Horses Heal: How equine therapy works and how it's created a revolution in human development

Over the course of the last several years there have been some New York Times best sellers about horses and their journeys.  Some of these have been about famous race-horses, like Seabiscuit and others have been about underdogs like Snowman the former plough horse who became a show jumping champion after being rescued from slaughter.  People are generally fascinated by horses. 

Horses have been bred to be responsive to every facet of human behavior. They can smell small changes in sweat and other body chemicals.  They can sense small changes in the heart rate of the being next to them.  They can sense minuscule changes in their environments, and they respond extremely quickly. 

Stress-free woman rubs horse as part of therapy.

Twenty years ago, several pioneers in the field of equine facilitated psychotherapy created programs to train professional therapists and facilitators in the unique art of partnering with horses to help suffering humans.   Almost all equine assisted therapy addresses the relationship of the human being to the horse as one of partnership. 

The horse, therapist, and equine facilitator invite clients into a relationship that includes the horse.  To the horse, the relationship is reminiscent of a herd of horses, and the horse approaches the members of the group with the same kind of concern and consideration.  To horses, a relationship is instantaneous.  Whether or not it is a positive relationship, a negative relationship, one of domination, or subservience will get worked out in the herd behavior, but relationship begins upon the first meeting.  To be part of the group, is to be in relationship. 

Because horse relationships can be meaningful and short–lived, horses don’t make the same investments that people do.  The relationships that horses make to the members of their herds are different than the relationship bonds that people make with each other, and with horses.  The meanings that come up for the humans through the course of an equine therapy session are often very illustrative of what other relationships the client is navigating. 

The majority of communication for people is nonverbal, but we don’t think about this often.  But horses know, and they read the nonverbal communication in relationships quite well. 

Horses have gotten to be exceptional lie detectors.  If you are standing around and saying that you are in a good mood, and everything is beautiful, but you’re actually anxious because your mother-in-law is coming to stay this weekend, your horse will know.  He won’t know WHY you are incongruent, he’ll just know that you are, and it will mean that your session, your lesson, your ride, or your time at the barn is going to be less enjoyable than it could be. 

Horses don’t require much acknowledgement for you to become congruent.  You need only admit (usually out loud) that you are in a bad mood, and why, and the horse will calm down.  He calms down not because he understood the sentiment or the story, but because your body changed when your behavior got in-line with your feeling. 

Equine therapy can’t fix everything, but it can shed some light on issues that are difficult to get to in traditional talk therapy.

Equine therapy puts the client and the therapist in a different form of engagement.  Rather than sitting and talking, the client and therapist are engaging in a novel form of behavior.  The horse is introduced as a partner to assist both client and therapist.  Typical sessions are from 45 minutes to an hour and a half.  Typically, there is a part of the session dedicated to talking about the interaction with the horse, and how that interaction might be instructive about other behaviors or patterns for the client. 

Equine therapy has been very effective in helping people increase confidence, build self-esteem, decrease anxiety, recover from addiction, etc.  Also, there has been healing experience for clients who have autism.  Some of the most healing work has been with clients who suffer from PTSD, other traumatic experience and clients who have experienced severe neglect.  Equine facilitated psychotherapy can be used as a primary modality or as a secondary adjunct to traditional therapy.  It can also be very effective in helping couples work through communication issues.

If you are a client and would like to learn more, or if you are a psychotherapist and would like to refer your clients, please contact us at: 310-853-3638. 

Our equine facilitated psychotherapy sessions are held in Santa Clarita, California. 

Photo by Ieva Vizule on Unsplash