BY ELSPETH ROAKE
At first it was difficult for me to speak publicly about my depression, but when I do I am usually met with similar accounts. As a society, we are finally beginning to talk openly about mental illness. Those suffering are becoming more comfortable speaking up and seeking help. This is a discussion I’d like to continue, in order to shed light on the prevalence of mental illness, and further reduce the stigma involved.
Mental illness doesn’t present identically in any given community. The horse industry is unique, generally comprised of passionate, caring, and hardworking individuals that are united in our love of animals. We are tough as nails. There’s nothing wrong with that, but the mentality comes with its own set of challenges.
Whether you’re a barn owner or pleasure rider, pretty much all of us put the horse first. We are masters at catering to their every need, reading their behavior, and ensuring their physical and mental wellbeing. After all, it’s our responsibility to be their voice. However, it’s very easy to forget ourselves amidst all this one track-minded focus. Who has time for self-care, or to notice suffering in others? Because of this, I believe equestrians can be slower to pick up on a mental decline.
We don’t call in sick. We don’t take much time off, and we rarely slow down. In fact, working harder is our badge of honor. This gives the appearance that everything is fine. It can deceive those around us, but we also deceive ourselves.
Then there’s the additional stress of travel to horse shows. For me, being away from home means being away from the environment I’m most comfortable in. My coping strategies on the road don’t always work as well. There’s also the pressure of competing, and the need to succeed.
With all of these components, it’s no wonder we’re at risk for mental illness. But, there’s good news as well.
Our community is unique, strong and deeply caring. There are so many ways in which the equestrian community can unite to create an incredibly positive force. We are sensitive, passionate, and supportive. If there’s an accident, an environmental disaster, or any type of significant loss within our ranks, we’ll do anything to help. It’s empowering to be part of such a force. We are experts at treating horses or humans in need with kindness. Our ability to care can be a gift in more way than one. The trick is to imagine treating yourself that well, too.
The responsibilities we sometimes hide behind can also be an asset. There were often times I wanted to surrender to depression and not get out of bed. But that wasn’t an option. Horses needed to be taken care of. And once I got up and started working, I felt better. The physical nature of the job helped. Sitting on a horse and feeling its movements helped. The unspoken dialogue between us kept me engaged.
It’s no secret that being around animals has a therapeutic effect. Perhaps that’s what drew some of us to the sport in the first place. It was certainly the case for me. I first became depressed as a young teenager, and started self-harming. Riding sustained me through high school. During college I rode less, and my mental state deteriorated. Upon graduating, I started working at a show barn for my current boss, Leslie.
At some point, even constant riding was no longer enough. I was severely depressed, and yet I kept fighting, showing up to work and priding myself on my dependability for years. Leslie was one of the few people who knew about my problem, and for six months I moved in with her, unable to keep myself safe during the hours I was not at work. Twice, I was hospitalized for short-term stays, but all I could think about during those times was getting back to work.
During the winter months we travel from New York State to Florida. Like every year, I convinced myself that I would be fine. But, at some point during that winter show, I couldn’t do it anymore. A suicidal gesture landed me in the hospital, and despite begging to be allowed back to work, I was involuntarily committed.
When we returned from Florida, I completed a year of intensive outpatient treatment. I went to therapy in the mornings and then directly to the barn after. Comfortable that I could still work, I took the program extremely seriously, and it was successful. I am no longer depressed.
I would like to encourage others in the equestrian community to ask for help if they are struggling. By sharing my story, I hope to show that it’s possible, and what a difference it can make.
Living through this, I started writing my experiences down. Somewhere along the way, they turned into a memoir, Safe. That word embodies how I feel after years of being unsafe. I was obsessed with safety, but couldn’t properly define it until the end of this journey. To me, being safe means being heard, understood, and validated. It means trusting my support system, and having a sense of agency over my own state of mind.
What makes you feel safe? Perhaps it’s knowing you are loved, or having a steady job. Perhaps it’s a place or an animal or a person. Perhaps it’s an activity, or something you are able to do mentally. Whatever it is, I believe it’s an important question to ask. By thinking about what it might mean to you, you’ll be one step closer to being able to seek out that safely.
I hope our sport continues the trend of speaking freely about mental health. We already making strides towards greater inclusivity of racial minorities and the transgendered, are more accepting of different body types, and are highlighting the unacceptability of sexual abuse. We need to create a safe space for everyone.
The time to act is now. All too often we wait until after a suicide or a tragic event to take action or demand change. Take yourself seriously and talk to a friend or colleague you trust. Seek professional help. Share your experiences. Look closely at those around you, and reach out to anyone who you suspect is struggling.
Let’s all do our part, both in being kind to ourselves and being more sensitive to the needs of others. We currently live in a world where all types of safety should be a priority.
Elspeth Roake spent her childhood on the move, between Canada, Germany, and California, before settling on the East Coast to receive a B.S. in psychology from Vassar College. She has twenty years of experience in the horse show industry, and currently lives with her bunnies in New York State. For more information on her book, Safe, visit her website elspethroake.com.