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Posted by Christine Armishaw on 26/02/2020.
Finley and Henry's Dream (Squirrel)
Main photo by Ashley Yeats Photography

Junior Rider Speaks Out About Mental Health

My name is Finley Hughes and I am a 15-year-old junior eventer from New South Wales. I have competed up to EvA95 and am currently competing at EvA80 level with my OTTB Henry’s Dream (Squirrel). I would like to share my story about mental health, riding and recovery and how the equestrian community has supported me.

I started riding horses when I was only five years old. Ever since I was little I had always dreamt about riding. Never in a million years would I have thought 10 years later I would be where I am today, with an amazing horse and aiming for a future career in the equestrian industry. 

I have struggled with periods of poor mental health during my life. From a young age I was always anxious, any time I was faced with a new situation I struggled to adapt to change and to thrive. It always took me a long time to settle into a new year and a new class at school. However, even as a young child, I always felt relaxed around animals, and they helped me feel calmer.

Finley and her first treasured horse, Alfie - photo by Brittany Bates Photography

One summer holiday we went to a farm stay and I rode a horse called Sunny and I knew that this was the sort of animal that I truly connected with.  Shortly after my return to school, Mum and Dad enrolled me in weekly horse riding lessons, as they saw how much a little bit of equine therapy helped me to feel more calm.

As I got older, I rode more frequently, started to compete in local events and in April 2017 I got my first horse - Alfie. Owning Alfie was the happiest time of my life, I was managing my anxiety, I had made good friends at school and in riding; I was full of so much confidence and hope for the future.

In March 2018 I got another horse called Squirrel, who was younger than Alfie and more experienced in eventing. Riding Squirrel was more challenging than Alfie, but I was ready for the challenge and to improve my riding skills. On a hard day with Squirrel, when he challenged my confidence, I always knew I could hop back on Alfie - who was my safety net - and he would help me remember why I loved riding so much. 

Finley and Squirrel in the show jumping arena - photo by GeoSnapshot

This all changed in June 2018 when Alfie died unexpectedly in a freak and tragic accident.  To say I was heartbroken was an understatement. Alfie was my rock, and he had helped me with my anxiety and gave me the strength to keep going every day. His death was hard to accept, and it took me a long time to really process what had happened.

Alfie’s death had a negative impact on my relationship with Squirrel. I found it hard to connect with him, he wasn’t Alfie and never would be and that created a block between us that has taken 18 months to shift.  Alfie and I jumped like a dream and it got to the stage that I could not even bear to jump Squirrel at all during this time. So much for competitions if I couldn’t jump!

My anxiety spiralled out of control within six months of Alfie’s death. My lowest point and when I realised I was really unwell, was while competing at NSW Interschools in March 2019. I competed well in the dressage but in the jumping phases, I was completely defeated and empty.

Finley and Alfie out on XC - photo by Tom Testone Photography

I had become so mentally and physically unwell. I was severely underweight, I feared everything and leaving my bedroom was a struggle. I had to accept that I needed help, that I had to step back from competitions and from school and work on healing my mind and my soul. 

Part of my recovery was spending time with Squirrel, no pressure to have lessons or compete, just to get to know each other and build our relationship. I also had to accept that Alfie was really gone and that it was ok to have a strong bond with Squirrel. 

The support and patience of my coach Gemma Tinney and the team at Tinney Eventing during this time was amazing - they never gave up on me no matter how frustrating it became.  I am grateful to my sponsor Hannah Hardy of HLH Equestrian, she inspired me to be open and honest about my challenges.

Finley just spending time with Squirrel, with no pressure to have lessons or compete, helped with her recovery 

Throughout this journey, I have drawn strength from the equestrian community who have been a source of support and encouragement at events and clinics and on social media. 

My message is this:  don’t be afraid to speak out if you are struggling with your mental health. As hard as it is and as isolating as it can be, you are not alone.

If sharing my story gives someone the courage to talk about what is worrying them, then my journey, no matter how painful and hard, has been worth it.

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