By Elyse Hart
Welcome to Part 2 in our new series, “Clear Eyes, Sound Mind, Halt, Salute.” Focusing on equestrian mental health, these articles come from dressage riders across the country who wish to share their struggles and triumphs. With so much focus on the physical health and fitness of riders, it is important not to neglect the mental health aspect of becoming a great equestrian. We hope these stories and bits of advice show you that you’re not alone and inspire you to push on through all challenges.
Growing up, the majority of my memories were created on the back of, or with, a horse. I started riding at the age of four at Family Equestrian Connection in Chatsworth, CA, under the direction of Gayle Paperno and ZsuZsu Illes. My earliest memory is Gayle making me take my pacifier out for my lessons. I basked in the joy of getting dirty with the other kids at the barn. We would spend entire Saturdays there riding and doing chores, then ride almost every day during the week. Our summers were spent at camp called THE horse camp, playing games, riding, and having sleepovers at the barn. We were not a show barn, but occasionally would participate in them which always made me extremely nervous, but I loved the experience. Riding made me so happy; I loved the challenges it brought, and it gave me confidence that spilled over into the rest of my life for a number of years. The way I felt about being an equestrian gave me a very strong sense of self. I was the kid with a ton of grit that they would put on a horse when someone kept coming off of it. I, of course, would come off of them occasionally too, but it made me feel like I could do anything in a very constructive way.
After leasing two ponies, my trainers and my parents decided it was time for me to get a horse of my own. I was 10 years old. Her name was Pebbles, an unbroken Mustang Arab with a huge heart and a tenaciously stubborn personality. During the process of breaking her in, I started losing interest at the barn, and gaining more interest in the social aspects of school and all the unsavory things that can come with it.
I started to experiment with alcohol and marijuana more heavily in the summer between 8th and 9th grade. When I would drink, I felt like I had found a piece of myself that I had always felt without, and as confident as I had felt as an equestrian, the alcohol made me feel that ten times over. I began to party with friends every weekend, and what had started as fun, quickly spiraled out of control. Before I knew it, I found myself at a wilderness camp, and then a therapeutic boarding school. When I came home from boarding school in Arizona, I was able to stay sober for another year. During this time, I came back to riding and got the opportunity to ride Pebbles in a clinic with Charles De Kunffy. It was such an honor to ride with someone of such sophistication and mastery of dressage that I hold it as one of the biggest accomplishments of my equestrian career.
Unfortunately, I was unable to stay sober and dove very deep into the world of heroin and alcohol. As the months and years went on, I seemed to get further and further from myself and everything that had once brought me such happiness in life. During this very dark time that spanned a decade, my parents kept Pebbles in a schooling program with Gayle Paperno as she made a shift to her current business, Total Equestrian Experience. Pebbles loved having a job, and although I would see her rarely, I was happy she was being ridden and loved by other kids. That sweet mare always loved me and was happy to see me, sober or not, regardless of how much time had passed. The girls at the barn would always joke about how it wasn’t fair because although I would go very long periods without riding, I would hop on Pebbles and it would look like we hadn’t skipped a day. Gayle would often invite me to come back to riding, offering me positions at the barn and opportunities should I stay sober, but I was just not able to for any length of time, try as I might. This was such a frustrating period for me. I knew previously how happy horses had made me, the special feeling I would get in my heart when I would see Pebbles and give her a kiss on the muzzle, and the happiness I would feel after a great lesson. However, at a point, seeing her was a reminder of what could be and what I wasn’t able to participate in because of my own actions.
At the darkest time in my life, I got very sick with sepsis and endocarditis. Endocarditis is an infection in the heart that was in my case caused by IV drug use. I had to have open heart surgery to replace my tricuspid valve, and there Gayle, and another friend from the barn, would sit with me in the hospital, praying I would pull through. Although at that time I felt far from the barn and myself, the people that horses had brought into my life stayed by my side, and I couldn’t be more grateful.
Shortly after my first open heart surgery, I was able to get sober and my life started to change. I started to do the work, and the way I looked at the world and all its moving parts began to shift. I had a change of perception that I believe has saved my life. When I was a year and a half sober, I had a second open heart surgery. The valve that had been replaced had failed. Since that surgery, my life has just continued to bloom, and I spend most days in awe. I met an incredible man who is also sober and we got married. I started riding again with Gayle and her assistant trainer, Ashley Shrader, and began teaching in that schooling program that Pebbles loved so much. I became pregnant with a little boy and spent all my days at the barn waiting for him to arrive. Unfortunately, while I was pregnant, Pebbles got very sick with lymphoma and we had to euthanize her. It was an incredibly painful and difficult choice to make, but I knew it was her time to go. I had missed out on so much of her and so many years of her life, but I felt so grateful to walk through her illness with her and be with her until her last moment. I honestly feel she is an angel of mine, always with me, smiling upon the state of my life currently.
My son, Jax, is now 14 months old. He has a Shetland pony named PJ (Pebbles Junior) who was gifted to me by my husband a month after Pebbles had passed, for Valentine’s Day. PJ looks just like Pebbles did, with the same coloring down to their mapping. I spent every day of my pregnancy with him until I was told I had to stay home because I was about to pop. He’s now in that same schooling program Pebbles was in and is helping kids find their love for horses just as she did.
In November, I will be 5 years sober, and still feel that every day is a gift. After coming from such a darkness that seemed like it would never end, my life is so incredibly blessed and happy. I have hard days, and struggle like everyone else, but I truly live a life beyond what I ever imagined possible. I largely credit riding to helping me stay sober. To me, riding is like meditation; it melts away all my problems even if only for a moment, and gives me an opportunity to bond with and truly be one with an incredible animal. In the last few months while in quarantine, I learned about the USDF Instructor Trainer Certification Program. I became very interested in continuing my education through USDF, so I set out in search of an instructor with this certification. I found Patty Mayer at Bailiwick House, only 15 minutes away. I found her to be a good match for me and have been in full training with her, leasing a new horse named Baron, aka Bob, for a little over a month. Everyday that I ride Bob with Patty, I fall even more in love with the sport of dressage than ever before. Last week, we attended a dressage show – something I had not participated in for 17 years. It felt so good to be back out there again. We rode an Intro C Test- and took first place with our 77% score!
Riding and my connection to horses really have been my saving grace, and my purpose outside of motherhood. I am so grateful to the many, many people who have played a role in my life and my sobriety. I feel a responsibility to tell my story and be there for the next person who needs help coming out of their own darkness, be it in the dressage community or elsewhere, for I owe my life to the people and horses who outstretched their hands and hooves to me.
You can follow me on Instagram at @all_hart_equestrian.
Go back to Part 1: Five Steps to Mentally Prepare Before Heading Down Center Line
Go to Part 3: Keeping You and Your Horse Grounded in Times of Chaos