Equine Therapy works. Here’s why.
Lessons from Horses on Mind, Body & Spirit.
Equine therapy and skiing may seem to have little in common, but for me, an understanding of “downhill therapy” helped me on my path to working with the healing power of horses. Early in the winter of 1993 with twelve inches of new snow blanketing the ski slopes, I found myself on a chairlift with a ski pro named Woodchuck. He was there to teach a motley crew of us how to become bonafide ski instructors. On the second ride up the mountain, he casually asked, “So Beth, how do you initiate your turn?” Dumbfounded and slightly mortified, I had no idea how I initiated my turn. Having skied since age three, I never consciously understood how I made a turn.
I realized in that moment, if I wasn’t conscious of my movement, I couldn’t improve it or teach it to anyone else. That day, I began to play with how subtle shifts in balance, pressure, and engagement within my body yielded dramatic shifts in my overall pleasure and skiing ability. Said in a slightly different way, by breaking down the way I made my turns and fine-tuning each part, I could skillfully create my desired result.
FAST-FORWARD 20 YEARS
I found myself in an arena with a horse – charged with a seemingly simple task. Leading a beautiful black mare, on a lead rope, at a comfortable distance, and getting her to stop when I asked. The result: she crowded me, seemed to think she was in charge, and she stopped at least two steps after I wanted her to.
“Hmm…,” said my Equus coach, “Is there a similar pattern showing up in your life?” I looked at her in disbelief. This was exactly where I struggled with my own kids. By bringing awareness to the unconscious patterns in my parenting, I again realized, if I didn’t understand the pattern, I couldn’t improve it. How could subtle shifts in my body, my intentions, and my awareness make me a more skillful parent?
Working with that beautiful mare, I began to uncover a pattern in my life and the opportunity to practice setting clear boundaries in kind ways. My girls were 10 and 12 years old at the time. I had oriented my life around empowering them to follow their interests and develop their independent voices. But through my approach, I unintentionally disempowered myself. I often lacked personal space, felt little clarity around my own needs and desires. And I sometimes asked for things 2 or 3 or 6 times before I got a response.
THE MARE HELPED ME SEE
If I was clear with what I wanted, and respectfully, sometimes firmly, communicated my need for space or my desire for her to stop, she learned to be with me in a way that worked for both of us. No need to yell at her or make excuses about why she wasn’t cooperating. Once I simply became clear in my own mind and in my communication, she understood.
I felt a shift in my whole body when the mare responded to my specific requests and preferences. Bringing this skill home would be a gift to our family. The horse helped me see a pattern and learn how to show up more effectively.
A CURIOUS CALLING
I did not grow up with horses, nor do I ride. But living in Carbondale, I felt instinctively drawn to wanting my little girls to be with these big, beautiful creatures. As my girls’ love grew, I became more and more curious about the amazing ways horses could support people in learning and healing. Around the same time, my girls experienced the Horse Boy Method for autistic children through Susan Gibbs and Sheryl Barto.
I RAPIDLY BEGAN TO SEE THE WISDOM OF EQUINE THERAPY
Horses are excellent at helping people build body awareness, confidence, and healthy boundaries. They can also transform people in both unexpected and imperceptible ways. Horses meet people where they are, without judgment. In their non-verbal way, they help people become more honest and connected with themselves.
I have witnessed powerful transformations when, with the right guidance, people experience themselves in new ways through riding, playing, or simply being with horses.
LEARNING FROM NATURE
Horses have evolved over millions of years. As prey animals, the survival of the herd depends upon their instinctual, intuitive, and collective awareness. This is deeply rooted in even the most domesticated breeds. Historically, people have controlled horses through domination, but if we can learn healthier ways of being with ourselves and others, horses’ survival strategies can teach us to be less predatory and controlling and more collaborative, clear, and respectful.
Programs designed by healing professionals and traditional horse people focus on building a variety of skills that are transferable to other areas of our lives. Participants leave with unique memories of how it feels to be with a horse, their horse.
STEPPING INTO OUR BIGNESS
A horse’s big presence requires us to step into our bigness to be with them in a healthy, safe way. If we don’t provide leadership, the horse will. Some horses can be bold and bossy. On the ground, they may not respect a person’s space or may want to lead instead of being led. I’ve witnessed timid people learn to fearlessly stand up for what they want. Other horses have gentle personalities and offer a steady foundation, while beginner riders practice skills and gain coordination. I’ve also seen horses comfort or protect grieving clients. Many horses seem to know when they can push the limits and when it’s safe and necessary to be gentle.
