"Elevation through Equus"
Partnering with horses through learning experiences and therapies to heal and grow as human beings.
Often when we are lost or struggling, we turn to fellow humans to help us heal and find our way; but what if there was another species who had a particular set of skills able to open our hearts and our minds and soothe our worries and fears? What if there was a creature who could bring us peace while simultaneously challenging our beliefs about ourselves and the world around us? What if this same creature could help us through physical ailments and limitations? There is indeed such an animal and it has been evolving by our side from as far back as 4,000 B.C. This majestic creature is the Equus caballus; otherwise known as the horse.
Horses have long held a powerful position in our evolution as a means of transport, tools of war, rural livestock, a farm hand and most recently as companions and pets. It was in the early 1960’s that horses were first viewed as a valuable support system for physical therapy patients in Germany, Switzerland, and Austria; and it only took a further ten years or so for these theories and practices to begin to take hold in the United States. Although it wouldn’t be until the 1990’s that people actually began experimenting with the use of equines in mental and emotional healing; all modalities of Equine Assisted/Facilitated Activities and Therapies have been growing exponentially ever since.
When it comes to working with horses, there are two main branches that have developed over the last fifty eight years; the first focuses on the improvement of physical wellbeing and neuromotor function and the second focuses on psycho-social and mental health. Hippotherapy and Therapeutic Riding generally fall under the umbrella of physical and neuromotor function; whereas Equine Assisted/Facilitated Psychotherapy and Equine Assisted/Facilitated Learning fall under the psycho-social and mental health category.
I was first introduced to the use of equines in various activities through my volunteer work with The Ranch. As founder Kate Kohagen says of her work with children in the foster system, “…horses help me begin to rebuild the emotional connection and trust with adults…as a result of our horses providing contact comfort and animal handling, our participants display numerous positive emotional, cognitive, and physical outcomes.” I remember observing some of those early visits when The Ranch was located here in Southern California. I would watch as quiet, closed off little faces opened and lit up with wonder, curiosity and joy as they were nuzzled by miniature horses and full sized mares alike. I also had the pleasure of teaching an “Art Among the Animals” class that utilized art as a medium to connect with these animals on a deeper level. Every class was a wondrous discovery of new perspectives and connections.
It was this early work with The Ranch that first interested me in the effects of the Human-Animal Bond. When the organization relocated to Northern California, I began a search for new ways to build upon the work I had been introduced to; and so I began volunteering with Whitehorse Wellness Center and Reins of H.O.P.E. in Ojai and began to explore the incredible world of therapeutic riding and Equine Assisted/Facilitated Therapy. I also began participating in local Equine Facilitated Learning events with people like Andrea Gaines. Through my work and experiences with these programs, I have not only witnessed this powerful healing work in person, but also have experienced life changing healing of my own.
Equine Assisted/Facilitated Therapies and Equine Assisted/Facilitated Learning are powerful adjuncts to traditional therapies and self-exploration, but can also stand alone in their own right. (As you might notice, I have chosen to note the terms “assisted” and “facilitated” separately because while seemingly very similar, they do in fact represent two very different experiences. An “assisted” activity is one in which the horse serves in a supportive, passive way and allows the human teacher or therapist to take the lead. A “facilitated” activity on the other hand is when the teacher or therapist steps back and allows the horse to guide the session. Both are incredibly powerful forms of therapeutic and learning experiences; but having this distinction allows clients to find a program that suites their own personal needs and comfort levels.)
Horses are large, powerful, prey animals who live in hierarchical herd dynamics and who have been in close proximity to humans for many thousands of years. These qualities give horses a unique way of interacting and connecting with humans. First and foremost their sheer size alone makes them fascinating, frightening and powerful simultaneously; but because they are still prey animals their attentiveness and awareness to the world around them is far keener than our own. Horses can sense the most subtle changes in behavior, heart rate, scent, and emotion; that we as humans may not even be aware of.
Horses are also incredibly expressive in their facial movements, body movements and posturing and as Lisa, Founder of Whitehorse Wellness Center noted, “The biggest difference is that there is no verbal language to hide behind.” I bet if you asked even the most novice of horsemen, they could all give you a good sense of what pinned ears and bared teeth mean even without words! These qualities of awareness and wordless expression allow horses to mirror us in a very clear way; often putting on display the emotions or inner workings that we ourselves might not even realize we are holding on to. Horses also live in the moment and are incredibly forgiving. As Equine Specialist Alia Shahi of Reins of H.O.P.E. shared with me, “We always say, the way you show up in the arena is the way you are showing up in life, recovery, relationships etc.” So, as clients move through emotional states and experiences, the horses continue with them without holding judgement. It is a quality we often find ourselves unable to experience among our fellow human beings. Andrea Gaines adds that, “Equine Experiences help individuals explore nonverbal communication, their intuitive abilities and becoming aware of how their energy can create connection.” Through guided activities and/or meaningful interactions with the horses in an Equine Assisted/Facilitated Learning or Equine Assisted/Facilitated Therapy program, people are able to bring awareness to internal blocks or challenges and work out the means to move past them or to heal from them.
Currently, I am studying to earn my Therapy Animal Professional’s certification and continuing to explore all areas of the Human-Animal Bond; but the volunteer work and experiences I have had over the past four years have only solidified my belief that the Human-Animal Bond and more specifically the Human-Horse bond is an undeniably powerful and profound one. It is a bond that when cultivated and embraced is capable of incredible healing and growth; and while the field of Equine Assisted/Facilitated activities is still very much in its early days, every year, new scientific studies are being released corroborating its many physical, mental and emotional benefits.
If you or a loved one are struggling with life changes, processing trauma, or just looking to enrich your life, please consider looking into Equine Assisted/Facilitated Activities. From veterans, to at-risk youth, from cancer survivors, to children with Autism, and everyone in between, Ojai is blessed to have a plethora of options in the Equine learning and healing field. I have provided links below to some valuable resources if you’d like to learn more.
Reins of H.O.P.E. (EAGALA Certified Equine Therapy Program)
Whitehorse Wellness Center (PATH Certified Therapeutic Riding Program)
Andrea Gaines (Equine Facilitated Learning groups)
EAGALA (Certifying Organization for ground work therapy programs)
PATH International (Certifying Organization for mounted therapy programs)
Walking the Way of the Horse, by Leif Hallberg (An excellent book about the history, science, application and experience of Equine Facilitated Mental Health and Educational Services)