Staying On Course: My Battle to Survive Mental Illness

Photo © Heather N. Photography

How a simple, plain horse kept one woman from being a statistic. 


I was plotting on killing myself after I finished visiting the little dull brown mare whose picture I had seen in a local equine horse news page last June. For some reason, that morning my local horsey newsfeed was busy sprouting horse sales, tack both used and new. Before I saw the ad, I was getting dressed to have an early morning visit with my local shrink-e-dink (Psychiatrist) who had gone through everything she could find on the market to cure me. But I felt like she knew she was beaten. I suffer from depression and a whole other list of things, but let’s get to the horse part. 

I grew up riding in Fairfield county in Connecticut. Horse country of the elite show circuits, the big wigs. I grew up plopping around dreaming of such, as every horse kid does, but I knew I would never get by on the poor “servicably sound” horses I rode in my twice-weekly lessons. The footing was miserable in the arena. School horses were chosen from a dealer who brought horses in weekly from cheap out west sales. There were a few green, bewildered and oh, so tightly high strung young ones. 

Thoroughbreds can be inexpensive and have such a classic, hunter look, but they can have a tragic side. There are abusive situations with horses who had been wronged and show fear with aggression. We had a lot of those “bad” horses. No horse is bad. It’s us humans that turn them into something they should have never become. 

Growing up, I witnessed a lot of events—full on abuse—in the training of “bad” horses. Forcing a pony to gallop full pelt around an arena till falling down on all hours half dead. One ill-tempered rider had a show horse who acted nervous on the trails one day, so he was instructed to flat-out gallop it until it was tired. There was so much that didn’t feel good to me.

Like every horse-crazy kid, I wanted my own horse. I was told a familiar story… after college when you can get a good job or marry a zillionaire! But in my case, all it took was a nervous breakdown at college. 

While majoring in equine science at SUNY, my first mental health crisis happened. I got a little too close to the wrong part of a razor blade. I was taken home to Connecticut to be shoved into a mental ward and drugged up to my eyeballs. It was the beginning. 

My school therapist suggested my parents buy me a therapy horse. What I got was a problem. A horse who didn’t fit me at all. A large, loud, with nice clean teeth—often embedded into my arm. I kept him for a few years until I left college for a mental hospital. Then I sold him and felt my worst fear and biggest regret—maybe I didn’t have any riding talent after all. It caused despair. It created even more depression. I went through electroshock therapy to treat my own depression. At 22, I had my last of 13 rounds. My mind was “better,” but it had all taken a toll on my body. 

Leaving the medical hospital, I felt like I had a new body. The medication might have cured some of the physical issues in my brain, but my body had been left in bed and hard-backed chairs and wheelchairs and even the floor. I got saggy. I went from 90 to 205 pounds in a one-year stay. I felt like I could barely move on route to Erie, PA to live my new retirement life with my parents. 

Riding at the barn I had grown up in felt like an impossibility. There were too many bad memories, so much abuse. I remembered all the “bad” horses, the ones they couldn’t fix. The buckets, kickers, roached backs, coffin heads, parrot mouths, spookers, runaways. They were my best friends until they were sold off to the local dealer—sometimes without even a chance to say goodbye. Many years later, I pictured them in my head living in an imaginary vision of what heaven would be like if I still believed in some kind of peace after this life. All my beloved horses would be loved again. Never treated wrongly or beaten. They’d be loved more than ever before. 

But after everything I’d been through, I couldn’t believe in all of that. I’ve seen too much of the ugly side of horses. When I moved back home, I told myself no more. I quit. 

I couldn’t stay away forever. When I decided to start riding away, I went to three different barns until I heard the giggle of little girls riding around with saddle pads that matched their polo wraps. I thought, how nice of them. To have friends. 

I took some lessons. I found a home base. I learned from a riding instructor who I consider a sister to me now. I rediscovered some of my old confidence. 

Then my mother had her first stroke. She was dying. Her health was downhill all the way to the grave and no amount of prayer, begging, offering, anything was going to stop that final act in life we all have to accept. I needed something to keep me away from it all, because I knew—everyone knew—I was going to be all over the place. So dad said, “Find your horse.”

So I opened the sales ad. And I did. 

She was a small, refined Quarter Horse. Her head was graced with refined elegance. Small alert ears, large calm soft eyes. Eyes that saw me right down to the core of my lonely soul. She was in a field with a couple of other mares, and I let her approach me. The others ran off, but she stopped. Assessed me like an old friend who had been waiting her 16 years and here I was. 

I named her September. I scouted for a new home for her, and found one at a small horse farm that had a great reputation but a calm laid laid-back feel. No drama. You get to an age where it feels like everything begins to grow old fast. You follow the rules, and hold respect for every creature at the barn from the birds roosting in the beams to the wild turkeys at early sunrise—especially the barn goat, the Almighty Susanne. 

September took to her new barn fast. She had been a trail horse in her past. Refused to conform to a barrel horse, four hooves down on that idea. After our first ride at the sale place, I knew who she was and what made her tick. She was not for most people. The mare was quick. A complete novice might panic, but the minute I sat in her saddle it felt like home. That she was here, she had been waiting for me. And I found her. 

After all the hell, the abuse, the jeers and sneers and jokes, bitter ugly put-downs…I found her. She was a horse I waited for, and she was waiting for me too.

As the months went by, my mother died a slow death. A lot of deep sadness, a cold bone moon in place of the sun that should have been a simple kind of comfort. I sought out solace at 5am mornings crying into September’s mane. Weeping regrets over fights that never got resolved. Screaming how it should have been me. 

My mare turned and nudged me. Smiled her soft smile, and nuzzled me with understanding as she had lost her mother once. We all do. It’s life. 

In that early morning dawn, as the sun was skittering across the old barn windows, I made a simple promise to September. “If you stay with me, for as long as you can, I’ll honor you and stay just as long. That way no harm will come to either of us in this world for as long as we stay together forever.”

A sunbeam touched the amber of her eye, creating a fire-like flame. She pressed her face to mine and let out a puff of breath. 

We decided in both our native languages we will both stay. Stay the course of our life. 

Elizabeth Gidos grew up in Stamford Connecticut.  At the age of 33 she paused her life with horses for a number of years due to what she had thought would be a life sentence battling chronic depression. In one last act to save her life she reached out and found a local equine therapy program specializing in mental illness. She now resides in Erie, Pennsylvania with her horse, Dark September, a horse she credits for saving her life.