Severe depression threatened a Michigan teen’s life. But now she has Levon, an Arabian therapy horse

Julie Mack

Thirteen-year-old Abigail Bolli credits an Arabian horse for saving her life.

Last summer, she was suicidal.

Today, she is not.

One reason, she says, is the relationship she’s developed with Levon, a therapy horse at Outside In Stables in Grand Haven.

“Levon is my hero,” said Abigail, who lives in Whitehall. “I don’t think I would be here today without him.”

Abigail has suffered for years with severe depression and anxiety. After a nine-day stay at a psychiatric hospital in September, a family friend suggested that equine therapy might be helpful.

It’s worked where other treatments have not. After years of feeling numb and disconnected, Abigail has bonded with the horses, particularly Levon. The therapy is teaching her the importance of trust, the value of relationships and connections. It’s built her confidence and helped her address her fears. Because the horses are so sensitive to human moods, it’s given her motivation to calm herself. And when depression has threatened to overwhelm her, it’s given her a reason to live.

The thing with depression is “you’re sad all the time, and you feel numb 24/7,” Abigail said. Looking forward to being with the horses on Friday “seems super small to someone who doesn’t struggle with mental illness. But to somebody who does, it can seem like your entire world.”

“When there’s nothing else, at least I can think, ‘Levon has his favorites and I’m one of them,’ “ Abigail said. “That gives me something that I didn’t have before.”

Abigail’s story is one of how mental illness can cripple a young person. But it’s also a story of parental persistence and a teen’s resilience.

Abigail was born a sensitive soul, says her mother, Rebecca. But that sensitivity became noticeably problematic when she was in fourth grade.

Abigail became afraid of making friends, afraid of being judged by her classmates, hyperconscious about any social misstep. She would fixate on the smallest slight, “and just get stuck on that,” Rebecca said.

It was concerning enough that Abigail started therapy and went on medication.

But the anxiety only got worse and morphed into depression.

“I wrote poetry all the time, and I would send my really depressing poems to my mom while she was at work,” Abigail said. “It was my way of saying, ‘Hey, I’m not OK, but I’m too afraid to confront you about it.”

There was a change of medication. More therapy. But things would get worse before they got better.

By this time, more symptoms developed, including extreme insomnia.

“I would hear a noise, and I’d think, ‘Oh my God, somebody’s in the house. Oh my gosh, oh my gosh,’ ” Abigail said. “I would cycle that thought for hours on end, based on that one noise. Then I would be like, ‘Oh gosh, I’m not getting enough sleep,’ and then cycle for hours on thinking about how I wasn’t getting enough sleep.”

Her daytime hours weren’t much better, said her father, Sean. “I mean, 95% of her day could have been good, but there’s that 5%, just one little thing, and it would wreck her day.”

By last summer, Abigail was cutting herself and having suicidal thoughts.

“I was just so dead inside that I wanted to die,” Abigail said. “I told my therapist that I didn’t want to exist anymore.”

That led to a nine-day stay at Pine Rest, a mental-health facility in Grand Rapids.

Abigail began to turn a corner toward recovery.

The stay at Pine Rest “didn’t stop my thoughts, because there’s no quick fix to suicidal thoughts,” she said.

But it did provide her with a peer group going through similar struggles, which made her feel less alone, she said. It also “showed me new coping skills for suicidal thoughts, and that was what I needed.”

Those skills included a list of strategies to stop the cycle of negative thoughts.

She learned, for instance, that exercise and physical movement can produce dopamine, a hormone associated with feeling pleasure.

“I have a chemical imbalance in my brain,” Abigail said. “There are times when there’s not enough dopamine, and the lack of that can really harm you. So the idea is, I’m going to produce some more dopamine.”

Still, after leaving Pine Rest, Abigail’s social anxiety was such that she started homeschooling. There have been more medication changes.

There’s also been the equine therapy at Outside In Stables in Grand Haven, in which licensed counselors use horses to work with clients on a variety of mental-health issues.

“I have a hard time connecting with humans sometimes,” Abigail said. “But animals don’t judge you for the way you are.”

It also can be a better way to better connect with a therapist. “It’s more natural to have a conversation while brushing a horse,” versus sitting on a couch, Rebecca said. “She’s more likely to open up.”

And there’s this invaluable lesson: You can’t force a 1,200-pound animal to do something against its will. That means changing your own behavior to get the desired outcome.

Abigail has become fascinated by how horses are among the animals most sensitive to human emotion. “When we’re close to each other, our hearts start beating the same,” she said, and when the horse becomes nervous, she knows she can help calm him down by being calm herself.

She learned that lesson early on with Levon, her favorite horse, when the two of them saw a snake.

“I was freaking out and he was freaking out,” Abigail said.

Her therapist at the equine center, Susan Boeve, had Abigail do a breathing exercise to address her anxiety, and Abigail was shocked to see that the exercise didn’t only calm her down, but also helped the horse relax. “You could physically see the effects” on the horse, she said.

“It showed me how our environment really affects us,” she said. “It’s given me a lot of insight.”

And after months of feeling numb and depressed, Abigail’s relationship with Levon and the other horses is bringing joy back into her life.

On a recent Friday, Abigail and her therapist retrieved Levon from the outdoor corral and brought him into the indoor arena.

The presence of several strangers made both Levon and Abigail a little anxious.

But knowing Levon can sense her mood, Abigail murmured in his ear and feed him carrots. And it eventually worked: Levon became relaxed enough to follow Abigail around the arena without a lead, the first time he’s ever done that.

The equine therapy has made an “enormous difference,” Rebecca Bolli said. “I think she’s worked through a lot of fears. It’s given her a lot of coping skills.”

“It’s not just a horse, right? I don’t know how to emphasize enough that it’s not her just being around a horse,” Rebecca said. “The horse doesn’t tell her that she’s that she’s wrong. The horse doesn’t tell her, ‘Get over it.’ The horse doesn’t give her all these answers.

“It’s a very nonjudgmental thing where Abby just gets to be Abby.”

Abigail and her parents are hopeful that she’s on the road to recovery.

She would like to return to regular school for ninth grade, although she’ll likely transfer to another district. She’s interested in getting involved in a high school theater program.

A top student academically, she dreams of someday become an advocate for those with mental illness, as well as opening a cafe.

Her illness is real and serious, she said. “It’s not just some self-indulgent thing. It’s as real as any other health issue.”

But, she added, “I’m more than just a sad girl.”

Abigail Bolli, 13, takes part in equine therapy under the supervision of counselor Susan Boeve (not pictured) at Outside In Stables in Grand Haven, Mich., on Jan. 17. “Levon is my hero,” said Abigail, who lives in Whitehall, Mich. “I don’t think I would be here today without him.” The horse is named Levon. Abigail Bolli, 13, takes part in equine therapy under the supervision of counselor Susan Boeve (not pictured) at Outside In Stables in Grand Haven, Mich., on Jan. 17. “Levon is my hero,” said Abigail, who lives in Whitehall, Mich. “I don’t think I would be here today without him.” The horse is named Levon.