by Laura Crum
So just when you think you have it all figured out…it changes. I was enjoying team roping, but slowly my overall enjoyment began to grow less. Because no matter how hard I tried to dwell on the positive, I couldn’t help but see all the negatives in competition. This was the third competitive horseback event that I had immersed myself in, and it was more fair and more affordable than the first two. But it was just as hard on horses. In some ways it was much harder on horses than cutting.
I was getting to the end of watching horses be trashed in order to win. In any form, for any reason. I was sick of seeing people be too hard on a horse because they wanted to win a damn event. I didn’t do this to my own horses, but it was all around me. My fourth mystery novel, Roped, had a lot to do with these feelings.
I became aware that I was less and less interested in winning and less happy at team roping competitions. I began focusing on horse packing in the mountains more and more. Flanigan was my main mount at this time and he proved to be a wonderful mountain horse. We made many, many trips together, including some that were over a week long and covered a couple of hundred miles over many high Sierra passes. Here we are Wood Lake in the Sierra Nevada Mountains.
But despite my riding in the mountains from time to time, the thing that dominated my life was roping. I practiced twice a week and I competed on weekends. It was my life. Training horses and competing at horse events had been my life for twenty years. I didn’t know how to quit. Once in awhile I would stay home and putter around my garden on the weekends and just turn my horses out to graze…and I was aware that I would RATHER do this than go roping. But the honest truth was I felt guilty if I didn’t go. All my friends were going. Surely I should go, too?
I had retired Gunner from competition at this point, due to arthritic changes. I was still roping on Flanigan, and I had trained my young horse, Plumber, to be ready to compete. But something was wrong. The heart had gone out of it for me. I knew how I felt, but I didn’t know how to change. So life made a change for me.
I am going to say something here that not all horse people will want to hear. But it is absolutely true (at least for me). I had spent my life focusing on horses to such a degree that I didn’t think very hard about much else. I didn’t, for instance, think about how to create a happy marriage. I never gave much thought to having children. I was too busy with my horses. And now I was forty years old and competing on horses was beginning to seem meaningless and downright upsetting. I still loved my horses, but I went off to the ropings completely uninterested in winning or even performing well. “Please don’t let any horses or people or cattle get hurt,” was the only thought in my mind. “Let whoever needs to win, win.” By which you can see that the joy had really gone out of it. But I kept doing it. Because I didn’t know how to quit. And this is where life stepped in.
In my 40th year my husband fell in love with another woman and left me. And between this, and the very real angst I already felt due to losing my lifelong passion for horseback competitions, I fell into a true depression.
Those people who have been depressed themselves will know what this means. For those who have not, I will say that depression is far more like being sick with the flu than it is like being “sad.” I had tons of physical symptoms. I couldn’t eat, I couldn’t sleep, I felt physically terrible. It wasn’t as if I could just sit around on the couch relaxing and feeling sad. I felt so awful that I was desperate to feel better. You know when you have a really bad flu how everything is just misery? That’s how depression was for me.
And yes, I did try to get help. That’s what everyone says. Get help, there is medication, etc, etc, etc. Well, I am here to tell you that this doesn’t work for everybody. I saw three separate shrinks for a year straight, I took at least ten different anti-depressant meds (not simultaneously). None of it helped at all. Some of the meds just made me feel worse. The only thing that gave a little relief was a couple of glasses of wine in the evening. But the relief was always short-lived.
And yes again, I contemplated suicide. That’s how meaningless everything seemed. But I honestly felt that I needed to survive for the sake of my animals. At the same time, I couldn’t really care for them. I did not go roping; I did not even ride. I had to drag myself through the most basic of horse chores—feeding and watering. Anything more seemed beyond me, and even this much was very hard to do. My friends and family helped me feed my horses…and they went to the grocery store and brought me food so that I would eat. Yes, it was that bad.
But it passed. I just had to walk through it, one step at a time. It wasn’t easy. More like going through a severe illness than any other way I can think of to describe it. I felt like shit…all the time. And I endured it and continued to put one foot in front of the other. More than that, I contemplated my life and tried to see what the depression might be trying to teach me. Because strange though it sounds, that depression, as I began to understand, came to me for a reason. When I look back on it, I learned some very important things during the year I was depressed. But that didn’t make it easy to bear.
It lasted a year. Until finally it lifted of its own accord. A year and one month after it began, it left me for good. I was involved with a new man and I went to Europe with him, and suddenly life was worth living again. And I still had my horses. Thanks to my friend, Wally, who did much of the feeding and caring for them during the year I was depressed.
The thing is that awful though it was, the depression was actually a gift. I emerged from it changed—for good. I no longer felt that I had to compete on my horses in order to achieve something. I felt perfectly free to interact with my horses in whatever way was best for me and them. And I knew that I would never again prioritize horse competitions and horse training over my marriage.
At this point I was re-married and I knew I wanted to have a child. I still had Burt and Gunner, who were both retired, and Flanigan and Plumber. My friend Wally was roping on Flanigan and Plumber and having a fine time with them. And me? I went on the occasional trail ride on Plumber with my new husband riding Flanigan alongside me and felt that life was good.
But there were still more changes to come. (To be continued.)
PS—I wrote Slickrock about my horse packing adventures, and Breakaway about my battle with depression during this period of my life. These books are, of course, fiction, not memoir. All my novels have classic mystery plots involving murder and such, and this sort of drama did not come my way in real life, thank goodness. But all the background material in the stories is drawn from my own experiences. Click on the titles to find the Kindle editions of these books.