Stress can be both clandestine and insidious. Often, we don’t realize it’s there, as it sneaks up on us like the preverbal frog in hot water, until it overwhelms us. Yet, at the same time, undetected stress can have a very measurable and deleterious effect on cardiovascular health, immune function, weight, mood, and psychosocial functioning. At the same time, the number of ways to battle stress are about as numerous as the effects. While the efficacy of these methods vary widely, certainly the introduction of almost any type of pet therapy has been demonstrated to improve mood, lower anxiety levels, and boost overall sense of wellbeing.
So let’s take a look at some of the ways equine therapy can help reduce stress.
Decreased Hypervigilance: Hypervigilance is about an exaggerated startle response, feelings of fear or persecution, and a physiological activation. In this state, the person presents a very interesting scenario to a horse. Horses too can have hypervigilance, however there’s is always related to something in the present. Humans, on the other hand often experience, in the now, the physiological effects of something that happened in the past. In the horse and human relationship, a person with hypervigilance that is rooted in the past will often cause the horse to adopt a protective nature toward him/her. Not only does this behavior interrupt any dissociative symptoms the person may be experiencing, but also, simply being in a horse’s presence in this way, induces calm.
Experiencing Authenticity: Horses, unlike humans, only know how to authentic, and consequently, want humans to be this way as well. That being said, horses will often act with people in ways to make them more authentic, such encouraging expression of hidden anger (by pushing boundaries), hidden grief (by protecting, as described above), or hidden power (by responding willingly), and therefore more whole. For most people, this is an incredibly calming experience.
Uncovering Hidden Feelings and Thoughts: People can have many hidden feelings and thoughts that correspond to them. As these things may be lodged in the unconscious, experiencing a relationship (with a horse) that illuminates behavioral patterns that are being acted out, but not fully understood, can often help identify the emotional roots of this misunderstood, or conflictual behavior. Once these things are brought into the conscious awareness, not only do they cease to create conflict, but the anxiety attached to them is lowered.
Establishing a Healthy Relationship: While a healthy relationship can be a subjective concept, certainly we know when we are invalidated, hurt, shamed, or not accepted. As horses only know to accept us as we are, the feelings that are often linked to an unhealthy relationship can be resolved, and the experience of a unique authentic relationship can dramatically lower the stress — especially that which is attached to any unhealthy relationship patterns.
Increased Sense of Power and Control: Horses have, for all of history represented power, and when a person can begin to communicate effectively with a horse, and begin to have some influence over the way the horse responds, that sense of power is shared.
While it may never become a “mainstream” approach to stress management, for those people who own and love horses, they can be no better therapy.
Horse and rider photo available from Shutterstock