Life

Poetry in Loneliness

Can horses help us better understand the loneliness epidemic?

©Heavenguest/Flickr CC

The day before Poetry sold she broke my phone.

I asked her to transition up to a canter, and instead, I hit the hard-packed dirt. The phone made a crunching sound as it sandwiched between my hip and the ground. My heart cracked a little, too.

Poetry wasn’t the first horse I had helped train and sell, nor was she my last. I will even go as far as to say that I usually enjoyed the bittersweet rush of watching something I had helped to grow and mature roll down the road towards a new life.

But my heart struggled with Poetry—it had been four long years between that first time I worked her out in a field where she spooked of bushes to the point where she was that afternoon. No, she wasn’t perfect. But I knew she was ready for the teenage girl who was buying her.

Even if I tried to see Poetry’s departure as the joyous occasion it was, my usual practicality was drowned out by another set of emotions. A strange twang of jealousy, judgment and sadness seemed to echo up through my toes. I ached at the knowledge that there would be no more days when she would gallop up to me by the gate, her little black ears and bright eyes happy to say hello. I knew I would miss our afternoon liberty sessions in the round pen or the big arena. I would miss how the two of us would make young, dumb mistakes together and how she taught me the magic of that invisible thread between a horse and a human.

No, her name wasn’t Poetry but, boy, could she move like it was.

“Who do I think I am?” I thought. As a barn hand and struggling writer, I could not afford Poetry’s board. Nor was I ready to give up my wild ways so I could get a horse of my own.

Looking back now, I realize the thing that I was experiencing in those weeks was loneliness. I isolated myself and stuffed my feelings into my barn clothes because I was ashamed of being broke, I was ashamed of being sad, and I was ashamed that I couldn’t make my practicality as a horseman override these other feelings. Despite my attempts to fill it, a lonely gap in my chest lingered for weeks.

As that spring reached toward summer, I packed up my room in the farmhouse to start another stage of life. A friend, nervous about my departure, turned to me as we swept the barn and said, “I don’t understand how you do this. How do you spend entire days on this farm alone with your thoughts?”

I remember the anxiety in her voice. It was the same sound I had heard in the voices of my friends who feared they would never find love. At the time, my compassion had blown away, like grass seed in the northern wind. I didn’t understand her, and I also didn’t know how to explain the great pleasure I found in my own company. Yes, I was lonely for Poetry, and I often felt lonely because I didn’t feel like other people, but that loneliness didn’t usually seep into those many quietly happy hours with just a herd of horses, a muck rack and the gurgle of an old tractor.

To me, my friend’s loneliness felt like a set of hobbles. I was not willing to give up my independence, my sense of self and my quiet. What I didn’t understand is that loneliness varies from person to person. And this loneliness with its many faces could be killing us.

Loneliness has been shown to have a similar impact as smoking 15 cigarettes a day.

Health professionals across the care spectrum are starting to note what they call the “loneliness epidemic.” Today, the number of adults who say they are lonely has risen to 40 percent in the last 30 years. Studies by Brigham Young University have shown that there is a “26% increased likelihood of death for those who feel lonely and 29% for those who have actual social isolation.” Loneliness has also been shown to have a similar impact as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, or suffering from obesity or alcoholism.

Even Vice Admiral Vivek H. Murthy, the 19th US Surgeon General, noted how he had seen loneliness take its toll on people across ages and incomes. He writes in the Harvard Business Review that loneliness at work can make us less productive. Other places have shown that loneliness at home weakens our immune system, and makes us more vulnerable to addiction. It also increases our inflammatory response and raises blood pressure.

What’s more, loneliness is contagious. A 2009 study discovered that those who are already lonely are often crueler and more judgmental than those who are not, thus isolating and alienating those they interact with. When I was judgmental of those at the barn as Poetry prepared to leave, it was me spreading around my loneliness.

To address this health crisis, it’s crucial to understand being lonely and being alone are not the same thing. Being alone is being by oneself, non-accompanied, solo. Loneliness is the biological response where we stress out about being isolated or alone. Dr. Amit Sood, the director of Complementary and Integrative Medicine for the Mayo Clinic, defined loneliness as a “discrepancy between desired and perceived social connection.” If we view loneliness as a discrepancy, it validates a wide variety of experiences including both my knowledge and the experience of my friend. This is because she viewed loneliness as being alone, whereas I saw it as being different from other people.

