#GoRacingGreen: how horses have helped tackle mental health issues

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  • A racing fan has spoken of the amazing way horses have helped her through difficult times.

    Debbie Matthews’ inspirational story of how she faced her social anxiety and emetophobia (fear of vomiting or seeing vomit) to see her favourite racehorse, Altior, in action went viral in January.

    Her blog opened the conversation on what the racing world can do to welcome everyone — and Debbie wants to spread the message to the wider equestrian world.

    Her #GoRacingGreen idea, launched at Cheltenham’s Festival Trials day (26 January), involves racegoers wearing something green, such as a ribbon, to signify they were happy for someone on their own to come and talk to them, or as awareness to those around them that they might be feeling anxious or out of place.

    In her day job, Debbie works in inclusive tourism, so has been raising awareness with racecourses about simple things they can do that can make a huge difference — such as a designated meeting point for people on their own or a quiet place to take time out.

    It isn’t just about mental health issues,” she said. “I’ve had people contact me and say ‘I used to go with my husband and am on my own since he died’, for example.

    “Another huge thing I would like to get across is that phobias and anxieties don’t just affect that person — it affects their families too.

    “If it is helping keep families together, if it is helping to stop social isolation, anything it can do to support people getting out and doing things, having some enjoyment is a good thing.

    “It doesn’t have to be National Hunt racing, that is just something I like. I went to Badminton with my daughter last year and I couldn’t stay too long as it was a bit overwhelming, so I want to spread the message across the whole equestrian industry.”

    But horses have not always been a part of Debbie’s life — and it was a chance meeting with an escapee from a nearby livery yard just over three years ago that started her connection with equines.

    “I was absolutely petrified of horses,” she told H&H.

    “A lot of my friends at primary school had ponies, but I was never a horsey person.”

    Debbie was going through PTSD from the loss of a baby when one day she looked out of her kitchen window and saw a huge thoroughbred in her garden.

    “I rang the livery yard, who came and collected him. Then a couple of days later, there he was again, and the same a few days after that.

    “One day I went out and started talking to him — he kept coming back and I kept talking to him. At that time I was going through such a traumatic experience and he seemed quite happy to talk to me at a time when nobody else was. Absolutely, undoubtedly, he saved me.”

    Last summer Debbie went on an open day to World Horse Welfare’s Glenda Spooner Farm in Somerset, where she met a 13hh cob named Rosie.

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    The pony had been abandoned in a field in Somerset before she was rescued.

    Although she was rehabilitated and trained with the aim of being ridden, soundness was an issue so the charity decided she needed a non-ridden home.

    She is amazing,” added Debbie. “I explained my journey to World Horse Welfare and they have been brilliant.”

    Credit: Debbie Matthews/World Horse Welfare

    Debbie said Rosie settled instantly when she arrived in September.

    “We take her for walks and are working towards doing some gentle in hand work with her,” she said.

    “She has brought so much joy to me already in just this short time. I have been so unwell in recent years mentally, and I always felt like people were giving up on me.

    “I feel the same about Rosie, just because she is a little bit broken, just because any companion horse is a little bit broken, don’t give up on them. Aren’t we all a little bit broken in some way? But we still have lots of love to give.”

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