People have sought out relationships with horses since we first laid eyes on each other. Although riding horses can be exhilarating, there’s something even more profound that draws us together.
“There are striking similarities between horses and people,” says Dede Beasley, M.Ed., LPC, an equine therapist at The Ranch, who grew up riding horses and has maintained a private practice counseling individuals, couples and families for 30 years. “Like people, horses are social beings whose herd dynamics are remarkably similar to the family system.”
At The Ranch rehabilitation center in Tennessee, equine therapy is a way to experience change in a hands-on way by challenging people to look at themselves and the world in a new way. People who have struggled to make progress or achieve their treatment goals have made significant breakthroughs with the aid of equine therapy.
Research has confirmed the effectiveness of equine therapy, showing that it lowers blood pressure and heart rate, alleviates stress, and reduces symptoms of anxiety and depression. Equine therapy also helps people struggling with addictions and mental health disorders develop the following skills for healthy living.
#1 Identifying and Coping with Feelings
Many people struggling with addictions, trauma and other mental health issues have learned that feeling is painful. They may use drugs or engage in certain compulsive behaviors (e.g., sex, eating or gambling) in an attempt to numb sadness, anger, fear or even joy. For therapy to be successful, one of the first steps is learning to identify, experience and cope with emotions without trying to escape.
Equine therapy is a powerful way to get in touch with thoughts and feelings. Instead of using their minds to address problems, which often leads to denial, blaming others or intellectualizing their way around the problem, they use their bodies and hearts to feel and react in the moment.
Horses have a unique ability to sense emotions and react accordingly. If someone is angry or aggressive, the horse may become obstinate. If the person is anxious, the horse may get skittish. But when approached by someone who is open and calm, the horse is more likely to respond in kind. Witnessing the horse’s response promotes self-awareness and can help people see themselves in a more realistic way.
#2 Communication Skills
As a result of prolonged drug use and isolation, many people with addictions and mental health issues are emotionally underdeveloped. They may have difficulty relating or getting close to other people, yet manage to establish close bonds with horses.
Through working with horses, people recognize their conscious and unconscious patterns of interacting with others. Horses do not speak, but they are excellent communicators. Learning to understand horse behavior can help people learn how others function in the world and the way their behavior impacts others.
“As a sophisticated herd animal, horses immediately begin building relationships with people as members of their herd,” Beasley says. “People then get to decide whether they will hold fast to their old ways of interacting or take this unique opportunity to develop a new kind of relationship.”
While riding can be part of equine therapy, the most important work happens during the interactions between client and horse, she says. Exercises as simple as haltering, leading and grooming teach people how to approach others with respect and awareness.
In equine therapy, people talk about what they see and feel. Through the horse’s responses and the therapist’s guidance, they begin to recognize the ways in which their perceptions are accurate or misguided, and the ways they may be projecting their own issues onto others.
#3 Setting Boundaries
Working with a horse can quickly expose a person’s maladaptive thought and behavior patterns. In an equine therapy session, Beasley may draw metaphors between the client’s interaction with the horse and the patterns in their own lives, addressing such issues as enmeshment and detachment in the family system. Lessons may be as simple as how much physical space the horse needs to feel comfortable.
Without any words at all, horses make clear when someone has crossed their boundaries. Trying to control or dominate will not work with a horse. Similarly, being extremely detached or passive can make it difficult to lead a horse and will deter the horse from complying with a request.
#4 Overcoming Fears
Horses are large animals, which can bring up unmet needs, fears, past trauma, and feelings of inadequacy or lack of control. Regardless of the horse, Beasley says people commonly fear that the horse won’t like them, won’t pick them, or could hurt them physically or emotionally. Rather than giving in to their usual reaction – to escape or get defensive – people learn to tolerate and process the emotion.
“When I do equine work, I feel like I’m witnessing grace. In the barn with those horses, everything is just as it should be,” says Beasley. “These special animals allow people to bring all kinds of issues into the horse’s world, and accept them as they are – imperfections and all.”
In a safe environment, clients learn to face their fears and build confidence in their ability to overcome challenges. People who are intimidated and nervous at first may be surprised to discover how quickly they can process those feelings and find comfort in their relationship with the horse. Empowered by the experience, people may develop the confidence to address other fears and transfer these lessons to day-to-day life.
“Clients at The Ranch don’t have to love horses or have experience working with animals in order to benefit from equine therapy,” says Beasley. “They simply have to be willing to give treatment a chance and move in a different direction than they have in the past.”
Horses are soothing, gentle animals. They are straightforward in their interactions without lying or manipulating. They do not judge or blame. Their presence alone can be immensely healing.
Beasley recalls one client who suffered brutal childhood abuse in her family. Rather than designing a directed equine therapy session, she allowed the client to simply sit in the pasture with the horse. After an hour or so, the client, visibly moved, said, “I’ve never had anybody so big be nice to me before.”
This experience, Beasley says, created an “alternative memory” for the client. Rather than assuming that anyone bigger or more powerful than her would mistreat her, she had a firsthand experience that showed her she could trust again. When people open themselves up, they grow in their ability to build relationships and to ask for help when needed.
After counseling clients for 30 years, 15 of which included equine therapy, Beasley says she still learns something new every day. “I get back tenfold what I put in just by watching someone have a softening of the heart or a moment that creates a new kind of wonderful body memory.”
These five lessons are just a few examples of the growth that happens through equine therapy. Accepting responsibility, taking care of oneself and others, patience, humility, a sense of pride, and an appreciation for the simple joys in life all contribute to the process of change. Even more central to equine therapy is the raw yet difficult to quantify “magic” of the horse.
Few settings are more suited to equine therapy than The Ranch in Tennessee. Clients at The Ranch participate in an equine-assisted psychotherapy group at least once a week. They also have opportunities to take a one-on-one therapeutic horseback riding lesson and to ride horses recreationally on the open pastures of the 2,000-acre working ranch.
“At The Ranch, the land and the horses are integral members of the treatment team,” says Beasley. “If you love animals and nature, you’re going to be in good company here.”