Battle for the Saddle: When Riding is a Key Component to Treating Mental Illness

Photo © Chrissy Higgins, Untamed Imaginative Photography


Like most equestrians, horses and riding have become a huge part of who I am. Being up on a horse gives me a level of confidence and self acceptance that I didn’t even know I was capable of feeling. But lately I feel like I’ve lost myself. I struggle with a few different mental illnesses, which makes life generally difficult. On top of that, I’ve also stopped riding. 

I didn’t make a decision to stop—life just sort of got in the way. First, I moved to a barn without an indoor arena and winter weather made it incredibly hard to work my girl. After moving to a different property, my mare started having terrible back soreness issues that kept me out of the saddle. To be able to spend more time with her, I brought her to the small breeding farm where I worked but was unable to ride much due to my work schedule. 

When I was able to squeeze time in to ride, her behavior was very unlike her. She spooked constantly and objected to any pressure from my legs, so I had her scoped and started treating for fore and hindgut ulcers. To get her feeling better, I ended up spending all of my savings on her ulcer treatment. During all this, I quit my job and moved her to a new farm with a wonderful indoor that’s still under construction and closed for riding. Not that it matters much, because I’m still having saddle trouble and am now unemployed. Currently, I’m desperately in the process of saving money for a properly fitting saddle, but the dream to ride again feels so close, yet still so far away. 

Photo © Anne Gittins Photography

All of this has taken two years, and I haven’t consistently ridden my wonderful mare in all that time. It’s really taking a toll on my mental state. My mental illnesses make me feel small and weak, but when I swing my leg over a horse all of that just melts away. Being connected with something so powerful… it’s hard not to realize how amazing that is.

Of course, horses aren’t the only way I treat my mental illnesses. I’ve been in and out of therapy for about seven years now, and have finally found someone to talk to that I feel understands me. Through this time I have been diagnosed with PDD (persistent depressive disorder), social anxiety, and PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder) from living in a terribly dysfunctional family growing up. 

Out of the saddle, I’m a small awkward human who can barely get through the normalities of life. Since I’ve been disconnected from the saddle for so long, I feel like I’ve lost a huge part of who I am. Now all I see is the person my mental illnesses tell me I am. The barn was, and will always be my sanctuary. It’s a place where I can get away from my troubles, and just be “the horse girl.” 

Sometimes I scroll through my photos, and look back on my showing days when I was riding 7 days a week, 365 days a year. I was working hard to be the best rider, and the best horsewoman I could be. It was a lot easier to push those bad thoughts to the back of my brain when I was spending my days in the saddle. 

Now that I’ve been thrown head first into the adult world, it’s become clear to me how much being a horsewoman was, and is, a huge part of who I am. Horses make it easier to navigate my path in life, and help me battle my personal demons. I’m working harder now than ever to stop letting life, and all the little setbacks keep me from the saddle. 

Here’s to hoping this next year will be when I take back who I am, and ride a path to a better me!

Alicia is a 20 year old equestrian from Altamont, New York. She grew up around horses, and has been a barn rat her whole life. She couldn’t imagine a life without horses, they’ve helped shape her to the person she is today.