It started, as many awareness campaigns do these days, on social media. Ringside Media, a Canadian company that specializes in equestrian photography and is co-owned by Andree-Anne Brunet and Laurel Jarvis, posted on Twitter: “Let’s get the conversation started and destigmatize mental health. This week, post any photo of your horse using the hashtag #HorsesAreMentalHealth on Instagram or Twitter and RingSide Media will donate $1 for every post to CAMH.”

The hashtag and money raised for the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, Canada’s largest mental health teaching hospital and one of the world’s leading research centres, were a huge success. The business partners began the initiative #HorseAreMentalHealth on January 25th and it ran till January 29th. Their initial goal was $300, but through donations made by multiple companies and individuals as well as the sale of their #HorsesAreMentalHealth T-shirts, they raised $3,250. An impressive amount towards helping those in need.

The women timed their campaign to coincide with #BellLet’sTalk hashtag fundraiser on January 28th. This year the Bell effort raised nearly $8 million in mental health funding from Bell, after its hashtag was shared over 159 million times.

Laurel Jarvis competing at Palgrave.

As for Ringside’s Brunet and Jarvis, the duo is not new to this type of campaign fundraiser. Each year they choose a different issue to raise money and awareness for. Last year it was For the Herd, which helped keep Ontario school horses in hay. Brunet and Jarvis raised $1,000 in 24 hours to help the schoolies. This year the business partners chose mental health, an issue that has had even more of a spotlight on it since it the Covid pandemic began taking a toll on Canadians early in 2020.

“Unfortunately, mental health is something that still has a large stigma around it and it’s something equestrians are especially uncertain to discuss,” says Brunet. “We wanted to create something where people who were hesitant to seek help could see how supportive the community actually is.”

They made the decision to launch their hashtag fundraiser for five days, assuming it might take that long to reach 300 shares, but that wasn’t the only reason. “We really want to be clear that the conversation shouldn’t ever stop. So even though our initial week is over, we’re still encouraging others to use the hashtag, and it’s being included in our posts every time as well now too,” Brunet explains. “Mental health isn’t a one-day discussion; it’s an ongoing process to maintain, just like physical health.”

The women also reached out on social media to ask other horsemen and women how horses have helped with their own mental health. “We received some amazing responses. A lot of people told us how it’s an escape from the ‘real’ world, they can tune out distractions and focus just on their horse,” Brunet says. “Sometimes there are events in our life that are overwhelming and beyond our control. The ongoing pandemic, for example, has increased stress and caused a lot of mental distress for some people and being able to go to the barn and spend time with their horse has really helped focus them and distract from the current realities.”

The response was overwhelming, and they received hundreds of messages from people thanking them for what they were doing or to share personal stories. “It was really moving how much a community could come together to help one another.”

Their effort even attracted actor Tim Rozon, “Mutt” from the hit TV show Schitt’s Creek. He shared their post and tagged them while sharing a photo of him with a horse using the hashtag. (Interesting fact: Tim is the nephew of FEI official Phillip Rozon! Both hail from Montreal.)

Another final point that Brunet and Jarvis want every rider and reader to know is that a mental health dialogue isn’t a trend – people need to continue the conversation. “There are a lot of great resources online on how we can look after ourselves, but being able to spend time with horses definitely is one of them.”

As part of their ongoing effort to support those suffering from mental health issues, Brunet and Jarvis have created an Instagram account @horsesarementalhealth for people to share their stories.