…on mental health, Tourette’s, horses and cats

Close image of a white horse with brown mane.

Our property really isn’t ideal for horses. We only have a few spare acres of slope, prone to bog in the wet season, wild weeds in the dry. We would need some sort of shelter, and storage for feed. We’d need to shore up our fences and gates and make allies of our neighbours. There’d be vet bills, farriers, supplements, and accessories like blankets and bridles. The whole world knows horses are expensive pets and you’d have to be naive or clueless to take them on without any prior know how.

But, we did.

Our youngest child, when she was small, loved guinea pigs and puppies and kittens and chickens and rescuing baby birds. Living on the rural fringe as we do, we could access riding lessons at a local farm. She did riding for several years, pleading all the while for Mum and Dad to buy a pony.

We held firm.

Then comes 2020, isolation and paranoia descends on the world and our own little corner of it. When one of your family becomes suddenly unwell – or you realise that they are unwell and perhaps have been for some time – there’s nothing you won’t do to make things right, even if you can’t make things right.

When our animal-lover revealed to us the true state of her depression, medication became the fulcrum of our recovery plan. And let me tell you that progress in seeking mental health support is glacial in a health service that is buckling under the pressure of COVID-19. The first cab off the rank is Fluoxetine which has been extensively clinically tested for use in adolescence. Most of the modern world knows it as Prozac but here in Australia we call it Lovan. Within a week of starting, our daughter is ticcing and verbalising, but starting to reclaim some equilibrium. As her mood improved, the tics got stronger. We revisited her GP and her psychologist. Both assured us it would settle and we should stay the course. If it was scary for us, her parents, it had to be scarier for her. I cannot imagine what went through our daughter’s head in those early weeks as the tic disorder claimed her. She was stoic, and of course would hate me to write anything more than this for the public domain. I wish to protect her privacy, and at the same time, process all the changes it has brought to my outlook, relationships, business, …everything.

Her father pursued professional assistance like a man obsessed. We found a marvellous child psychologist who was willing to open her books to us without a six month wait. Someone familiar with Tourette’s syndrome, ADHD, OCD, depression and neuro-diversity. The problem: she lived 2.5 hours away in another town.

We could do it.

Meeting this psychologist, being *accepted* by her, changed our outlook. Gave us hope. She understood the complexity of our situation. She also understood she couldn’t promise a fix. What she could promise was compassion and information that we craved in equal measure. The regular drive was worth it. Sometimes we, her parents, scheduled Telehealth appointments without our daughter present so that we could debrief and ask questions of a professional we trusted. It made an enormous difference. It’s not that we don’t know what an enormous privilege it is to be able to afford this kind of intensive attention at such a crucial time.

We know it.

Everyone is entitled to acute mental health care *when they need it*. I have nothing but empathy for parents having to waitlist and research and white-knuckle it through the scary terrain of supporting their teen with a mood disorder or obsessive thoughts like suicide, school refusal or substance abuse. I’m not judging. It’s not easy.

Actually, it’s the stuff of nightmares.

Things got worse before they got better but the extreme symptoms eventually did ease. Our wonderful psychologist was able to refer to a wonderful psychiatrist who changed medications and identified that combining with a second medication might bring some stability. Things weren’t perfect but suddenly returning to school seemed possible.

Enter the horses.

After a particularly harrowing Christmas holiday, we realised our daughter was missing the things she loved. If the regimented structure of riding lessons was no longer suitable, she could at least enjoy contact with the animals she loved. We found a local equine-assisted therapist and returned to horses and riding. Not to jump or show but to touch and groom and learn from.

You see, horses teach us a lot about ourselves.

Their enormous bodies house an equally enormous nervous system, which our smaller, human bodies fall into sympathetic rhythm with. Learning to be calm and focussed around horses, learning to read them and communicate with them, is effective at regulating our own nervous systems. If you’re scared or angry, they will sense it. If you’re calm, they’re calm. If you’re excited, they’re excited. And while we like to think we’re in charge, the reverse is true as well. They calm us, or excite us, if we want them to. We get dopamine from getting them to respond how we want them to. We get serotonin and oxytocin from doing what they want us to.

After some time with the therapy horses agisted on our property, and our daughter seeming more regulated and able to accommodate the rigours of feeding and working the horses, we decided to take the plunge and adopt some horses of our own. Therapy increased to expert level because these horses were unbroken.

A year later, our daughter got a cat.

And because her dopamine and serotonin needs were being met by the cat, motivation to handle the horses waned. By this time we had invested quite a lot into housing horses: built a kit stable, seeded the pasture, installed electric fences, moved a garden shed to house their feed and tack (including laying a small slab of concrete). The bulk of the horsecare fell to me and my husband. I confess, I contemplated moving the horses on.

But he had other ideas.

My husband has a stressful job. During covid there has been more than the usual uncertainty. I failed to realise that the horses weren’t just regulating our daughter. They were regulating us too. My darling man is committed to keeping the horses and learning to work them. He’s making progress too. Just today, our wild pony allowed him to fit a bridle and blanket and saddle and long rein around our paddock.

This is huge.

It means that he’ll be riding one of the horses by Christmas and I can see how much it means to him to achieve that goal, in partnership with our horse. She actually wants to work. She is ready.

And so are we.

NB. In case you’re still reading, in terms of comfort animals, cats really are pretty nice. They’re relatively self-sufficient and there’s nothing better than a purring kittykat on your lap. Take one for a spin before investing in a horse. Might save some heartache.

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