Barn Therapy / by Robin Dienel

A 1500 pound animal running at full speed underneath you while you hold on for dear life would alarm most people, but for Casey Leffue, these animals keep her bipolar disorder manageable.

Leffue, 27, is an aspiring actress in Washington, D.C., who works full time at the Carnegie Institution for Science as an event coordinator. However, she also works as a riding instructor at Rock Creek Park Horse Center three days a week, an environment she said feels like home.

At the young age of three, Leffue was introduced to her first horse in her hometown of Roanoke, Virginia. Since then, she said she’s been obsessed with horses and the lifestyle that goes with it. But what started as an extracurricular activity has now become her own way of managing her mood swings.

“Having bipolar disorder, and especially me, it’s a disease of perception almost,” said Leffue in an interview. “You have to balance am I eating too much too little, exercising too much too little, how am I working, how am I feeling, and it’s nice to have something that unequivocally, not medically, that I can step out of my head and be so in the zone in something that I’m good at, I love doing and I’m happy to do that it helps me subdue the anxiety and bouts of depression and control some of the mania.”

Also known as manic-depressive illness, bipolar disease is a brain disorder that causes unusual shifts in mood, energy, activity levels, and the ability to carry out daily tasks. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, over 2.6 percent of adults in the U.S. have bipolar disease and 82.9 percent of those cases are classified as “severe.”

Leffue said she is one of those severe cases, but it’s riding these horses that helps keep her in control of her bipolar disorder.

“My whole life is filled with me trying to reality check” said Leffue. “But I think it’s so much you’re responsible for, especially instructing, you’re responsible for these kids safety, and you’re responsible for the safety of your horses and taking care of them. You can’t just focus on yourself and I think that’s helpful to step back and every once in a while be like, oh I can actually do it, I can let this go and be a normal human being without being preoccupied with myself and my mental capacities.”

In addition to horseback riding, Leffue treats her symptoms with medication and therapy sessions. She said riding provides both an athletic activity and a mental outlet for her to take a break from her inner demons and let go for a few hours.

Although bipolar disease can be treated, it’s a lifetime of treatment. Developing healthy habits and lifestyle choices is one of the most effective ways to treat bipolar disorder over the long term.

“So I say I work here at Carnegie for the money, so I can live, I’m an actress for my passions, and I horseback ride for therapy.”