Yorkshire mum chronicles how horses 'healed my heart' after years of postnatal depression

Grace Olson has charted her journey from a new mum with postnatal depression to finding new confidence thanks to horses. Laura Reid reports.

Grace Olson had spent years grappling with post-natal depression when a chance meeting with a show jumper re-ignited a childhood dream and set her off on a journey that would lead her to discover the healing power of horses.

For the 48-year-old, who lives in Moortown, Leeds, the animals were the tonic needed to transform her life and boost her mental health - and she now uses horses to help people with life-threatening illnesses to find inner peace and joy.

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Grace had ridden from the age of five, into her teenage years, but it was when her daughter, now nearly 16, was a young girl that her love for horses was rekindled. A massage therapist and certified coach and mentor, she began working with a show jumper who came to her with a back problem. “Just listening to her stories reminded me how much I used to love horses when I was little,” Grace says.

Grace Olson says horses transformed her life.Grace Olson says horses transformed her life.
Grace Olson says horses transformed her life.
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“Just being with the horses was like the final thing I needed to feel better. My life became more than just being a miserable mother, my childhood dream was happening again. I became enthusiastic, had things to look forward to, just literally being with horses was very, very healing.”

Postnatal depression started for Grace, she says, during the birth process, a painful and traumatic experience. Her daughter had become stuck during delivery and Grace had to undergo an emergency caesarean section. “The anaesthetic wore off at the point where they did the sewing up. It was horrendous really, so painful,” she recalls. “After that, I was in shock and given this baby, my baby, to look after.

“[The depression] was like carrying a very heavy weight, like a big suitcase full of lead in your chest everyday. I actually became much more practical because I knew I could sit around and do nothing or get up and get moving.

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Grace Olson has written a book on how horses helped to heal her heart.Grace Olson has written a book on how horses helped to heal her heart.
Grace Olson has written a book on how horses helped to heal her heart.

“I became on the outside what you’d say was a super mum. I had her in a brilliant routine, the house was spotless, we’d go out twice a day doing stuff, different groups. I appeared to be really in control and this is great, which was all a lie. But I needed to keep doing things in order to get better.”

By the time she had a five-year-old, that depression was lifting, but Grace says it took her seven years to fully recover. Connecting with horses helped her to do so.

People at the riding school she had started to attend suggested she got a horse on loan. “And that’s when I ended up at the most potty livery yard,” Grace says. “It was run by the most eccentric wonderful crazy woman. Life became quite adventurous. I had this horse I could ride midweek any time I wanted. And me and the other girls there would go off having fun galloping around the countryside. It was just brilliant.

“I think it was the combination of being outside - and also the fact that when you’re on a horse you can’t think about anything else because it’s dangerous - so it’s very mindful.

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“Because the people I was with were mums, being with them and having fun was just therapy. And the love you get from a horse as well, the connection, it’s amazing.”

Grace ended up loaning a horse “way too much for me” and sought help with training and riding. That led her to a riding instructor living on a remote mountain farm in Wales.

“I was expecting to learn how to ride a bit better...but it evolved into this big talking therapy session where she was asking me questions like a counsellor would and then the horse was responding to my emotions.”

That weekend, she says, was “transformative”, helping Grace to get to the root of her depression and bolstering her confidence with horses so much so that she ended up buying the loan horse, renting her own land and taking on another horse from Leeds’s Hope Pastures equine rescue centre.

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She now incorporates them into her work too. “The majority of my work is with women who have different types of cancer,” Grace explains. “You can learn so much from somebody who is seriously ill. It’s the most precious time ever being with these women.”

She takes some of the women to her field and supports them to find calm in nature or in interacting with the horses. “It’s helped a lot of people cope more with their awful chemotherapy because they become calmer and more positive. I’ve seen people be transformed from being absolutely in fear of dying to feeling absolutely peaceful.”

Grace has captured her journey in a new book to be released later this month entitled The Yard: How a Horse Healed My Heart. Unable to work during lockdown, she began writing during the pandemic, initially creating a Facebook page to share short stories and extracts with horse-lovers.

That grew into a book from her own experiences and though it chronicles difficult times with mental health, Grace says it is a heartwarming comedy “very similar to the James Herriot books, full of characters, dialogue and lots of joy”.

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“What I want is for people to laugh, because the world is a bit miserable at the moment. And especially women who have experienced postnatal depression, I’d like them to feel that actually you can do something positive to improve how you feel.”

The Yard: How A Horse Healed My Heart is available to pre-order from Amazon now. The book will officially be launched at Hope Pastures on Sunday, June 26, between 10am and 3pm.

There will be crafts and cake and artwork by Yorkshire-based artist Ruth Buchanan who painted the portrait on the book’s cover.

A portion of The Yard’s profits will go to supporting Hope Pastures in its equine rescue work and author Grace Olson also hopes to use money from book sales towards creating a farm-based therapy centre for people who are terminally ill.

“It is my life’s dream to be able to provide a haven with farm animals to help seriously ill people return to nature,” she says.

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