Shelby Rowe and horse

Working with Horses Allowed Shelby Rowe to Practice Self-Acceptance

Horses are massive, beautiful beasts, and it turns out, they often reflect the temperament of the people engaging with them. Shelby Rowe says working with horses on a ranch in Lincoln, Arkansas, pushed her to be honest about how she was doing⁠—to express sadness and anger when that’s how she felt. She says horses taught her self-acceptance. After her suicide attempt in 2010, Shelby asked herself what made her happy and hopeful. Her answer was that she wanted to be around horses. Shelby promptly quit her job and started Almost Home Ranch, a non-profit that, for nearly two years, took care of deployed soldiers’ horses. The people who did much of the day-to-day care of the horses were veterans and soldiers undergoing treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Ranch staff were all trained in crisis intervention. “Everyone who wasn’t a service member, veteran, or family member, went through the same training as anyone on the Arkansas Crisis Center hotline.” Shelby says service people didn’t know that the person raising a fence alongside them, or helping to put shoes on the horses, or cutting the lawn, were helpers. They were, and they made themselves available to talk when someone needed. The ranch gave people roles, created a community, and allowed them to work with compassionate, therapeutic animals. It provided women and men a space to grieve, heal, and connect with family. Shelby says the experience also gave her a reason to put one foot in front of the other.

A retired green beret said to Shelby what many service people likely think, ‘We don’t show up for support groups or ask for help. We are help.” This was a sentiment she could relate to as a mental health expert who’d recently experienced a mental health crisis. Also, similar to herself, she found that soldiers and veterans would show up to help others, which means there was a space for them to heal while helping. For Shelby, it created the room she needed to reframe her relationship with herself. “There were days I didn’t feel like getting out of bed in the morning. I didn’t think I was worth it, but there were horses in my field that belonged to a deployed soldier. I owed it to her to take good care of them and wasn’t going to let her down.” One of the soldier’s horses was easy going while the other was high maintenance. Shelby says the animals pushed her to be genuine: that horses detect any contradiction between behavior and emotion. “Horses are great for people with PTSD and children on the autism spectrum because they are sincere animals. That said, if you are scared but act confident, a horse won’t trust you because it can sense a disconnect.” Shelby says that’s what keeps them safe as prey animals and results in collective herd behavior. They don’t all have to see the mountain lion; if one horse does, and is fearful, that fright will pass along to the others, and they will all run.

When at the ranch, the horses could tell when Shelby acted differently than she was feeling. They would begin to behave erratically because they sensed her behavior didn’t match her emotions. “It forced me to be consistent. If I was sad and acted sad, they would be super sweet. When her teen son acted mad at the world, so too did the horses. “I have a photo of my son and one of the horses, and they have the same expression of teenage angst.” This helped Shelby because she couldn’t play calm, cool, and collected if that’s not how she felt. “I had to be true to myself.” Shelby gave herself permission to accept and acknowledge where she was each day, practicing with the horses. Over time it became easier to be honest with people and not be angry at herself for feeling and expressing emotions that she perceived made her appear flawed. “It takes time because people often think they need to be perfect and appear so to the outside world. I learned to be okay with not being fine and to accept that I’m here and I care.”

Want to read more about Shelby Rowe? Check out The Elephant in the Room: Mental Health Professionals Experience Crisis Too.

Stephanie Hepburn, J.D., is the Chief Content Officer at RI International and editor in chief of Hope Inc. Stories and #CrisisTalk. She’s a journalist and the author of three books on human rights. Stephanie believes that storytelling is a critical tool to help break stigma and discrimination, fostering parity and a pathway to hope.