My journey from living in the fast lane in the motor industry to a more freer, happier life, powered by equine therapy.By Phillipa Sage
In May 2016 my world as I’d known it for many years came crashing down and I sank to the lowest point in my life. It was like a bomb had gone off. My long-term relationship had ended and, along with it, the job that I loved. Around the same time my father had a life-changing accident leaving him needing 24hr care.
My life until this point had always been full of ups and downs. I had a previous breakdown in my early twenties and was diagnosed with M.E. which meant I spent nearly two years, mostly, in bed. During this time, I was put on antidepressants and over the years that followed of many alternative therapies, I became aware that I had suffered from depression most of my adult life.
In fact, as life unfolded, it turned out I was predisposed to depression when my son, Alfie, then aged 3 was diagnosed with Fragile X and it was discovered I, then 36, was a carrier. As a carrier, one of the most common symptoms is depression. Prior to my diagnoses of M.E., and primarily a physical breakdown when I remember literally not being able to lift a spoon to feed myself, I had been working and playing hard, burning the candle at both ends, never wanting to miss out or let anybody down. I started to have debilitating migraines, weird allergic reactions to food, car fumes, cleaning products and most disappointedly alcohol! I suffered from unexplained severe aches and pains and lethargy.
I had endless blood tests and all sorts of tests. It was discovered that I was seriously deficient in things that I didn’t even know a human being needed, like copper, zinc and magnesium. I had toxic levels of all sorts of other things with symbols for names.
Even my GP had never heard of some of the things I was being tested for but he did have the wisdom to refer me to someone who did, Dr Sybil Birtwhistle and, latterly, Dr Damien Downing who specialised in M.E and Nutrition. Most importantly, they treated me holistically which although modern medicine is certainly leaning towards, it, it is by no means there yet in mainstream practice.
After a few very slow years I ventured back in to the world of work. Despite advice to the contrary I went back to the mad and erratic world of live events in the motor industry, working part-time at first but slowly building myself up to full-time.
I loved my work, I loved the people, I loved the travel and the unpredictability. Never, was any day the same. Bizarrely, as a result of my journey and trying to manage my M.E., I combined working on live events all over the UK and Europe with Holistic therapy. I had trained in Massage, Reflexology and Reiki. Having had great results in helping me maintain good health, I became passionate about them all and was keen to help others.
Unfortunately, trying to juggle both careers, enjoy a full social life and continue my lifelong hobby of riding, owning and caring for several ponies, I inevitably suffered a few burn outs and setbacks.
I used to get so frustrated. I hated my seemingly weak constitution and I constantly observed those around me, wondering why I was different to them.
I worked alongside and had friends with hugely successful lives who I continually measured myself against. I was bemused. Fundamentally, we are all made from the same stuff – flesh, blood, bones, nerves, water, hormones, etc. So how was it that I could not cope where others could?
I tried to come off the antidepressants (a relatively low dose) on many occasions because I would feel ok, happy, energised and motivated, but over several years of stop-starting it was evident I was far better on them and I accepted that I would probably be on them for the rest of my life. I was lucky I had no negative side effects.
I can remember, clearly, a time when I was off them, I had sadly lost my horse, ironically his problems started with allergies and intolerances, just like me, causing relatively mild symptoms like the human equivalent of hay fever (very inconvenient for a horse). His problems eventually resulted in debilitating COPD, (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, a progressive lung disease), causing severe breathing problems and a cough amongst other problems so it was decided it was kinder to put him to sleep.
I was devastated and went off for a mini break to Cornwall with a girlfriend. We had a lot of fun but there were a lot of tears too and I had a continuous feeling of despair, I had no motivation to get on with life. A life that was good but it didn’t feel it to me at the time.
