By Laura Scaletti
Portraits by Kristin Lee
Elyse Hart owes her life today to hope, perseverance, love and most of all, horses. From her first pony ride at age 4, Elyse ate, slept and breathed all things equine. Simply put, she was hooked on horses.
That passion would persist in full force until puberty hit, when Elyse found a new way to feel on top of the world: alcohol and drugs. These new addictions eventually caused Elyse to turn her back on her loved ones and her beloved horse Pebbles, and almost cost Elyse her life.
Today, with more than five years of sobriety behind her, Elyse is living a life she almost missed out on. “If you had told anyone I loved five years ago that I would be living this beautiful life today, I don’t think anyone would have believed you, especially myself,” Elyse said. “I was so lost in my disease; today my life is the polar opposite. I’ve reconnected with my loved ones, started a family and am able to chase my horse girl dreams.”
Adopted at birth, Elyse immediately had two loving parents. “The most normal thing that’s ever happened to me was being adopted by a lesbian, Jewish couple,” Elyse laughed.
Dedicated to Elyse’s happiness, her mothers immediately signed Elyse up for riding lessons after a birthday party pony ride. “My first memory is my instructor, Gayle, telling me to take my pacifier out as I would mount up — I wasn’t too thrilled with that direction,” Elyse said. “Pretty soon the lives of my mothers and myself were run by the horse.”
A true barn rat, Elyse rode nearly every day of the week and all weekend. It didn’t matter if she was doing dressage, eventing, gymkhana or jumping, Elyse loved riding and spending time with horses and her fellow barn rats. “Summers were spent at horse camp, having sleepovers at the barn and playing games on horseback,” she said.
While Elyse struggled with paying attention in the classroom, learning while in the saddle really clicked. “Riding made me feel so confident. I was one of the most advanced riding kids at the barn, so my trainers would depend on my grittiness to help others when their horses were being difficult,” Elyse said.
At 10 years old, Elyse’s mothers made her horse-owning dream a reality. “After I’d leased two ponies, my parents and trainers decided it was time for me to get a horse of my own, named Pebbles. She was 2 and not yet broke to ride. We developed quite a bond,” Elyse said.
All the love in the world nor a horse of her own could prevent Elyse from feeling uncomfortable in her own skin as she entered her teenage years. At 13, Elyse started drinking, caught her first buzz and felt a relief she had never before experienced.
“When I drank, I felt taller, skinnier, prettier and thought, This is what I’m missing in my life. I literally thought everyone else felt like this all the time and I was missing that piece unless I drank,” Elyse said. “As confident as I had felt as an equestrian, the alcohol made me feel that 10 times over.”
Horses quickly lost their allure and Elyse got more involved in the social aspect of high school. Elyse started using marijuana in addition to drinking whenever she could get her hands on alcohol. “Whenever I start to share my story I say, ‘You know, I got in with a bad crowd.’ But I didn’t get in with a bad crowd — I was the worst in the crowd,” Elyse laughed.
Elyse’s mothers quickly had enough of this behavior and sent her packing to a wilderness program in Utah for 72 days, followed by boarding school in Arizona for a year.
“It was at boarding school I was introduced to a 12-step program and began to understand I have an allergy to alcohol that happens to me that doesn’t happen to normal people. When I drink it causes a craving for more and more and more,” Elyse said.
Once Elyse returned home — to homeschool, because her mothers weren’t taking any chances of reuniting with her old crew — she dove headfirst into riding again. “As soon as I put my foot in the stirrup, I felt home again and everything felt right in the world,” Elyse said.
Unfortunately, Elyse’s first bout of sobriety didn’t last long and she once again abruptly gave up on Pebbles. “I would go through the duality of having a positive and healthy connection from riding and get confidence from that estimable act. Then I would flip over to darkness and relief from drugs and drinking,” she said.
After a while, drinking and marijuana wasn’t cutting it for Elyse anymore. Enter heroin.
“Heroin helped me stop drinking. My poor family couldn’t smell alcohol on me and thought I had gotten sober, so I thought it was great. It was like,
Yes Elyse, you stopped drinking, but you’re on heroin now. That’s the insanity of this disease, I thought heroin was a solution,” she said.
Still, Elyse would have fleeting moments of sobriety, where she reunited with Pebbles and once again regained the healthy confidence that came from being with horses. But that wasn’t enough to satisfy her, and heroin kept calling her name.
Everything came crashing down when Elyse nearly died from endocarditis, an infection in her heart caused by her IV drug use, and sepsis. At 24, she underwent emergency open heart surgery to replace the tricuspid valve that was damaged.
“My body literally couldn’t take any more and that’s when I had to choose life or death. I felt like if I was going to be miserable using or being sober, I might as well give being sober a shot,” Elyse said. “Even though I was dying, I still had three relapses after my open heart surgery, two from heroin and one on alcohol. Luckily, the universe opened its graces to allow me to have one more chance.”
