Why Horses? A great question. Why Indeed. Here are a few reasons that horses are an excellent partner for learning, healing, connection and de-escalation.
Equine Assisted Learning/Therapy for Emotional Healing
In Equine Assisted Psychotherapy, horses are used as tools for military veterans, and many others to gain self-understanding and emotional growth. It recognizes the bond between animals and humans and the potential for emotional healing that can occur when a relationship is formed between the two species. In most cases, the horses are not ridden, and usually are not tethered in the arena, but allowed to roam free. Exercises can be as simple as giving the client a halter, and letting them figure out how to approach the horse and put it on. www.calicojunctionnewbeginningsranch.org/ptsd.html
Learning to communicate and achieve harmony with a large animal promotes renewed feelings of efficacy. A motivated “I can do it!” replaces feelings of helplessness, de-motivation, by empowering the person to take on new challenges in other areas of recovery.
The learning and mastery of a new (horsemanship) skill– enhances patients’ confidence in their ability to tackle new projects, such as recovery, and leads to improved self-esteem.
Being in close proximity to horses helps participants to develop a more realistic view of themselves through awareness of their size in relation to the horse. This is especially important in treating patients with eating disorders as well as those with interpersonal aggression problems.
Horses naturally possess; sensitivity to non-verbal communication assist patients in developing greater awareness of their emotions, the non-verbal cues that they may be communicating, and the important role of non-verbal communication in relationships.
Learning to trust an animal such as a horse also aides in the development, or restoration, of trust for those whose ability to trust has been violated by difficult life experiences such as physical or sexual abuse, abandonment, neglect, or marital infidelity.
Through grooming activities and other types of care for a specific horse, patients are able to put aside the absorbing focus of their mental illness, such as depressive ruminations, and instead to direct their attention and interests outwardly toward safe and caring interactions.
Many studies of human-animal interaction indicate that contact with animals significantly reduces physiological anxiety levels. Some patients are initially afraid of horses. But horses’ genuineness and affection allay these fears, helping patients to embrace exposure therapy for their anxiety issues.
For many individuals with mental illness, there is a long-term or recent history of feeling rejected by, and different from, other people. Mental illnesses are intrinsically isolating experiences. The horse offers unconditional acceptance invites patients back into the fellowship of life.
Many participants are initially concerned that they will do something embarrassing while learning about or engaging in an equine activity. Yet individuals quickly learn that the other participants are engaged in their own equine experiences, and they observe the comfort of the horses in their own skin. Fears of embarrassment in public are thereby often reduced and self-acceptance increased.
Impulse Regulation (reduced reaction and increased response)
Particularly for those whose, addiction, compulsivity and/or mental illness involves the experience of lost control over impulses, the need to communicate with a horse calmly and non-reactively promotes the skills of emotional awareness, emotion regulation, self-control, and impulse modulation. Research clearly indicates that animal-assisted therapy reduces patient agitation and aggressiveness and increases cooperativeness and behavioral control.
Many individuals with addiction, compulsivity, trauma and/or mental illness are socially isolated or withdrawn. A positive relationship with a horse is often a first, safe step toward practicing the social skills needed to initiate closer relationships with people.
Communicating effectively with a horse requires the individual to demonstrate assertiveness, direction, and initiative; important skills that enable the patient to express their needs and rights more effectively in other relationships.
Many patients have experienced prior relationships as controlling or abusive. Healing takes place as patients discover that a partnership occurs within the context of a respectful relationship between a participant and a horse, and that, although physically powerful, each horse typically operates within the boundaries of this mutually respectful relationship.
Many persons with addiction, compulsivity trauma and/or mental illness have been emotionally inhibited or over-controlled, and have lost some measure of spontaneity. The playful aspects of riding and team equine activities can help restore spontaneity and ability for healthy recreation and play.
1,200 Pounds of Lie Detector:
Jennie Hegeman, an equine rehabilitation specialist as well as a professional horse trainer is another proponent of EAP for PTSD. She is creator of The Hegeman Method, a patented, cross-discipline equine bio-kinetic training and rehabilitation method based on the muscle structure and bio- mechanics of the horse. She has worked with Dr. Sakeada in treating children with physical, emotional and mental disabilities at the National Ability Center in Park City, Utah. Ms. Hegeman refers to horses as “1,200 pounds of lie detector.” Her role is to interpret the horse’s body language, such as flicking ears, wide eyes, or a dropped shoulder that will provide feedback for the therapist and the veteran.
So Why Horses?
The HERD vs. The PACK Dynamic
Understanding and Observations of the Herd Dynamic provides participants an intimate look into how a Healthy family and relationship might operate. The Herd’s main focus is safety of the herd. The Pack’s main focus is on food regardless of the safety issues. Both dynamics serve a natural survival purpose. Knowing when to engage in which dynamic provides choices.
Horses also possess a variety of “herd dynamics” such as pushing, kicking, biting, squealing, grooming one another and grazing together. In the process of describing the interactions between horses, clients can learn about themselves and their own family dynamics.
Hat tip to Calico Junction New Beginnings Ranch, whose web site inspired some elements of this blog series.