I decided along with my GP to go back on the antidepressants. Coincidentally, two weeks later, I had to go back to Cornwall again for a friend’s wedding and, as I travelled along the same picturesque roads through Devon, I realised that although I was still sad at the loss of my horse and my life was exactly the same, everything looked brighter and clearer in the world, literally. I can see it now, in my mind’s eye the sky looked brighter, the colours of the autumn leaves and the rolling countryside looked stunning. Everything around me looked sharper and more in focus. Those two trips, one not on antidepressants and one on them, proved to be a great test to prove I needed that medical intervention.
I continued to have ups and downs in life like we all do but there was no greater up when, after a few years of relative stability, I was working mainly in events, and most of the time for Top Gear Live which took me around the world like a rock star as a PA/goffer to Jeremy Clarkson, Richard Hammond and James May. I was living the dream working in the environment I loved, with many old friends in the industry, travelling at least once a month. Work felt like one big joyride, often flying first-class or by private jet staying in luxury resorts, villas or hotels. It was incredibly fast-paced and non-stop working hard and playing harder. On this crazy ride, I also fell fast and hard in love – and as is well documented – into an affair with Jeremy Clarkson. My life at home was in stark contrast. I was a single mum and I used to come down to earth with a bump, although I was so happy to be back with my loveable, very affectionate son. Alfie, as well as having Fragile X, is on the Autistic spectrum which means for him, severe developmental delay, some physical problems and profound learning difficulties. Coming home was like going through the grief of not having a “normal” child all over again and life was challenging, sleep-deprived and very lonely at times. Obviously being on my own and with Alfie’s difficulties, was harder than if I had been in what I’d also hoped for, a traditional family set-up with a father being around regularly to help out, even with the smallest of tasks, like putting the bins out, making me a cup of tea, doing bath and bedtime for just one night, to break up the monotony, and the long days and nights. I realised that for most mothers’ sanity it is healthy to keep a bit of the original you going and to have stimulating grown-up time when you can focus on one task and complete it. Going to work was an absolute holiday for me, only having to think of the job in hand, often fast and with no let-up but at the end of the day I could have a laugh with my friends and colleagues, have a meal put in front of me and a clean, made-up, bed waiting for me.
Working, and especially travelling away as I did, was a huge break and escapism from the strain of worrying about Alfie. I constantly questioned myself. Was I doing enough?Could he be having therapy or medication that could help? Was I pushing him too much or not enough? How did he feel, was he happy? Would he ever sleep through the night? Would he ever be toilet trained? How could I help him be the best he could possibly be? Those questions I know go through most parents’ minds but not every day and not when your child can’t communicate and doesn’t fully understand the world or people around him. The pace of touring picked up and I was asked to work more and more. I became involved with pre-tour planning and logistics which I was able to do from home for several years the balance was really quite good.
Although life was hectic and sometimes quite chaotic and stressful I was very happy jet-setting around the world with the man I loved and the job I loved. It seemed Alfie was happy getting input from Corrina, his expert childminder, and his dad who arranged his trips from the USA, where he lived, to coincide with some of my trips. My never-imagined, very unconventional life felt great.
Unfortunately, the cracks started to show and, in May 2016, at the same time my father fell down the stairs backwards, resulting in a bleed on the brain and brain damage, my relationship with Jeremy hit the wall. The stress and upset of it all caused me to have my worst breakdown ever. Truly the lowest point in my life. However, it was to be the glorious turning point, as anyone who has suffered life’s cruel dramas will relate to. I came out the other side and realised with hind sight that I wouldn’t have had it any other way. And that’s what I so desperately needed, to learn how not to reach catastrophe point and recognise when things were not working and becoming too stressful. I needed to learn to ask for help before it was too late.
“I have always been passionate about people young or old being truly happy, I now love being able to facilitate that in the dream environment of Mother Nature with my lifelong passion of those magically intuitive horses.”
For over a year, I had been meaning to connect with a new neighbour who ran an Equine Facilitated Therapy centre at the farm across the valley from where I lived at the time. They specialised in working with children with autism, which was my initial interest.