Can horses help us fight loneliness?

Gretchen Rubin of the Happiness Project writes that there are seven types of loneliness. For my friend, it could have been that she longed for a sweetheart or a group of friends. For me, I was about to face different types of loneliness include a longing for animals and facing a new situation.

So, can horses help us fight loneliness? The answer is yes. But only if we are self-aware enough to see them and the culture around them as they are.

Horse owners and caretakers know that equine loneliness is a real, trackable thing. We are also pretty good about treating it. We understand that horses are fundamentally herd animals and so we change up routines so they don’t have to go out into the pasture alone. We load a second horse into the trailer if we must take an anxious one somewhere new. If we do not board our horse and cannot afford a second one, we go out and find a donkey or a goat or some other pasture companion.

The impact of loneliness in horses is documented in the scientific world, as well. One UK study in 2003 showed that horses who had a mirror put up in their stalls, on average became much more relaxed than those who didn’t. It is also suggested that horses that sway back and forth in a stall or paddock often do so as a response to a being left alone for extended periods of time. In her book The Age of The Horse, Susanna Forrest even noted how a Mongolian wild stallion tried to round up a herder’s riding geldings so that he no longer had to live on the Stepp by himself.

For horses, loneliness is a survival mechanism. In the wild, a horse alone is a dead horse. If you, the wild horse, want to live longer and reproduce, you find a gang of buddies.

Scientists theorize that part of the reason humans were able to domesticate horses in the first place is because they had a specific set of kinship structures. Humans were able to exploit and replicate those structures, and ta-da: domestication. Understanding loneliness as a survival strategy helps us as humans understand our own needs for connection. It also explains why for some, merely spending time in the quiet company of a horse munching on their evening grain is soothing.

I have often used horses to prepare for my interactions with other people. Sometimes I don’t have the energy for the complexities of human interaction, but horses are consistent. They tell you when things are wrong, and they offer up affection without pretense. Loving and receiving love from a horse is spiced by a rare sweet simplicity.

Being an equestrian also gives many people a great outlet for making friends and finding a squad of their own. For me, some of the most meaningful friendships I have were sparked by a common interest in horses.

I have also had times where being on the other end of the lead rope was the loneliest place I have ever been. There’ve been times where I got in over my head with young horses or a horse that was just too much for me, and I felt too ashamed to ask for help.

Sometimes, the shame was self-induced, sometimes it wasn’t.

In the equestrian community, shame culture is rampant. We are shamed for everything from the horse we ride to the boots on our feet. We shame each other for being afraid and for not being afraid enough. During my time with horses, I have been the shamed, witnessed shame and done the shaming.

And the byproduct of shame is isolation and loneliness—a potentially dangerous cocktail.

If we are going to use horses as a powerful weapon against the loneliness epidemic, we are also going to have to learn to fight shame as well.

He listened, my loneliness lifted.

After Poetry left, I was chatting with a middle-aged man from Australia while swimming laps at the town pool. I told him about how embarrassed I was that I was so sad. “Of course, you’re sad, you didn’t let your inner child grieve,” he said smiling at me. “When I was younger, my alcoholism got much worse because I didn’t go surfing, I didn’t feed my soul the way I needed to. We must learn to trust what we feel.”

He was right. He listened, my loneliness lifted.

I know via Instagram that Poetry is living the best life I could imagine for her. She is loved and shown and pampered by that same teenager who bought her that day. But Poetry also gave me a gift the day she broke my phone. She taught me to leave my phone in the tack box and focus on the horse. The work emails, the phone calls and the text messages, and yes even, social media—which has been linked to an increase in loneliness—can wait until I am done focusing on the connection at hand.

Like many people, I am still learning how to tackle my own loneliness. I also now understand that sometimes feeling lonely is part of the human experience and it is something experienced by everyone. I am even starting to realize that it is better to be surrounded by healthy kinds of companionship. I am also striving to give the best love and connection I can give, and still make sure that I take care of myself, too.

Understanding this sense of self, and cultivating healthy relationships has made me a better horseman, and it has also made me less lonely.


About the Author

Gretchen Lida is an essayist and equestrian. Her work has appeared in BrevityEarth Island JournalWashington Independent Review of Books, and many others. She has an MFA in Creative Nonfiction from Columbia College Chicago and currently lives in Wisconsin. Follow her on Twitter at @GC_Lida.