I don’t have any horse experience. Will that matter?
Equine-facilitated therapy is often sought out by individuals with trauma/PTSD, anxiety, depression, emotion dysregulation, difficulties with anger, stress/burnout, chronic health issues, grief and loss, and relationship challenges. Horses are amazing teachers of how to be authentically present in the moment; how to listen to the wisdom of your body in making effective decisions about your needs; how to set and maintain healthy boundaries; how to build your capacity to raise your energy and be confidently assertive without fear; how to regulate emotions and modulate your arousal level flexibly based on what is happening now (vs. programmed reaction/trigger patterns from before that are no longer working for you); how to process residual trauma or dysfunctional attachment dynamics; how to shift from being hypervigilant and in your head to a more embodied state of alert curiosity; and how to heal your relationship with yourself and others. It may come to no surprise to learn that equine-facilitated therapy is often one of the treatments offered at the top trauma, mental health and addictions facilities worldwide.
If these themes are of interest to you, then the horses can teach you how to have “horse experience” in a way that is both beneficial to you reaching your therapeutic goals and mutually beneficial for them since you’ll be learning to interact with them on their terms. The wisdom of the herd is truly remarkable helping humans heal.
I’m afraid of horses. They’re so big. I don’t think this is for me.
You may have other situations in your life where something (a person or a situation) is overwhelming your ability to cope, with anxiety, passivity, or avoidance as common solutions or outcomes – all of which are very limiting and reinforce outdated core beliefs about yourself, others and the world around you. Working on building your confidence around horses can help you build the internal capacity and skills to face and renegotiate other situations that have until now left you feeling helpless and hopeless. Equine-facilitated therapy aims to help you shift out of a sense of “I can’t…” to restoring your sense of embodied empowerment, emotional flexibility, agency and ability to take effective action on your own behalf (“I can!”). When you’re able to interact confidently with a 1,200lb animal without fear, and have them respond to you with mutual respect, imagine how useful this might be in other situations in your life.
I have prior trauma involving my time in a particular horse discipline and walked away from horses because seeing how they were treated really impacted me. I’ve also fallen off a horse before, and still have some anxiety about getting back on. Can you help?
- Being around horses or seeing tack and equipment
- Slowly building your tolerance and threshold for interactions with them
- Safely processing residual trauma involving a specific event by focusing on titrated, incremental movements to defuse charge left over from procedural memory
- Shifting out of fight/flight/freeze to greater ease, playfulness, freedom and joy in their presence, among other goals.
If you sustained trauma from a high impact fall related to horseback riding, there is also table work we can do at the office to help you work through the residual trauma in your body related to that event. Please visit The Refuge for more information.
Another advantage of our program is that we incorporate natural horsemanship principles in our way of relating to horses. This means that we build relationships with them based on mutuality, respect and non-verbal communication through body language, both at liberty and on lead. It can be very helpful to learn a different way to engage with horses that doesn’t trigger past abuse or requires you to override your limits or values in order to be with them. It can also be helpful to uncouple fear associated with whips and other tools to see how a carrot stick is used with a very different purpose, that of being an extension of one’s arm to communicate an intention respectfully through energy. Although there are many different forms and schools of natural horsemanship, they all typically share these core principles. In keeping with that, horses in our program are allowed to be themselves – they are not “trained” to “do” equine therapy, because being allowed to be their natural selves and express their needs and opinions as they arise in relation to us is part of what is so therapeutic about being with them.
I don’t know about trauma, but I do struggle with chronic stress, anxiety, anger, grief and loss, relationship issues, etc. Can you help me?
Our program will be of interest not only to people who have experienced trauma/PTSD, but also anyone wanting to focus on any of the following:
- Chronic stress, burnout, compassion fatigue and vicarious trauma
- Relationship and attachment issues (including family of origin dynamics, codependency, boundaries, separation, divorce, abuse, etc.)
- Emotional dysregulation (anxiety, panic, anger, depression, dissociation)
- Addictions and self-harm
- Chronic pain, chronic fatigue or other chronic or threatening health conditions
- Grief and loss
- Self-compassion, self-regulation, self-worth, self-confidence and self-care
- Authenticity, “true self”, creativity, flexibility, spontaneity and joy
- Personal and spiritual growth
- Addictions, eating disorders and self-harm
What is the difference between equine-facilitated psychotherapy and therapeutic riding?
In contrast, equine-facilitated psychotherapy mainly occurs on the ground, is facilitated by a credentialed therapist (or therapist – equine professional team), and there are typically specific goals and a treatment plan. The horses are either at liberty or on lead and allowed to respond in more spontaneous, non-programmed ways when relating with humans. Typically, horses involved in equine-facilitated psychotherapy haven’t got any particular “therapy training”, though they might have training in a particular equine discipline. A wider range of personality styles and nervous systems can make “good” therapy horses (ranging from gentle and calm to perhaps a bit more pushy or unpredictable), as each offers different teachable moments and lessons in horse wisdom to learn from.