I have had horses in my life from a young age and have been fortunate enough to have my own since the age of eleven. Alfie has been lucky to have grown up with them and had his first sit on one at about 6 months old. Hilariously, his very first sound/communication was the whickering sound that a horse makes to greet you! Horses have effectively been a therapy for me all my life, along with many other animals, but I was about to encounter another dimension of their almost magical power.
I was invited to join a taster at the farm to get an insight into how the therapy worked. I was so looking forward to getting out of the house, having a break and some “me” time in a cosy barn full of horses.
After introducing ourselves and a “check-in” to see how we were all feeling, and what our anxiety levels were like at the prospect of being in with the horses, I volunteered to be the first go in with them, along with one of the coaches, Jo. I had reported earlier that I felt happy and relaxed as I was so happy to be in this idyllic setting with my favourite four-legged friends. A time to breathe.
When asked to select which horse I was drawn to, I chose a beautiful, cuddly-looking black Dales mare. I chose her as I felt like I needed a strong reliable cuddle from a dependable sort. (Dales ponies are renowned for their hardiness and good nature.)
As soon as I stepped into the corral with the horses, I felt my emotions rising and was slightly tearful which took me by surprise. As instructed, I took my time to connect with Bow, a very striking-looking mare, completely, almost mystically black. (It’s quite rare for a horse to be truly black). I moved in slowly and quietly to stroke her shoulder and gain comfort from her soft, thick fluffy fur, covering her sturdy round form.
She wasn’t as keen to be so close to me. My coach, Jo, spotted her swishing her tail, which would not be unexpected on a hot summer’s day, but this was a chilly autumn evening. Her tail swishing was a sign of agitation which prompted Jo to ask how I was really feeling.
And then it all came out. I was almost inconsolable, struggling to speak and explain myself. I was encouraged just to let all the emotion out and to take my time.
To be honest, I do wear my heart on my sleeve and have been a bit of a bore in the past, I’m sure, spilling out the latest upset in my life. But as a mother grieving the loss of a relationship, as well as supporting my mum trying to cope with dad in and out of hospital and arranging for all the care and changes to the house that were required, I was holding a lot in, trying to just get on and do what I needed to do.
Without me telling Jo all the details of what was going on in my life, she advised me to make time for myself, to allow the emotion to come out and rest. At that moment I thought I can’t. I have to carry on.
The reality was that the flood gates had been opened and the truth was out. I actually slept quite well that night but in the morning I felt terrible. I was woken well before dawn, as was normal with Alfie, and I went down to make him breakfast only to be greeted with a special package from my dearest Labradoodle – I’ll spare you the detail!
That was it, I broke, I was truly exhausted and I suddenly felt completely overwhelmed. In mild hysterics I messaged Corrina and another dear friend and neighbour, Sue. I was in total surrender and was desperately asking for help, something I was not good at. And that was probably the first amazing lesson that that equine therapy taught me – let go of emotion, let it pass and ask for help before you reach breaking point. Not easy to do when you’re in a mess and can’t think clearly but the big lesson is to recognise when things are getting too much before you reach breaking point. Awareness of any problem is the first step to solving it.
I was totally blown away by what happened that night in the barn. I observed all the others who went in and chose the horse they wanted to connect with and learnt that the coach gains an insight into the state of mind of the client, even by the choice of the horse and how they perceive that horse’s character or appearance. The horse essentially provides an excellent tool, to guide the coach to ask relevant questions to uncover how the person truly feels and reacts to situations or people in their lives.
The science behind this extraordinary therapy is at its very least, quite simple, human beings benefit from being in nature, in the fresh air, away from the distractions and stresses of day-to-day life, literally back to nature. We haven’t evolved enough to cope with the world we live in today and maybe we shouldn’t. If there is any positive that this current pandemic has taught us, it’s to slow down, look after ourselves and appreciate the simple things like walking in the park, hearing the birds and appreciating all that nature has to offer, or simply spending time with a friend.
The horse has an enormous heart, on average weighing 7.9llbs compared to an average human heart of 12 ounces. The horse’s heart rate is a lot slower than ours and it has been proven that a human’s heart rate reduces in the presence of a horse. (In a safe environment of course).
