As Steven Coyle stood staring down at his friend’s coffin, he realised his own life had to change.
Although he had dreamed of riding and working with horses since childhood, his life had been taken over by addiction. He started with cannabis aged about 13, but progressed on to harder drugs. A serious head injury he suffered in an assault exacerbated the problem until, he told H&H, by the time he was in his 30s, he was taking drugs in an attempt just to feel normal.
“I realised I needed help after my friend was murdered,” he said. “I went to his funeral, and was staring at his coffin for ages, and I thought ‘That’s enough, I can’t take this any more’; I was fading away.
“I called my social worker and said ‘Please take me away from all this’. It was the scariest thing I’ve ever done because all I knew was how to get high. But it was the best decision I’ve ever made.”
Steven, now 42, left his native Newcastle to spend a year in rehab in Sheffield.
“It was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do; I thought I was going to die,” he said. “I spent four or five months coming off all of it, sweating it out; it was a very dark time.”
Steven kept clean and was allocated supported accommodation. He was told to seek a commitment but was unsuccessful for some months; sitting in his flat trying to keep the addiction at bay. Then a friend saw an advertisement in a pet shop, for someone to poo-pick some fields, and Steven rang up. He picked poo, and did some riding, and then came to the attention of livery yard owner Alison Garner.
“She was supposed to give me a three-month trial,” said Steven, of his meeting with Alison during the first lockdown last spring. “But I’ve ended up staying.”
Steven has since progressed from having barely ridden to exercising the competition horses kept at the yard. He mucks out, lunges, rides — and credits the horses for saving his life.
“I still can’t believe what’s happened in my life,” he said. “My childhood dream was to work with horses but I never thought I’d have the opportunity.
“They give me meaning in life, a sense of purpose. I’ve got self-worth now, confidence; if I didn’t have the horses, I don’t know where I’d be.”
Steven said that of 39 people in his rehab group, only he and one other are still clean.
“Most of them have died because of addiction,” he said. “Every day, I still have triggers; they’ll never leave me, but being with the horses helps me deal with them.
“If I’m in my flat and something triggers me, and I start thinking about alcohol or drugs, if I even spend half an hour with the horses, it’s gone. If I hadn’t found horses, I think I’d be dead now. They saved me.”
Alison told H&H the story of how far Steven has come is an incredible one.
“Since I’ve known him, about eight of his friends have died, and without the horses, that could have been him; that’s the top and bottom of it,” she said.
“It’s so important for people to realise how hard it is; I thought once you were done with rehab, you were fixed but it’s a daily battle, and the horses give Steven something to live for.”
Alison said she has watched Steven’s anxiety and anger decrease, as his natural riding ability has allowed him to make huge progress in the saddle, while he also loves all aspects of yard work.
They have encountered obstacles as she has tried to secure him an apprenticeship, which would have implications for his accommodation and benefits, but Alison is trying to secure some sponsorship to allow Steven to compete, and said she already has some people interested.
“I’m a horse addict and an adrenaline addict; the buzz horses give is far better than anything else he’ll get and I’m trying to fuel that,” she said.
“There are so many people like him, who if they found something they loved doing, could change. I don’t come from a horsey background myself but someone gave me a chance, a long time ago, and I wouldn’t be doing what I am now if they hadn’t.”
Alison said she is very proud of Steven, and feels he should have more recognition for his achievements, although he is the subject of a feature-length documentary, The Cowboy From Newcastle, which is in production.
“People say I’m doing something fantastic but if you had the chance to do this for someone, why wouldn’t you?” she said. “I feel privileged to be part of Steven’s journey. To be able to help him like this means the world.”
Steven hopes to enter competitions this year, but also wants to continue to improve himself.
“I want to be the best I can be, and I need horses to do that,” he said. “I always think I’m not reaching my full potential but every day, I’m trying to get better.”
Steven paid tribute to Alison and her livery clients, adding: “They haven’t judged me; they take me for who I am. It’s amazing people care like that, I didn’t know they did, and I’m so grateful to Alison.
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“My addiction affected my whole family, but my mam’s proud of me now, and me and my dad are like father and son again, it’s absolutely brilliant.”
Steven hopes his story may inspire others battling with addiction.
“It’s so sad so many people lose their lives to addiction,” he said. “There’s help there but you have to be the one to ask for it; the first step is admitting the problem and asking for help. Life doesn’t have to be like that, and end badly.
“When I go in a field of horses, if I’m angry or anxious, they won’t come near me. Then, when I relax, they’re there, head-butting or cuddling me; I absolutely love it.
“Horses are helping me stay clean, and sober. They’re saving my life.”
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