Horses as Healers
By Margaret Evans
“The greatest gift you have to offer the world is that of your own self transformation.” - Lao Tzu
A group of teachers enjoying a leadership workshop at Spirit Gate Farms in Victoria, BC, have the task of moving a loose horse. One man takes an aggressive lead as he focuses on a young Arabian mare called Grace. The two women in the group are uncomfortable about the man’s approach but say little and follow his lead. They apply pressure to Grace’s back to get her to move. The horse braces, refusing to budge. By now the man is flustered, the women are not feeling emotionally safe, and group unity is failing.
“I suggested to them that they take a few moments to stand together and notice their bodily reactions, their breathing, and pay attention to their thoughts,” said Michelle Atterby, director and founder of Spirit Gate Farms. “How could they come together and support each other first before proceeding with the task? We often move from thought to action and forget to align or sync up our body sensation and feelings with our intentions. We move from head to action and horses do not understand this language. The most important step is the somatic experience, connecting with one another, and making a request not a demand.”
A huge range of people are being helped by horses, from bullied children, to individuals suffering with addiction or depression, to veteran soldiers coping with post-traumatic stress disorder. Photo: Richard Kinsey for Refuge Services
The group begins to soften attitudes and attune with each other. They create a group intention, a unified field of focus, moving forward from a place of inspiration. They allow nothing threatening or assertive. Their intent is only quiet alignment. And as they approach Grace she willingly moves forward in the intended direction.
The man is astounded. He falls silent, tears welling in his eyes. All his adult life he has pushed to make things happen. Grace has shown him the difference between the assertiveness of demand and the emotions of request. At his core, he is both humbled and grateful.
In a facility in Utah, a client unfamiliar with horses stands in the arena. A gelding approaches. He starts to nip at her arm. It is unusual behaviour as the horse does not have a habit of nipping at people. But the client allows it and the horse continues to nip. Later, she would explain to her counsellor that the horse nipped at her because he liked her. It is a revealing, illuminating moment. She has come to the therapy session as a victim of domestic violence. She clings to the unhealthy belief that the nipping behaviour of the horse and the violence she experiences at home are parallels of aggressive behaviour that in her mind mean that she is liked by others.
“Our horse provided her an opportunity to start changing her belief systems about relationships and to start standing up for herself as he escalated his nipping,” said Lynn Thomas, co-founder and executive director of Equine Assisted Growth and Learning Association (EAGALA). “(He) did not stop until she decided she was tired of that treatment and wanted it to stop. (She) changed her behaviours so that he did stop.”
Horses can increase our self-awareness of the ways we interact with and relate to others. This EAGALA client is working to move two horses representing family members to their goal. Photo courtesy of EAGALA
Founded in 1999 and headquartered in Utah, EAGALA has grown exponentially. It has 3500 members in 41 countries and territories throughout North, Central, and South America, across Europe, the Middle East, Asia, parts of Africa, Australia, and New Zealand.
Today, people are communicating with horses in ways never imagined a decade or so ago. In the process, they are learning valuable lessons about their own deep-seated behaviours, fears, addictions, phobias, and challenging mental states. For decades, horses have been used in therapeutic riding and hippotherapy. But more recently horses have been engaged in equine assisted psychotherapy, a therapeutic practice in which clients gain insight into their troubled or challenged lives through a biofeedback process. And it has proven to be remarkably successful.
The programs utilize a mental health professional, an equine specialist, and a horse working with a client. No riding is involved; this is therapeutic work on the ground in which the horse’s response to a set of actions, or experiences, is interpreted metaphorically or as parallels during the process of analyzing the feedback.
The concept is based on the idea that, rather than face-to-face talk as in conventional clinical sessions, clients gain more beneficial insights into their mental or emotional state when they can experiment, problem-solve, take risks, or use creativity to find solutions. The equine specialist reads the reactions of the horse while the mental health professional coaches the client with interpretive analysis. Sessions are held in a secure arena setting and the horse is loose and usually without a halter.
Horses can teach us the importance of good communication and respect. “When I respected her boundaries, Aria let me come right in and share a very special moment,” recalls this Horse Spirit Connections client. Photo: Andre Leclipteux, Horse Spirit Connections
But why horses? Because their size, strength, power, and open honesty place clients in a position where they must draw on emotions from within, develop confidence, face their fears, set goals, and achieve a desired outcome. Horses are social, complex animals with individual personalities, behaviours, and responses to any given set of conditions. Each outcome is unique. Rather than a horse being selected for a client, a client may choose the horse he or she wants to work with.
“Many times as a professional, we will think we know which horse is ‘perfect’ for a client but they choose a different one that does end up being perfect,” said Thomas. “I have learned that the horses and clients know what is going to work best for their process, and as the treatment team, we have to be open to watching and listening so we don’t block the power of the process.”
That philosophy also works well at Horse Spirit Connections in Tottenham, Ontario. The facility was founded by Wendy Golding and her husband Andre Leclipteux. Their work helping people with horses was featured on Global TV Toronto in the fall 2012. The segment was chosen as one of the top eight shows in Susan Hay’s Making A Difference series.
