How horses became ‘therapy’ for woman struggling with mental health

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CNN  — 

Debbie Matthews was “petrified” of horses growing up. She would turn down the opportunity to attend race days with her father and had no interest in the sport.

But all that changed when life dealt her the cruelest of hands.

Matthews suffered the tragic loss of her baby and was later diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). She continues to battle with mental health problems today.

However, in the depths of her struggles in 2015, a freak meeting with a horse in her own back garden proved to be a tonic.

A thoroughbred from a nearby livery yard began regularly escaping and would turn up at the bottom of her garden almost every morning to eat from the compost heap.

“I ended up talking to him from afar and he just came to me,” she told CNN Sport from her home in Somerset, England.

“I spent that whole summer, every day just talking to him. I would go out at 5 a.m. in the morning and talk to him.

“It was such a hard thing to understand, why that had happened to me, there were just no answers and I felt no one understood. I was upset, I was cross and he became my therapy.”

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‘Social anxiety and panic attacks’

Those early encounters led to an unlikely sanctuary in horses and the world of horse racing.

Matthews’ growing love for horses escalated in 2017 when, pregnant with her youngest child, she watched champion race horse Altior jump for the first time on television.

Impressed by his magnificent ability, she started following his races and it was her desire to see Altior jump in the flesh that pushed Matthews to attend Ascot in January 2019 – the first time since her struggle with mental health.

Watching her beloved horse parade offered Matthews a rare therapeutic experience but she never felt entirely happy at the track.

“Racecourses are not generally environments I’m comfortable in because I suffer with social anxiety, panic attacks and all sorts of things,” she said.

“It’s quite a chaotic environment, it can be very busy, it can be very noisy. Generally you get a lot of groups going, more male-orientated, so it can be hard for people on their own. It can be a volatile environment at times.”

She is now on a mission to make racecourses more accessible to others with invisible illness.

Altior, Matthews' hero, racing at Cheltenham in January 2019.

Before heading off alone to Ascot, Matthews had posted a simple message on Twitter explaining her decision to face her fears and attend the meeting.

Unbeknown to her, the tweet was shared hundreds of times and her story was published in the Racing Post.

She subsequently received thousands of messages from people online, all inspired by her bravery and many confirming she was not alone in her fear of racetracks.

Champion trainer Nicky Henderson sent a message of support and he invited Matthews to meet her hero Altior, a trip she will forever treasure.

#GoRacingGreen initiative

Overwhelmed by the reception she received, Matthews attended race meetings more regularly and was convinced there was a need for helping others with mental health issues.

Having worked in accessibility tourism, where she consults businesses on how best to cater for visitors with both physical and mental disability, Matthews felt confident in transferring her knowledge to racetracks.

“Courses are very good at marketing toward the groups but not to the massive sector of people who are facing some invisible illness which is preventing them from going,” she said.

With that in mind, she set up #GoRacingGreen, an initiative that offers support to vulnerable people when attending race days and create a community where people feel safe.

Thanks to a donation made by trainer Tom Lacey, Matthews was able to buy branded hats to help spread awareness of her cause – profits from which are split between Samaritans and the re-homing of racehorses.

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‘Couldn’t live without it’

Using horses for therapy has gained credibility over the years although it still lacks extensive research from within the scientific community. However, Matthews knows first-hand what a difference horses can make.

“People say they couldn’t manage without it. Not everyone goes racing for the drinking and the betting,” she said.

“There are a lot of people who want to go for the horses.”

She is now working on a package in which she will advise racecourses on how to utilize existing facilities to help those with mental illness, including quiet areas and safe places for people to go for a bit of peace and quiet.

“It’s not actually asking them to build anything or doing anything special,” she said, explaining how the initiative shouldn’t have to cost racetracks a penny.

“The financial reward will be that there are more people going racing, so hopefully it’s a win-win situation.”

Courses from across the UK have already registered interest in her idea and Matthews is keen to secure sponsorship.

Nottingham Racecourse in England, was very first track to adopt the initiative. It plans to setup a specialized room for racegoers in need of some time away from the crowds and will train staff in how best to deal with a variety of mental health conditions.

“The real intention of this is that it becomes a consistent message and a consistent ‘service’,” Matthews wrote in her blog.

“So if people planning a day at the races see that a course is supporting #GoRacingGreen, they know exactly what staff training has been carried out, and what they can expect in terms of facilities and support at that course – a huge factor in planning their day out.”