I did. I’m the responsible party, no matter how many glasses of wine you need to make it through the derby. 

Not going to lie… I’m a little relieved to hear you say that!

Photo courtesy of Andrew Ellis

As an addict, what bothers me is seeing people drink at the in-gate or the warm-up area. I believe we have to accept that alcohol is part of our modern American society in social settings. At horse show parties I don’t think it’s out of line for people to have a good time and drink responsibly. They’re certainly allowed to. What bothers me is when I’m working the in-gate, and somebody leaves a solo cup on my table that is full of red wine I can clearly smell.   

All of a sudden it’s not your decision to be around it.

I have several big parties at the horse shows I manage with alcohol, bands and all sorts of fun. I make an appearance to make sure everything is running properly, but then I slip out because there’s no reason for me to be around all that drinking. But I have to go to my in-gate. Please don’t bring alcohol into my workspace. 

That’s a really good point. I’ve never thought about it like that.

Two years ago we were doing a junior medal final at the coliseum, and I had to kick several people out of the actual arena floor because they had beer in their hand. I kept saying, Please don’t have bottles or glass or beer down here, especially during a kid’s class. So now I put smoking and alcohol regulations in my prize lists. 

How did people respond to that?

A lot of people gave it a thumb’s up. You would think that I wouldn’t have to put something like that in a program, but I have to based on what I’ve seen.

You’ve mentioned before that riding a horse under the influence can be just as dangerous as drunk driving, which makes me think of a rather extreme question: should we be giving riders sobriety tests?

That’s a really tough topic. When I was on the USEF board years ago, an event rider brought up that we should be drug-testing riders if we’re drug-testing horses. I think in principal, sure, but it’s not easy. The logistics and the expense are huge, and you get into areas where people have legal, legitimate needs for medication. It opens so many doors to private medical issues, and other things.

Too big of a beast to tackle.

My thought is to do a more educational approach. I do believe that 95% of the people are riding sober, and have the right intentions. There’s probably 2-5% that ride on various drugs and alcohol where it could cause a problem, but society doesn’t ask everyone who gets behind the wheel of a car to blow into a breathalyzer—just those who have a previous infraction. 

Photo courtesy of Andrew Ellis

What would you say to someone who is reading this right now, and wondering if they have a problem?

Well you say to me, “Andrew, I like a glass of wine before I go in to the derby,” and to find out if you are dependent on it I’d ask yourself. Can you go one, two, three days without it? Ask yourself how you feel, and if you can do it. A lot of people won’t say I’m an alcoholic, but if you ask them if they can go a week without drinking, they can’t. 

I think people trying to figure out if they’re an addict have to look at their own life and the chaos of how that substance affects it. If your life is unmanageable where you are stealing, being dishonest, lying to friends and family, using illicit drugs in private and hiding it from people—that sounds chaotic. 

It’s like trying to look down at your life from the outside.

You have to ask yourself: Is your life unmanageable due to a substance? Do you have the physical or mental ability to function without it? Can you perform basic, day-to-day living without being high?

I think that most people in active, hardcore addiction have a pretty good awareness that they have a problem. It’s getting to that first step of admitting it for combating addiction. Unfortunately, sometimes it takes bad circumstances to get you to admit that.

I hope conversations like this help someone before they get to those bad circumstances. 

The biggest thing is to save yourself before it’s too late. Ask a friend to help, go to a meeting.  There’s no choice for us. Getting help is the only way to save our lives and protect our loved ones from a lot of grief.

Andrew Ellis and his wife Catherine operate Haven Hill Farm in Warrenton, Virginia where they specialize in sales and development of young hunters. Andrew manages and officiates at over 40 equestrian events annually. After a serious riding accident as a child, he developed a severe opioid addiction after many surgeries. He now spends his spare time speaking out and working with opiate addicts.

About the Author: Lauren holds an MFA in creative nonfiction from the University of California Riverside, and is a lifelong rider and writer. Beyond equestrian journalism, she explores body positivity, mental health and addiction through personal narrative. She enjoys showing on the local hunter/jumper circuit in Austin, Texas.

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