The horse also has a huge gut with thousands of nerve endings and as with humans they get that gut feeling when something isn’t right and a potential threat is around. As a prey animal with this huge gut they are incredibly sensitive to their environment and anyone in it therefore picking up on our true emotions and energy probably before we have even entered the field. As humans, in our fast-paced, distracting world, many of us have lost the skill of listening to our gut and intuition. It’s still there if you take the time to listen.
On discovering this whole other dimension to the horse world, I was now hooked. I was very keen to learn more as a way to heal my wounds, work on my self-development and aim to be the best version of myself. I was also keen to learn how to help Alfie more and others who suffer from autism or any kind of anxiety.
I was aware of the language of the horse having read about and seen live, Monty Roberts, Horse Whisperer and trainer to the Queen’s horses. I was also lucky enough to have been taught to ride and care for horses by wise horsemen and women who were influenced by natural horsemanship, respecting and understanding the needs of the horses but I had never studied it in full, to completely understand the language of the horse.
I volunteered to help, as an experienced horse woman, at every taster at the farm run by Learning to Listen. I was in awe of how the coaches worked and how the most pessimistic of visitors, who may have only been there to support a child or other family member, connected with their true selves with the help of the horse. I soon signed up for individual therapy sessions and group programs, eventually leading me to train to become one of Learning to Listen’s uniquely trained Transformational Equine Facilitated Coaches. Transformational coaching is meant to provide a quiet, safe place for the client to be heard, really listened to. The coach then facilitates a process asking insightful questions with the aid of observing the horse’s, often very subtle body language, to give clues as to what the client’s true state of mind is. The coach can then feedback and help the client become aware of how they respond to certain situations. For example, a lot can be learnt from how the client initially approaches the horse and how both parties are behaving. The process highlights behaviours and thought patterns that have previously been subconscious. The horses add a very powerful, experiential element. The all seeing/feeling, experience helps to provide tools for life that the client can take away and put in practise in their everyday life. The tools that I am now equipped with help me every day, none less than the “power of the pause” which played out beautifully and comically when learning how I dealt with adversity. We were set the challenge of catching a pony and completing an obstacle course, a couple of the obstacles had to be completed with no head collar on the horse. I thought I’d lucked out with the oldest boy in the herd, Topper, age 37! I had pre-conceived ideas that he would not be scared of anything and I would whizz through the challenge no problem at all. My first mistake was thinking I had to complete the course perfectly and quickly to succeed. There was no winning or losing here it was all about the learning. It’s amazing how most of us immediately start judging ourselves and put ourselves under pressure to complete any task to perfection perhaps trying to exceed anyone else’s efforts.
One of the students didn’t even manage to catch the pony but the learning she took from challenging herself too much without using any help was huge and related back to so many situations in her life.
Meanwhile, I had decided to start by using a head collar on the pony first, to make for an easy start and to get the pony’s attention. All went very well to begin with and I hardly had to use the rope, attached to the head collar, at all. He was just happy to be with me and follow me. We were connected. However, when I led him towards an old gym mat that we both had to walk over (most horses would be anxious about a brightly coloured mat that was not usually in their field and felt odd under hoof), I was feeling confident that this old timer wouldn’t think twice. No, he planted his hooves and would not budge. Quite contrary to what I know, as an experienced horsewoman, I started to just pull on the rope.
My mind had flipped into slight panic, the voice in my head was saying, “You idiot, you should be able to do this, come on get on with it!” I was embarrassed and laughed at myself, exclaiming to my coach Joanne, “I should be able to do this.” She advised me to just stop a minute and asked, “Do you usually just plough on through a difficult time?” A knowing smile crept across my face – yes, I admitted and realised for the first time, that’s what I usually did.
