Ride to Recovery

Sophomore Eliza Sander’s finds relief through horseback riding


Isabel Rumsey

She arrives at the stables, and the scent of fresh hay and heavy manure immediately strikes her. She grabs a lead rope, walks to her horse’s stall and starts tacking up. Her helmet straps are fastened. Her tall, black boots are newly shined. As she slides the cold, metal bit into her horse’s mouth, she looks him in the eyes, preparing for their ride.

You may think sophomore Eliza Sanders is an ordinary girl with an interesting hobby.

Hold your horses.

Two years ago, Sanders cut her arms with pencil sharpeners and scissors.

She started self-harming during middle school, the time when balancing school work and a social life was too much for her. She hid this secret from her closest friends and family.

“I wouldn’t talk to anyone about it, and none of my friends knew,” Sanders said. “My family definitely didn’t know.”

She kept the secret to herself for about a year. Later, during her freshman year of high school, she attempted suicide.

While driving to pick her mom up one day, Sanders said “it was all [she] could do not to jump out and kill [herself]”. She felt sick, so she got out of the car and started crying uncontrollably. Her mom rushed out, and Sanders could no longer hold it in.

“I’m dangerously suicidal,” Sanders said, through tears, to her mom.

With that, her mom took her straight to the hospital. There, doctors told the Sanders family that Eliza was a danger to herself and needed further evaluation at Summit Ridge mental health hospital.

“I was all alone,” Sanders said as she described her ambulance ride to Summit Ridge. “I was crying the whole way there.”

Sanders stayed there for five days and five nights.

“I was with a bunch of other teenagers that were exactly the same as me and had gone through the exact same things as me,” Sanders said.

Once she was released from Summit Ridge, she started seeing multiple therapists. After rounds with them, the advice “started to get repetitive” and Sanders no longer found them helpful.

With no outlet for her emotions, Sanders reached out to a longtime dream of hers: horseback riding.

“When I’m on a horse, it feels like home. It feels right,” she said. “It’s where I’m supposed to be.”

Sanders started visiting Little Creek stables twice a week.

“I see Little Creek as a very warm place,” Sanders said. “All the people there are so welcoming, inviting and accepting. It’s like a big equine family to me.”

Accomplishing riding goals makes Sanders happier than almost anything else.

“It feels better than getting that ‘A’ on a test or writing that awesome essay because I know it’s something that I want to be doing for the rest of my life,” Sanders said. “Knowing that I can do this and that I’ve worked so hard to be able to do this is just really, really rewarding for me.”

Horses guided Sanders towards recovery.

“[The horses] can’t talk. They can’t say anything, but there’s a way that I could confide in them without having to tell them [anything],” Sanders said. “They weren’t there for me, they were there with me. Along the way, and along everything that happened, I could lean on them.”

Kathleen Tice, a horse owner at Little Creek Farm, thinks that girls and horses have “a very spiritual connection.” She acknowledges that humans connect with other animals, but for her, nothing measures up to horses.

“We all have dogs and cats, but horses are in a different league,” she said.

Tice notices mental connections between horses and riders, but Sanders sees physical connections, too.

“The horse I’m riding is a reflection of what I’m doing,” Sanders said. “If I’m doing well, he’s going to be doing well.”

Mark Jaglarz, a riding instructor at Little Creek, was Sanders’ “rock along the way.”  With over 50 years of experience alongside horses, he knew exactly how to strengthen Sanders’ interests.

“The outside of a horse is good for the inside of the mind,” Jaglarz said. “They take care of your body, mind and spirit. They change the lives of people.”

“I kept going back every week, and Mark and all the horses were there,” Sanders said. “They would just look at me, and they would seem to say, ‘You’re not going to leave us, are you? You’ve got to stay. You’ve got to keep learning. We’re here, and we’re going to help you.’”

With that, Sanders kept riding, and her love for horses grew stronger and stronger. The horses boosted her self-confidence until she discovered she didn’t need others’ approval.

“It doesn’t matter what they think of me as long as I can get on that horse and do what I am able to do,” she said.

Above all, she learned about resilience. Her roadblocks introduced a new philosophy.

“If you fall off the horse, you’ve got to get right back up,” she said. “That’s kind of the way I like to look at life.”

Sanders dreamed of being a large animal vet or a competitor in horse shows, but recently decided she wants to open a facility similar to Little Creek.

“That would be a great thing for me because that way, I would be there every day, surrounded by the things that I love most,” she said.

eliza 8Sanders’ recovery was a reality check. Now, she considers her time at Summit Ridge with newfound perspective.

“In a way, I’m glad it [happened] because I wouldn’t be the person I am now,” Sanders said. “I know that’s really cliche, but it’s true. I wouldn’t be as strong, confident and persistent in what I want as I am now.”

Sanders’ battle with self-image is not yet over, but with the support of family, friends and horses, she gets back up every time life bucks her off.