These children are moving the pony from one area of the arena to another while remaining attached to one another and the pony. This activity, called “The Blob,” builds teamwork, relationships, problem solving skills, and confidence, and helps with frustration and anger. Photo courtesy of Randy Hamelin, Country Sunset Stables
“Horses have an advanced ability to communicate,” said Golding. “(They) can take you straight to the heart of the matter, to the things we don’t acknowledge even to ourselves. They are masters at guiding us to overcome blocks and limiting patterns of behaviour to regain control of our own lives.”
There is a huge range of people being helped by horses. There are children with obesity and eating disorders, at-risk street youth, children being bullied or who are bullies, and children who are traumatized by physical and sexual abuse. There are young people and adults with all kinds of addictions, anxiety disorders, depression and other mood disorders, schizophrenia, and stress from family or working relationships, and there are military service people dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder following the horrors of combat abroad.
“We have had great success working with veterans over the last three years,” said Randy Hamelin, a professor at St. Clair College, Chatham, Ontario, a professional counsellor, owner of Country Sunset Stables in Woodslee, and a certified EAGALA member. “They come in with their shoulders up, high stress, high anxiety and, within five minutes of working with a horse, you see their non-verbal (attitude) change, their posture relax, and they are deep breathing and coming together as a group and as individuals.”
This couple discovered that horses could help bring them closer together. “When we were in harmony, Lady willingly walked with us. [She] supported us as we explored our relationship, it was really magical!” Photo: Andre Leclipteux, Horse Spirit Connections
Hamelin’s horses have helped the soldiers work through their emotional triggers. They work both indoors and outdoors, in sand, mud, heat, and cold – all the conditions that some veterans avoid for fear of relapse or of triggering buried, fearful memories. But the therapy sessions help them think outside the box, find strength with other group members, and achieve peace with the horse.
“A great example is when we were working on feelings,” recalled Hamelin. “One of our members labeled a horse ‘happy’ and thought that, if he brought a carrot to the session, the horse would do what he wanted. The horse did do what he wanted (but) when it came time for us to circle up and process the activity as a group, happiness bit him in the butt because he forgot that he had a carrot in his pocket. He had an “Aha” moment and said he had been missing happiness and it took happiness to bite him in the butt to realize it!”
Hamelin said that horses have the power to influence people in incredible ways, including developing relationships, training, horsemanship instruction, and caring. These influences translate into human benefits such as work ethic, responsibility, assertiveness, communication, and healthy relationships.
Horses tend to mirror our emotions and body language. One of the greatest lessons clients learn is that when they change their own mindset or approach, the horses respond very differently. Photo courtesy of EAGALA
Horses, like humans, are social animals (with) distinct personalities and moods. These similarities offer opportunities for metaphoric learning.
“Because the horses mirror the behaviours of individuals, each horse behaves differently with every session,” said Hamelin. “We often allow our clients to choose which horse they would like to work with. We feel that each horse comes with a history, just as our clients do. The clients form their own perceptions on what each horse is to them.”
The benefit of working with horses can have impact very quickly.
“I have always witnessed a client experiencing deeper insight and an expansion of awareness with just a single session,” said Atterby. “The mirroring is profound, the feedback is honest and without judgment. The experience is somatic and there is no denying what the body feels. The environment is safe and contained and the horses always have something to teach.”
At Empowered by Horses in Abbotsford, BC, girls are empowered to lead lives with courage and compassion.
To help this young girl build a sense of self, Certified EAGALA facilitator Randy Hamelin encourages her to paint the horse with pictures she feels represent herself. Once she is finished, the horse is bathed and she walks it around the farm to dry. Then she is to write a journal entry about her experience. Photo courtesy of Randy Hamelin, Country Sunset Stables
“Research shows an extremely high number of young people are subjected to bullying, so we were moved to create a program that would empower and build resilience in teen girls,” said Carla Webb, a former 13-year member of the Vancouver City Police who spent considerable time working the beat in Vancouver’s notorious Downtown Eastside. After witnessing the devastating effects of drug addiction on young people she was determined to find a solution that not only focused on prevention and education but empowered youth.
At her Anam Cara Farm and Learning Centre, Webb works with Sharolyn Wandzura to use the herd dynamics of horses as an inspirational and effective model for learning heart centered leadership. Both women are life coaches and studied Equine Guided Development at Chiron’s Way in Maple Ridge, BC. They also took training through the Natural Connections Learning Center in Minnesota.
“Our signature program is called ‘Bold and Brilliant,’” said Webb. “During the five-month program, we offer four phone coaching sessions to parents followed by an intensive weekend for the girls. The Bold and Brilliant weekend includes education and practice in setting clear boundaries, communicating effectively, creative problem-solving while working with the horses, and role playing with each other. The final piece of the program is comprised of three monthly half-day sessions at the farm.”
Round pen exercises can help develop self-esteem and leadership skills, as this Horse Spirit Connections client discovered. “When I asked Paris to come in and she did, I felt a strength in me I’d never felt before.” Photo: Andre Leclipteux, Horse Spirit Connections
Follow-up monitoring continues as the girls assimilate their new skills into daily life and there is always help for any difficulties the changes bring about.