Joanne advised me to take a breath, reset myself and when I was ready walk the pony around to head towards the challenge again. He followed me without me pulling on the rope at all. It was an incredible feeling especially as I went on to complete the challenge, of a slalom through cones, with no head collar. I was totally in the moment, focused on the task in hand and enjoying it. The connection was back because I was at ease and the pony trusted me, was happy to be with me and follow me wherever I went.
“The science behind this extraordinary therapy is at its very least, quite simple, human beings benefit from being in nature, in the fresh air, away from the distractions and stresses of day-to-day life, literally back to nature. We haven’t evolved enough to cope with the world we live in today and maybe we shouldn’t.”
Somewhere on route to that gym mat I had started to doubt myself, the pony would have picked up on that straight away without me being aware of it. The pony would have become unsettled, getting mixed messages from me and feeling insecure because he was needing that connection with me, that leadership, without it, he just stopped at which point my very familiar self-doubt jumped right in and the panic set in. The pony really wasn’t comfortable to follow me then.
The tools I took away, were, to be sure about whatever it was I was about to embark on and the power of the pause. If things are getting out of control and not feeling right, just pause and take a breath to think more clearly about how you might tackle the challenge ahead. This may be for 5 minutes or 5 days but I’ve learnt that it’s very, very useful. I also had a great reminder of one of my biggest traits – rescuing – I had desperately wanted to point out to the girl heading off to connect with one of the trickiest ponies, without a head collar, that she was doomed to fail. But that’s exactly what she needed to do in order to learn what she needed to learn. The lessons with these amazing beasts and therapy/coaching are endless!
Now Joanne Richardson, Sarah Ilaria Northe (my amazing coaches and tutors) and Jo Osborne (my coach at my first taster) are at the helm of this incredible centre that currently provides self-development programs such as the Warrior and training for Equine Coaches alongside a therapy centre for children suffering trauma, children who have social and emotional issues and children who are on the autistic spectrum. It is also in the process of setting up a specialist school for children who don’t fit in to other provisions and benefit from an alternative more expansive way of learning.
It was an incredibly intense and challenging journey to finally qualify as a fully-fledged Transformational Equine Facilitated Coach, in 2019. I nearly gave up on two occasions as there was so much course work and I am not an academic, however, Sarah and Joanne literally coached me through it along with huge support from my peers.
I am currently enjoying a much happier, less stressed, fulfilled life, working part-time at Learning to Listen whilst caring for and continuing to grow Alfie to reach his full potential. Having committed to this incredible way of self-development I have continued to grow and gain resilience to face life’s challenges and perhaps most importantly become empowered to create the life I’m truly happy in. Whilst feeling high about my new skills and understanding of myself, I tried to reduce my antidepressants. However, I nose-dived. I was frustrated and disappointed that my new-found belief that my depression was down to my mind-set and I should be able to live without pills, was wrong. I sought help and asked for a one-to-one session with Sarah. What I learnt was, why was I putting myself under pressure when in fact my life was at that time still very challenging, trying to get all my course work done, look after Alfie and earn a living. Sarah asked, “Why would you take that support away?” To date, I am still on antidepressants but I am very confident of reducing them when the time is right, I’m aiming for this summer as I feel stronger than ever and I know I will not ever go back to my rock bottom with all that I am equipped with now.
There is a chance I will have to stay on a low dose as a carrier of Fragile X. Research has proved that due to a lack of a certain protein in the brain it causes the disorder and this could be the reason for my potential chemical imbalance. I am, however, in no doubt about the power of the mind and I am now well aware of how to look after it. My advice to anyone struggling with life stresses and mental health, get help, learn to love and respect yourself, to not feel guilty, to indulge in regular “Me” time. Invest in you, doing so will pay you back immeasurably. I have always been passionate about people young or old being truly happy, I now love being able to facilitate that in the dream environment of Mother Nature with my lifelong passion of those magically intuitive horses.
And with my new found confidence I have also completed a project that I started whilst touring with Clarkson, Hammond and May and have written a book:
Off Road with Clarkson, Hammond and May –
Behind The Scenes of Their Rock and Roll World Tour to pre-order go HERE