Getting back on the horse

Te Anau scrubcutter Slade MacDonald’s had his fair share of challenges in life. Now he’s using that experience to help others doing it tough in rural communities.

What’s your current job?

I’m working as gorse cutter and sprayer. When I’m not doing that, I’m helping out another local contractor here.

You’ve had some challenging times by the sounds of it.

Yes, I really struggled there for a while. I lost my Dad to an ice climbing accident when I was eight. He was only 36. It was real shock and that was definitely hard on mum, so things were a bit rough for a while because she was left to look after three wild little boys, me and my two older brothers. Dad was Kiwi and my mum’s a Canadian and so we went and lived over in Canada. Mum got all better and everything was cruising along, but then when I was seventeen, in my last year of high school, she passed away.

That must have been incredibly tough.

Yeah, it’s not until you’re an adult that you kind of understand the full impact of something like that. But for while there, I was a wild child that’s for sure. I got up to some bloody mischief and acted like a real dip shit. One of the reasons I came back to New Zealand was to straighten myself out.

How did that work out?

I was doing alright for a while, but when you don’t talk to anyone about what’s going on for you, it all just kind of boils up eventually and overwhelms you. I just felt frustrated all the time and done with everything. I was working as a farm hand and I remember one time something happened with a fence and I was so frustrated I started bawling. I was so angry at life. I wasn’t eating or sleeping properly either and that definitely affects how you operate during the day. I’d end up drinking too much and making silly decisions. It felt as if life wasn’t worth living. But thank god, I’m still here.

What helped you get through?

Reaching out for help and talking to people. But also, finding the right person to talk to, and that can take a bit of time. But thankfully here in this town, I’ve got a lovely lady who’s very heavily involved in the rural mental health sector. If I need to talk to someone, she’s been amazing.

What else helped?

I realised I didn’t have anything to look forward to, so I got into the rodeo scene and started hopping on bareback horses. Dad was a bareback rider and one of the first Kiwis to make it to the Canadian rodeo finals.

How did bareback riding help your recovery?

I suddenly felt a lot more motivated. It gave me something to look forward to and it was a decent challenge too. I’ve had to learn new skills and step outside my comfort zone. I’ve been doing it two years now. I’ve still got a lot to learn, a long way to go, but I really enjoy it. It’s bloody awesome.

What’s the buzz of it?

Bareback riding requires your total focus. As soon as I hop on and put my hand in the rigging, which is what you hold on to, it’s kind of like a suitcase handle that’s on the back of a horse, I forget about everything else. As soon as I drive my hand into that, all the worries of the world go away. And it’s a real rush.

What else do you do to maintain your wellbeing, so you don’t slip back into that negative headspace?

Keeping well is about doing a lot of small things that add up to big wins. Finding someone you get on with to talk to. Going for a drive down the road and spending time at a beautiful spot. It’s doing the small things like that and then having something that really turns your crank to build up your confidence and self-esteem again. For me it was rodeo.  But if you like rugby or hockey or golf or whatever, get into that.

Any other tips for keeping well?

It’s good to keep the body moving and stay in shape. That’s one of the reasons I started gorse spraying – to stay fit for rodeo. I thought, if I go gorse spraying, then I get paid to work out pretty much. So, I run around and do that and that helps keep me well too.

Do you have any strategies for dealing with stressful moments during the day?

I find breathing techniques pretty handy. It’s kind of like the deep breathing they do in yoga. When you focus on your breathing like that, it regenerates the mind.

The other thing I do is just go for a horse ride. I live on my grandparents’ farm and we’ve got horses here. So I ride out onto the neighbour’s place and around the cow block here. It’s a great way for me to just kind of take in the natural environment and have time to myself. Even though I’m a social guy, I quite enjoy the solitude of moments like that. They calm you down and relax you.

Farmstrong’s working hard to improve the wellbeing of rural communities. What do you think needs to happen?

It probably sounds a bit ‘hippy’ but I think we’ve all got to try and be more positive and treat life more lightly. Sometimes it seems like we’re just surrounded by all this negative news and negative people. If all you’re reading is this negative stuff or you’re just thinking negatively about life and yourself, then there’s only going to be a negative outcome.

 Do you think we’re making progress?

Yes I do. The rural community where I work in the Te Anau basin is amazing. I’ve found there’s no stigma if you want to go talk to your mates about mental health. My experience has been that nine times out of ten, your mates are going to pat you on the back for speaking up and they’re going to talk to you about it.

 What’s your message to someone out there who may be struggling?

If you need help, speak up. Give your mate a text, hop in the ute and go round and have a beer with them on the verandah. Just say “things are a bit tough right now mate and I don’t know what to do”. My mates definitely guided me in the right direction. That’s where it all started.

Looking back at your journey, what’s your main take out?

If you’re struggling with burn out and anxiety, you’ve got to fight it. You can’t just give up and let it drag you down. My story shows that there are always things that you can control that will make you feel a hell of a lot better.

At the end of the day, everyone has challenges in life. You’ve just got to tell yourself, ‘life’s a bitch, I’ve got to make it a beach’.

Farmstrong is a nationwide, rural wellbeing programme for farmers and growers. To find out what works for you and ‘lock it in’, visit

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