Aoife Doherty is 24 and lives in Stoneybatter. She studied Sociology and Italian in Trinity College Dublin and is now working as a Fundraising and Marketing assistant.
When I was eight years old, my parents brought me to my first horse riding lesson. They probably thought I’d try it once and that would be it. Or it might be a phase I’d go through for a couple of months. Sixteen years later, I share a horse called Bowe and go riding three to five times a week. She’s a 16.2hh Irish Draught mare and she is an absolute sweetheart.
Like people, horses have good days and bad days. More often than not, it is the rider’s attitude and emotional state that influences their horse’s mood. One of the biggest things that Bowe has taught me, is that horse behaviour can mirror how our mind works, and how it reacts to certain things.
You could be having a great few weeks with your horse, they’re behaving, jumping really well and are really listening to you. Then, as if out of nowhere, it all changes. You get into the saddle one day and all you want to do is dismount, put your horse away and go home.
Your horse is naughty, stops listening, misbehaves and is in an all round grumpy, uncooperative humour. Just like our mind acts when we are dealing with mental health issues.
While horses are amazing and beautiful animals, they also weigh about half a tonne and have the ability to walk on us, knock us down, pick us up, throw us into a fence or bring us a tremendous amount of happiness. Our minds also have this ability, they can bring us up and then knock and us straight back down again in a matter of seconds.
My Mental Health
In early 2012 I felt my mental health start to slip. By the end of the year I was admitted to St Patricks University Hospital with Borderline Personality Disorder. BPD is characterised by unstable moods, thoughts and behaviours. For me, this was also mixed with depression and anxiety. I spent about nine months in hospital, as an inpatient and an outpatient.
Now, in 2016 I have been off my medication for eight months and I haven’t self-harmed in three years. There is light at the end of the tunnel. For me, this light is in the shape of a horse.
Bowe trotted into my life in October 2015 and has taught me so much that my brain can sometimes feel like a wrung sponge. She has shown me how even when I’m struggling with a particular movement or jumping height, or when I’ve fallen victim to her spontaneous acrobatics, I can always, always, always come through it and try again another day. The same way we should do things when it comes to our mental health.
We all know the phrase “get back on the horse” but what does this really mean? To equestrians, it literally means, get back in the saddle and try again. Why though? Shouldn’t we try and avoid that which made us fall and which could potentially cause us a lot of harm? No, if we follow this rule, we lose a lot of confidence very quickly, and so do our horses
When you fallen off a horse, and you’re lying there, covered in dirt, staring up at your horse, I feel we have two choices. You can get up, shake it off, put your foot back in the stirrup and get back on. Our second choice is to lie there for a little longer, get up, roll up the stirrups and put the horse away, with no intention of getting back in the saddle.
One of these choices is easier in the short term and so tempting. The other is harder because you know you are exposing yourself to a chance of the same thing happening again. Sound familiar?
When it comes to Bowe, I have no choice but to get back on. I have to. No if’s, but’s or maybe’s. It has to be done. I have to get back on and re-do the exercise that caused me to fall, to instil confidence in Bowe and in myself.
What we can learn from equestrians and horses alike is that, by getting up, we can overcome many psychological obstacles. By trying again and through believing in ourselves, we can all get up, brush off the dirt and continue on. As daunting and difficult as this may be, it can be a very positive way forward. The next time we face into the same situation, we can look back at the last time we were there and get confidence from the fact that we overcame it.
Horses and humans are a lot alike, and we can learn tonnes from each other. So the next time you have a moment, or a dip, or a fall, just think of Bowe and her amazing and enviable ability to continue on.