Mental Health & Mental Horses ~ how one helps the other for me!
Its weird, isn't it... that you get given a brain, when you're born, its shaped through your life and controls everything you do, but you never really get to check if its working properly?! Or not even properly, just like other peoples?! Like, an MOT and Service yearly just to make sure it's doing all the things it should be... nope, you just get given this giant tool and no manual for it! Well, recently, I got a service, and an MOT, and got a new manual for mine :-)
I think one common thing I have always been fascinated with, is that in my experience, a HUGE number of the equestrian community suffer with mental health issues. Whether it's how effective using horses for therapy is, or just that so many of my own friends (IRL or insta) suffer with mental health problems. I have always wondered if there's a link... does something about my weird brain make me love horses?! Or do horses cause symptoms of insanity (probably)?!... I mean one thing is for sure, even when they are spending all your money, injuring themselves or decking you in the warm up, Winston Churchill was definitely right when he said “There is something about the outside of a horse that is good for the inside of a man.”
Now... why am I talking about this? Well, last week I shared in this post on my insta about the fact that I had been diagnosed with ADHD. Now... ADHD is a very misunderstood and underdiagnosed thing, it technically stands for "attention deficit hyperactivity disorder", but the name and definition for it was made many moons ago and we now know SO MUCH more about it. There are a billion things I could link to to explain is but YouTube videos are the most effective in my experience, if you want to find out more then this is a really informative (but slightly annoying) channel of information, or there are some really good TedTalks on it.
So, as revolutionary as this diagnosis was to my life, "how does it relate to horses?!" I hear you ask. Well, it actually became a point of my assessment of how horses have saved me, my mental health and specifically my ADHD.
A thing to know about ADHD is "Scientists have observed that levels of dopamine are different in people with ADHD than in those without ADHD. Some researchers believe this difference is because neurons in the brain and nervous systems of people with unmedicated ADHD have lower concentrations of proteins called dopamine transporters." ~ Healthline. Now dopamine is really important for helping you regulate your emotions and take actions, and is responsible for your pleasure and reward systems. So people with ADHD struggle to do those things and need instant rewards, which affects ability to concentrate (the thing ADHD is known for) but also the ability to self-motivate, self-regulate and have self-control. A lot of people with undiagnosed ADHD find ways to increase their ability to do these things in other ways, most of which are quite unhealthy and lead people with undiagnosed ADHD often into other mental health issues... these can be things such as using excess stress, illegal drugs, excess caffeine, smoking etc... or they suffer the consequences of not being able to regulate these things and therefore struggle at school/uni/in work/life, suffer with anxiety and depression, self-esteem issues, financial issues etc.
Once again, I hear you, this time SCREAMING - "but Vic, what does this have to do with horses?!"... Soz, I have ADHD, I ramble! I'm getting there now...
So, in my diagnosis consultation we discussed whether undiagnosed me had used any of these unhealthy coping mechanisms (yes) or suffered any of the bad consequences of not coping (also, yes). The biggest one for me is stress at work and so suffering burnout... This happened to me in a HUGE way when I was 21 which resulted in me having a 2 year break from the professional workplace. In those two years, two things happened that I 100% credit with literally saving my life and my mental health. Firstly, I worked with horses full time as a freelance groom. Secondly, I had my own young pony (then 4 yo Zarry) who I bought, unknown to me, as a coping mechanism during the beginning of my downfall into burnout.
This is a common theme. Undiagnosed me did not know I was doing it, but every time I have stopped being able to cope well with life, I have turned to horses. EVERY. TIME. And every time, it has worked. And now, I understand why!
Working with and riding horse is a lovely healthy coping mechanism for someone with ADHD. They feed into all of the things my little low-dopamine brain needs to feel happy, motivated, in control and challenged in life. This is due to a few things...
1. Adrenaline/Stress - this makes your brain focus, something that is hard to do with ADHD. Unhealthy ways to use this to force your brain to focussed would be something like cramming before an exam... but horse riding and competing fundamentally have healthy elements of adrenaline due to their nature (aka, trying to not fall off!), which means that when I am riding I can concentrate on it effortlessly, something I can't do in many other areas of my life
2. Challenge/Attention - although "AD" stands for "attention deficit", often people with ADHD don't have a lack of attention, its more that they have SO MUCH of it, to every thing around them, that they cannot focus it on one thing at once, it's everything, all the time. Again, this plays in wonderfully to horse riding... as it is a real big benefit for me to be able to concentrate on everything all at once... every part of my surroundings, myself and my horse going through my brain at once is ideal on an XC course... not ideal when you're trying to write an email in a busy office!
3. Reward - again, low dopamine affects your ability to control pleasure and rewards. Now, there is nothing in the world I truly LOVE more than working with young horses, and as equestrians what do we always say about young horses "They are SO rewarding!"... yup! The set backs and big leaps forward with training young horses is IDEAL for someone who struggles with motivation without instant reward... young horses can push you to the point of insanity but when you overcome that thing, the reward is nothing like anything you have ever felt. I normally sell horses when they "get good" because just the plateau of working and improving on a "generally good" older horse doesn't motivate me as much as the huge ups and downs of youngsters. One of the biggest reasons I have connected so deeply with Zarry is that he is never easy (insert eyerolls) and so is still constantly challenging me after 5 years.
So... what do we learn from this? Other than that I ramble a lot about myself?
Basically, if you're struggling, there may be a reason. If you have only ever heard your own thoughts then you think everyone else's work the same, and if yours aren't helping you, you often think the problem is you... not those thoughts. "Why can everyone else do this and I can't?!" is a really common thing to think when you have undiagnosed mental health issues... so if you feel that, talk to a doctor, friend or family member and google it! Google how you are feeling! Other people might have the same feelings and it might point you in the right direction.
Also, there is a scientific and diagnosable reason that every time I get stressed... I buy horses!... I'm kidding (I'm actually not, I do do that, all the time, it's true), but genuinely, because of these reasons, horses have helped me through the hardest moments of my life and taught me lessons that I haven't been able to learn anywhere else in life. Control, patience, concentration, motivation, over-coming set backs, getting up when you fall down, controlling your emotions, looking at things from a different angle, challenging your previous beliefs... the list goes on. All these things that have hugely impacted my professional and personal successes, taking me from dropping out of uni, having a breakdown/burnout at 21, struggling to stay in a workplace, financial problems etc... to being a (if I do say so myself) successful and relatively stable 27 year old. All these are things other people might learn from other areas of life... but I am lucky enough to have a weird little brain that likes to be taught by ponies... they helped me achieve these successes, and they saved my life... and I am 1100000% okay with that.
So big shout out of thanks to all my 4-legged teachers, for teaching me everything and keeping me sane... you da best :-)