“I looked forward to riding Maverick every week.” How horse riding became one young woman’s passport home.

It’s well known that horses can help our mental health, with a study by the British Horse Society revealing that horse riding stimulated many positive psychological feelings including reducing depression by 30%.

But for one young woman, who has spent the last 10 years in mental health units often under a section, horse riding became so much more than this. It helped her build her confidence and slowly but surely find the strength to return to life in the community.

A challenging decade

Shelby’s had a challenging few years. Having been admitted to a mental health unit when she was 16, she’s lived in hospital wards, being treated for complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and borderline personality disorder, often miles away from her family, ever since.

Last summer, when she moved to Willow Ward, the Bridgwater-based mental health rehabilitation ward run by Somerset NHS Foundation Trust, she took the move in her stride. She explains the decision to go to Willow was like a stepping stone for her:

I’ve been bounced around to places for over 10 years so I’m quite good at going to new hospitals. I’ve become quite numb to it, so I just move.

I’d done a lot of therapy in the unit in Weston but there wasn’t a place for me in the community so my team thought Willow would be a good step down for me. I waited about four months for a place.

The [unit] at Weston was very intense, I couldn’t do much. But at Willow I got to go out a lot more, went horse riding, got to see my parents more, started going home which I hadn’t done for a long time. It was all about building my confidence up before moving into the community.

When she arrived at Willow ward, Shelby hadn’t been outside alone for a year, it was a matter of building up her confidence little by little as part of the Open Mental Health’s rehabilitation programme.

Willow was so good – I hadn’t been out on my own for over a year. They build it up slowly start with five minutes, then 10 minutes, 15, then half an hour. I was terrified about going out on my own, simple things like crossing the road I hadn’t done on my own for over a year. Willow helped get my confidence back.

Rehabilitation & recovery

Part of Shelby’s support came in the shape of Fran, a Rehabilitation and Wellbeing Worker from Open Mental Health’s Rehabilitation Team. Open Mental Health is an alliance of voluntary sector organisations working with the NHS to deliver mental health services to people across Somerset.

Fran was assigned to Shelby to help rebuild her confidence. It soon became apparent that a key part of this was helping her go horse riding again, something she had learnt to do when she was just four years old.

Fran introduced Shelby to a local stables and they would go every Wednesday afternoon. At first Shelby wouldn’t leave Fran’s side and found it hard to speak to anyone. After a while she became more confident and started leading and then riding the horses.

Meeting Maverick

It wasn’t long before she formed a bond with one of the horses, Maverick and from then on rode him most of the time. She said:

I find horseriding really therapeutic. A horse called Maverick was my favourite. I fell in love with him. We would take them out for 45 minutes on the road. I started going on Saturdays with my parents and went twice a week for a while.

Before long she was teaching others how to ride and building strong relationships with everyone there.

“By the end of it – I didn’t really need Fran there – I built up much more confidence and it helped my mental health to know every Wednesday I am going horse riding and I’m not going to mess up or have an incident or something to stop me.

Fran said working with Shelby was an extraordinary experience:

“It has been a delight to witness such a transformation in Shelby’s self-esteem. Shelby is an able horse woman and when at the stables she had the chance to shine. Everyone saw the person, not the patient. She embraced responsibility for the horses and peers at the stable, and this supported her to develop confidence in herself.”

Shelby now lives in supported housing accommodation 10 minutes away from her parents’ home in Totnes and is going to join a local stables very soon. Meanwhile she’s planning a trip to the Devon and County Show with a member of staff and is really excited about a day out among her newly-found horse-loving community.

Sarah Cox, Service Manager for Second Step’s Open Mental Health Services in Somerset said:

“It’s wonderful to see the relationship Shelby has with Fran, her rehabilitation and wellbeing worker, and with everyone at the stables. By receiving the support she needed to pursue her passion, she’s been able to turn her world around. Shelby’s story is inspiring and will give hope to many.”

Gary Newton, Open Mental Health’s Head of Contracts, Delivery and Collaboration, said:

“Open Mental Health strives to ensure that the right help is offered at the right time, and Shelby and Maverick’s story shows the importance and effectiveness of person-centred mental health rehabilitation. The Open Mental Health rehabilitation team does crucial work with people recovering from complex, long-term mental illness, and Shelby’s inspiring experiences confirm the fantastic results that can be achieved.”

Open Mental Health

Open Mental Health is Somerset’s alliance of local voluntary organisations, the NHS, social care, Somerset Council, and individuals with lived experience. We provide free access to mental health nurses, wellbeing and peer support workers, eating disorder specialists, help for carers, community and sports activities, and support around benefits, money and debt.

If you or someone you know is experiencing difficulties with mental health, we are here to help. Call Mindline Somerset, day or night, on 01823 276 892 or freephone 0800 138 1692, or contact us via Live Chat from 8 pm to 11 pm.

Second Step, Somerset

As part of Open Mental Health, we deliver a number of services across Somerset including the Rehabilitation Team which supports people with people with complex mental health difficulties to achieve their goals and gain the skills and confidence to live as independently as possible.

The service was set up in April 2023 as part of NHS Somerset’s transformation of mental health services across the county. People are supported for the most part in the community as we create a system which avoids hospital admission.

Willow Ward, Bridgwater (run by Somerset NHS Foundation Trust)

Run by Somerset NHS Foundation Trust, Willow ward provides inpatient rehabilitation services for people living with long-term mental health problems. The team is made up of specialist mental health doctors, nurses and therapists, who work closely with community-based mental health teams.

The team helps to rehabilitate people in stages, using a structured weekly programme of groups, therapeutic and leisure activities. They also help people to get involved with local community groups and services and they encourage families and carers to get involved as much as possible.

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