It takes a lot for Pharaoh Brown to feel small.
But as he learned his first time riding, even at 6-foot-6 and 246 pounds, he has nothing on a half-ton horse.
"Horses are super smart, super intuitive, so it was a humbling experience," the New England Patriots tight end said of his first time horseback riding.
"I'm a bigger guy, I'm used to going out on Sundays and trying to impose my will on opposing teams. Being in the position where now, I'm dealing with a horse that I'm looking up to that's massive and super strong, and it could impose its will on me at any moment."
For Brown, that new experience couldn't have come at a better time.
He'd been going through the motions for years, bouncing between three NFL teams in as many seasons, trying to catch on in the league, get healthy, and support his growing family. All the while, he internalized everything, but one offseason it started to surface.
"Everybody is different, but everybody is dealing with the same things in some aspects," Brown said. "We're always moving fast, we're always busy, but we're never taking the time to reflect. For me, life was moving so quickly and I was just holding all this energy in and going with the flow. It didn't stop, you know?"
Brown caught himself slipping up when he told his wife he had to leave town for a football camp he'd scheduled. He booked a flight, and arrived at the airport, only to get a text message as he arrived and realize the camp wasn't for another month.
"I never thought it was an issue for me. You hear people talking about mental health, but until it happens to you, you don't realize what you're dealing with," Brown said.
"My brain just wasn't clicking, and I'm usually a sharp guy. I was overemotional and started crying a week later, and that's when we realized I was going through some things. I shared it with my wife. We just started doing yoga and meditating. We went to our house hidden in the Mountains of Utah – being out in nature and just finding places to give us peace."
Growing up in Lyndhurst, Ohio, an eastern suburb of Cleveland, Brown was used to life in a city. Visiting Utah for the first time blew his mind, and he fell in love with the mountains, so he and his wife escaped to this home to reset.
There, he developed his appreciation for the outdoors and saw what it did for his mental health. But his fifth season in the NFL was approaching, and eventually, it was time to get back to Houston.
He wasn't necessarily looking for another outlet, but a friend invited him and his wife to their horse ranch. As he came to find out, whether it's in the mountains of Utah or a horse ranch in Texas, it grounded him.
"Being in Utah and being up in the mountains snowboarding and stuff, my wife and I would just go out in the morning and hit the slopes and it was peaceful and away from the past-faced world," Brown said.
"But we weren't going to the ranch for that. I honestly was going there because I wanted to be like Walker, Texas Ranger – I thought I was going to be this cowboy, riding, pulling out a little BB gun and stuff like that. But ultimately, it ended up being very grounding and therapeutic."
Aside from his wife, Brown wasn't to talk to others about what he was going through. Traditional therapy was never an idea he was comfortable with, and just calling up a stranger on the phone wasn't for him.
Finding something he loved to do that required his unwavering attention was therapy in its own right.
"It's a bond. It's chemistry," Brown said. "Horses, they'll buck you off if your energy and their energy isn't matching. It can be bad for you. You take it seriously. The focus that it took, and the energy and chemistry, I think it was more therapeutic for me because it allowed me to get away from everything else in the world. You have to take the time to slow down and build a bond with this animal."
Slowing down in nature was exactly what helped him find the balance he was seeking.
As he continued to ponder this over time, he realized the importance of not only doing what you love, but being around the people who love and support you. Life moves too quickly for those who are just racing to get through the next thing.
Brown figured he couldn't be alone in this, and for the NFL's My Cause My Cleats initiative this year, he wanted to shine a light on other modalities of therapy.
"That modality was beneficial for me in helping," Brown said, referring to riding horses, but not limiting that. "You're able to get away. I think not all mental health issues can be cured with medicine. The pressures of life, everybody deals with it, and the best thing I found that helps me is to just get away. That could be a hike, it could be just connecting to nature, wherever you can be in your own space."
His custom clears on Sunday, in the Patriots matchup with the Los Angeles Chargers, will tribute Windrush Farm Therapeutic Equitation in North Andover, Mass.
Brown set out to find a local non-profit doing his kind of work in New England and found the cause, not realizing the organization's late founder, Marjorie Kittredge, was named a Patriots Foundation Community MVP in 2009.
Since 1964, the farm has provided assisted services for children and adults facing physical, cognitive, and emotional challenges through therapeutic riding, unmounted programs, and other horse-related activities. Today, it's a leading therapeutic riding center in the United States and has hosted equestrian events for the Special Olympics for decades.
"I picked Windrush Farm because it was a local charity," Brown said. "It brings me peace, and when I saw they helped those individuals, that was a plus. It's woman-owned and women-founded. I grew up with all women in the house and a single parent, so I always love to support that. Those were some of the things that stood out to me."
Learn more about Windrush Farm here.