equine therapy
In celebration of today’s mental health blog party, this blog is intended to honor those who give so freely of themselves, enduring our human fallacies, protecting our deepest secrets, and forever remaining faithful in their sincere desire to please us. That is, the horses.

People have always been fascinated with horses. From mankind’s first experiences with them, either through the parochial methods made timeless by the Spaniards (and later the Spanish riding school), or through the natural horsemanship techniques first mastered by Native Americans, horses have represented a power greater than man. To be sure, horses, for centuries, (and many would argue still today), were associated with wealth, and the pillaging of towns and villages frequently included the theft of many horses. Yet not only have horses represented power and wealth to man, but the mystique of something that is both not entirely understood, and not fully controlled. In considering man’s long history with horses, and the endless fascination we have always had with them, it is not hard to see why we would be equally intrigued with the idea that horses can, in some way, help heal what we cannot seem to heal ourselves.

Yet in turning to horses to help us understand ourselves more clearly, we have committed a sinful error. We have done what we do so often with things we do not understand — we have applied our own understanding to them. In the field of what is now known as equine facilitated psychotherapy, we have failed to account for the very agent of healing, that is, the horse.

Traditional methods of equine assisted psychotherapy and learning have looked only at the way the person has responded to the horse, all the while failing to miss the central point of the way in which the horse has responded to the person. This fallacy has occurred so much so that the horse has been treated as no more significant than any other non-living therapeutic entity, such as a child’s sand tray, or an adult’s crossword puzzle. This practice has even gone so far as to ask people to do things with horses that are completely unnatural for them, such as, walking over tarps, painting them, and placing balls on their backs and heads, in the service of “helping people understand themselves better.”

Practitioners have even offered that it is not the way the horse responds that is of any significance, but rather, they way the patient responds to the horse, thereby completely neglecting the very thing that is purported to be the agent of healing. The consensus of practitioners now also conclusively promulgate the idea that horses “mirror” human emotions, which is a clear example of the need to make horses – that which is not understood – a reflection of ourselves. If a horse is said to “mirror” a human, does this not ignore the very concept that horses themselves have their own emotions? Wouldn’t their own emotions express themselves in ways that are unique to horses, and not simply reflections of us? Especially when we are turning to horses to help us “learn about ourselves” why must our need to apply our own understanding of them come before actually learning to understand their language?

As a licensed clinical psychotherapist for more than ten years, but more importantly, a horse trainer for more than twenty years, I decided to write a book to shed insight into an area of the field that I feel has not only been completely overlooked, but sorely misunderstood.

It is my belief that in the field of equine facilitated psychotherapy and learning, we have missed the very science that can most help us – that is, the horse’s own unique language, and just what horses mean through their responses to people. Using narrative examples from my own introduction into the science of horses’ language, along with the most current research on equine behavior, it is my hope that, through my book, you, the reader, can come to more fully understand horses’ own unique language.

In comparing the ways in which horses respond to trauma amongst themselves, with the ways in which people manage trauma – again, using examples from my own education on this subject – I hope to clarify just how horses live in the unconscious, and the ways in which people avoid it – especially in the case of trauma. My intention is to provide a clear premise for why people are so often unaware of themselves, and how through comprehending the language of horses, they can come to understand themselves – and what is unconscious to them – more clearly. In the final chapter, I offer you three case studies, examples of people struggling with their own self-awareness, and the ways in which the horses’ responses helped them to recognize repressed emotions, and just how they moved forward where they had been previously stuck. Lastly, it is my most sincere hope that in reading this book you not only come to understand horses more clearly, but also, yourself.

My introduction to what equine facilitated psychotherapy really is was one that, like most moments of sagacity, left me utterly speechless. Even of more consequence to me was the fact that I had known horses my entire life, having ridden for almost as many years, and been involved in every aspect of the horse business from training, breeding, showing, transporting and mending horses, from the age of five. Yet I had, as many so often do, failed to consider my horses’ capacity for any awareness beyond that of my own. While I recognized horses were highly intuitive and had even had moments with them that evidenced this, I had never once imagined that they knew more about me, than I knew about me. In fact, it was the other way around – I thought I knew more about them, than they knew about them.

Photo by Linda Tanner, available under a Creative Commons attribution license.