“This is when we see the magic of growth and transformation in each girl,” she said. “This type of work with horses in nature can be so healing and life changing for so many people. We are fortunate to offer private sessions as well as respond to requests for custom programs with other groups. We have facilitated fantastic family camps and summer horse camps and, yes, boys come too.”
The human/horse therapy process also works on the soul level in regions of the subconscious that individuals are barely aware of. At Horse Spirit Connections, both Golding and Leclipteux are Epona approved instructors and certified shamanic coaches. Epona Equestrian Services is a leader in the field of equine facilitated experiential learning founded in 1997 by author Linda Kohanov (Tao of Equus, Between the Worlds, and Way of the Horse) and Golding trained with Kohanov seven years ago.
“The marriage of partnering with the horses and our shamanic training provides opportunities for spiritual healing at a deep level,” said Golding. “The experiences with the horses focus on what is happening in the present moment and allow for an experiential moment where they can take the learning into a body knowing.”
Life is full of obstacles. These EAGALA clients work with each other and the horse to overcome (literally) one of their challenges. Photo courtesy of EAGALA
She said that horses read the slightest gestures of body language and are able to sense both conscious and subconscious energy states. She emphasized that it is always the inner state that horses respond to. Without judgment, they read and mirror what is inside, bringing to light one’s authentic self.
“One of the first horse experiences (participants) have is what we call ‘Meet the Herd,’” she said. “We observe which horse shows interest in a particular person and which horse a person is attracted to. We have 12 wise teachers with different personalities and skills. It is always amazing to us as we watch how the horse/human relationship unfolds and what is revealed.”
She told the story of a mother who was having issues with her parental role and responsibilities. She chose Lady to work with. As it was, Lady was the only mare in the barn that had had a foal and was a model mother. In another case, a woman had relationship issues and she chose to work with Thor, a large male horse that allowed her to face feminine/masculine aspects she had been struggling with.
As much as clients struggle with inner demons and emotions, the industry itself faces its own growth challenges.
“The biggest challenge we see in this industry is awareness, recognition, and acceptance of this new healing modality for developing human potential,” said Golding. “(But) I have seen much more acceptance in the last couple of years.”
This married couple was asked to move the horse to a specific destination. After some struggling, they found a unique resource which worked for them and the horse. During the course of this exercise, the hula hoop became for them a symbol of the strength in their marriage. Photo courtesy of EAGALA
Equine assisted psychotherapy and equine facilitated wellness are new and emerging fields of therapy. To guide this growth industry, the National Association for Equine Facilitated Wellness (NAEFW) has been formed in Canada. Its mission statement is: “Fostering knowledge, growth, ongoing education, accountability, and support for people working in a respectful partnership with horses in healing and learning environments.”
The organization offers a training program and a certification process for those wanting to enter the field. It incorporates a range of counseling, experiential learning, education, and personal development approaches by bringing horses and humans together.
A high priority for practitioners is that the profession of equine therapy is understood by the public in the context of aiding individuals seeking treatment for specific mental, emotional, or psychological issues in a safe, controlled environment. But one of the frustrating challenges of an emerging health industry is that misguided or uninformed individuals jump on the bandwagon with false claims that a new therapy can cure social ills. Such a claim was made recently that equine assisted psychotherapy could “cure” social preferences such as homosexuality. Sexual preferences are healthy personal choices and such claims are absurd, groundless, and without fact. But the downside of these claims circulating the Internet is that misinformation risks being spread in the wider media context. Education and public awareness of the clear values of equine therapy are high priorities among all professionals engaged in the industry.
An EAGALA client was invited to build a representation of his dream. He put quite a bit of work into creating this “castle,” and then worked to bring a horse representing himself to that dream. Photo courtesy of EAGALA
Funding and operational maintenance are also issues to be addressed.
“The biggest challenges are the logistics of providing the services – having the facilities and horses in place and the revenues to keep up the extra expenses this entails as compared to other mental health approaches,” said Thomas. “The benefits justify the costs so it is imperative that programs have the funding support of their operations as well as the cost of providing the services to the clients. The other challenge is to continue to bring awareness to the public, mental health communities, and funders.”
The use of horses to facilitate the healing of mental issues is, undoubtedly, a growth industry. Horses are traditionally used for competition and recreation but equine assisted psychotherapy broadens a new component for human development.
“Learning and healing are taking on new meaning,” said Atterby. “We live in a world of continuous change and innovation and no longer can we rely upon the traditional practices of rational learning and healing focused primarily in the mind. Each one of us experiences the world in our own unique way and we must have a variety of options to offer people in support of integrating the mind, heart, and body as a path to wholeness. I believe horses offer one unique approach, whether it is learning new skills in a corporate environment or supporting someone recovering from trauma. The practice of expanding personal awareness is ever evolving and has the power to profoundly bring our attention to the present moment. This is exactly how horses live their lives.”
Main Photo: Reins of Hope - A horse's open honesty has the ability to influence people in powerful and profound ways.