Horseback riding is a unique form of physical, psychological, and occupational therapy for people with a wide range of disabilities. Horses become natural extensions of a rider’s body as their gait closely replicates ours. They are an incredible resource for people developing body awareness, strength, coordination, alignment, agility, and balance. Machines and exercises work too, but when people, especially kids, sense, feel, and adapt to a horse beneath them, their body learns quickly. It’s both exciting and physically challenging. Additionally, the height and strength of a horse allow a rider to meet the world in a direct and empowered way. WINDWALKERS blends the best of these practices to address the specific needs of each client they serve.
For kids and adults with ADHD, the urgent focus required to manage a big horse helps them build habits and neural pathways to channel their attention and organize their thinking. They have fun focussing on a specific task, and rarely realize how much they are learning.
Recreational equine therapy works with all ages and abilities. ASCENDIGO uses outdoor adventures like horseback riding to build independence and expand life experiences for children and adults with autism. Through experiences and play, people use their bodies more fully. They feel empowered. This engagement translates back into their lives.
Horses’ hearts are enormous. Secretariat’s heart was 22 pounds – that’s 5 pounds heavier than our adorably overweight cat, Tulip. While most horses’ hearts weigh around 8 pounds, they have a powerful effect. Being with a relaxed and collected horse feels akin to being with a gifted spiritual leader. There is a visceral sense of calm that impacts everyone present. On a physiological level, oxytocin floods our bodies, filling us with the feel-good hormone often associated with breastfeeding and sex. Horses synthesize and release oxytocin in their hearts when they are calm. This further relaxes their nervous system and ours.
SMILING GOAT RANCH
Being flooded with oxytocin allows us to relax, be fully present, and process information more effectively. People with autism and anyone struggling with anxiety or PTSD particularly respond to this aspect of equine therapy, the foundation of the Horse Boy Method practiced at SMILING GOAT RANCH.
Neuroscience has proven that our brains learn best when we feel safe. In fact, there is a trap door that blocks access to our prefrontal cortex when we are in fight, flight, or freeze. Once the mind is calm, it opens, allowing learning and rational processing to occur. To build resiliency, it’s essential that our minds know how to stay calm under a variety of circumstances. For some neurodiverse people or those suffering from PTSD, their mind struggles to quiet down.
Laying along the bare back of a specially trained, gentle giant allows people to relax in ways many have never imagined possible. Alternatively, the hip-rocking motion of riding also encourages the release of oxytocin. This gives the team of practitioners at Smiling Goat Ranch an active way to teach new concepts through conversations and games and helps participants build a more expansive network of neural pathways.
THEIR UNCANNY INSTINCTS
When horses are free to move at will, we have an opportunity to watch how our presence affects them. In equine-assisted coaching or psychotherapy, people work with horses on the ground in a round pen, arena, or pasture. These practices are integral to many local recovery programs and are powerful for individuals, families, and corporate teams. Task-oriented experiences can involve moving a horse through an obstacle course, or simply riding in a pasture with the herd. Their highly sensitive nature and finely tuned mirror neurons reflect their experience. So unbridled horses teach us lessons and reveal subconscious patterns we may never see otherwise. Equine therapy supports us in exploring our intentions and habits. We can test new strategies without the judgments, distractions, words or agendas of others. When clients make certain internal shifts, it’s amazing to see how the dynamic shifts with the horses.
Coaches and licensed therapists differ in their training and who they serve. As an Equus trained coach, I create experiences for individuals, parents, and leaders to explore personal challenges and important relationships at home and at work. Licensed therapists, like Aimee Dale-Lucius and Sheri Gaynor, use experiences with horses to improve the health and well-being of their clients while also being able to address clinical mental health issues. Horses allow them to work skillfully on areas of mindfulness, emotional regulation, distress tolerance, and interpersonal effectiveness.
AT THE END OF THE DAY
At the end of the day, horses remind us who we are beneath the layers of identities and multiple hats we wear. When we slow down, take a deep breath, and notice their horsey smell, their soft coat, their breath, we can be present. The experience can be deeply healing and meditative. Gaynor, in partnership with other professionals, often uses guided imagery, art, and horses to reconnect individuals to themselves and their inner wisdom. It’s one of the unique experiences healing professionals have created in the valley to help people remember they are not alone and the best answers lie within themselves.
What I’ve witnessed personally and professionally in both humans and horses has stretched the way I understand connection, intelligence, and instinct. The individual stories of healing are too many to capture here, but the smiles and the tears, the joy, and the stillness people experience with horses become unforgettable memories they can draw upon again and again. Being with horses allows people to see their gifts and challenges honestly, and allows them to play with creating a more authentic physical, mental, and emotional relationship with themselves and others.