Throughout Elyse’s cycle of addiction there was always a constant: Pebbles. “My parents never sold her. They kept her in a schooling program, so any time I wanted to take up riding again I was able to. No matter how long it had been, whether I was sober or not, she was always happy to see me and gave me rides that looked like we never missed a day together,” Elyse said.
Elyse genuinely believes horses have been the key to her sobriety. “I would not be standing here today, if not for the healing power of the horse. Horses have saved my life more than once,” she said.
While some hit the yoga studio to meditate and find their Zen, Elyse heads to the barn to find her inner peace. “Riding melts away my worries, fears, traumas, in an instant. The ability to be one with such a powerful animal is something I will never get enough of,” she said.
After being sober for 18 months, Elyse needed a second open heart surgery, as the initial replacement valve had failed. Without her safe haven of the saddle post-surgery, Elyse was going to need a little support from her friends to stay on the sober train. Thankfully, this time around she had another hand to hold and provide support, her now husband, Mike. A sober alcoholic himself, Mike and Elyse navigate the ups and downs of sobriety together.
“Right after we met, while on vacation I felt off. My doctor called and said, ‘You’re in heart failure — you must come home right now!’ Mike could have run, but he stepped in with both feet and has been my rock ever since,” Elyse said.
In addition to Mike, Elyse had the support of the schooling program where Pebbles lived, Total Equestrian Experience. “Gayle was my first instructor and she never stopped teaching me about — and through — life. After my second surgery, I started riding again with Gayle and began teaching in the schooling program that Pebbles loved so much,” Elyse said.
Since her second surgery, Elyse married Mike, became a mom and had to say goodbye to Pebbles. While Elyse was pregnant with son Jax, Pebbles got extremely sick with lymphoma and had to be put down.
“It was healing in a way because I had missed out on so much of her life, but I was able to be there for her when she needed me the most until the very last moment. I feel today she’s an angel smiling down on how my life has turned out,” Elyse said.
Today Elyse has immersed herself in the world of dressage as a working student for Patty Mayer. In July 2020 during quarantine, Elyse learned about the USDF Instructor Trainer Certification Program. Looking to continue her education with USDF, Elyse found out that Patty not only was certified, but she was only 15 minutes away.
“Patty’s on a whole other level; she’s competed at an Olympic trial and knows all of these high-profile riders. Since I moved there, I’ve been able to watch two clinics with Steffen Peters,” Elyse said. “It’s so amazing for someone like me to learn from riders of this caliber through Patty. I’m so grateful she’s become both a friend and mentor to me.”
Like sobriety, dressage isn’t linear and you can always master a new skill. “I love how with dressage, you unlock something new each day. There is always something you can do better in dressage,” she said.
Patty is making sure Elyse gets out of her comfort zone while achieving her personal best. “When Elyse first came to me, she had to build her fitness to make it around a 20-meter circle, after healing from her surgery and having Jax. But she gritted her teeth and persevered. Just recently, she overcame her show ring anxiety and did her first Third Level test,” Patty said. “I want her to learn if she makes a mistake, no one cares, and she’s capable of so much more than she realizes.”
Patty’s message mirrors what Elyse has learned living a sober life.
Not only is Patty helping Elyse achieve more than she ever imagined, Elyse’s horse, Bob, is showing her the way. Co-owned with barn mate Heidi Marusa, Bob is a Prix St. Georges horse and real-life unicorn to Elyse.
“When I saw the first video of Bob, I just had to have him, even though he was more horse than I had ever sat on. After leasing him for a few months, I was so thankful Heidi and I were able to purchase him together,” Elyse said. “My big dream would be to do a Prix St. Georges test with Bob and compete on a national level.”
Out of the saddle, Elyse has dreams of one day creating a mentorship program for equestrians and their loved ones who are struggling with addiction. “Thinking about what I put my parents through, and what many others go through, is what inspires me to be outspoken about my journey and stretching out my hand to the next person who needs my help, which helps me stay sober, too,” she said.
Her first steps at providing a community where athletes who are struggling with addiction can come together is via her blog, All Hart. “Like riding, writing is meditative for me. I felt I had a lot to share and a lot of people, especially my family, to thank for supporting my vision, sobriety and life,” Elyse said.
“I want people to realize it’s never too late to start over,” she said. “Every day is a new day; a bad morning doesn’t mean you will have a bad afternoon. Never give up! You are worth it.”
Follow Elyse at AllHart.blog
Photos by www.kristinleephotography.com, unless noted otherwise
Shoot styled by McKenzie Rollins and shot at Bailiwick House in California. Bridle, saddle pad and breeches from Halter Ego; boots from Dressage Extensions; black sweater from Two Bits Equestrian; white show shirt from Bit and Bloom; casual wear from The Canyon; and Bob’s boots by Dressage Sport Boots