Equine Therapy A blog about equine (horse) therapy and how it helps heal 2013-04-16T18:21:30Z https://blogs.psychcentral.com/equine-therapy/feed/atom/ Claire Dorotik-Nana, LMFT http://www.leverageadversity.net <![CDATA[Can Equine Therapy Help You Learn To Listen?]]> http://blogs.psychcentral.com/equine-therapy/?p=1345 2013-04-16T18:21:30Z 2013-04-15T22:52:54Z horsebackcrpdFew people really listen. Sure they may hear the words, comprehend the message, but do they really listen to the meaning behind the words. Every spoken word comes with an emotional context in which it was derived. We may say, “I’m bored,” but really our body language says, ‘I don’t like this.’ Given this example, most people will surely understand that the speaker has nothing to do, but do they also understand that he/she is discontented?

This sort of listening involves paying attention to more than the words a person says, but the body language behind the words. Unfortunately, our society does not always facilitate this kind of listening. For one thing, we are typically distracted. Ask yourself, “When was the last time I listened to someone without thinking about anything else?”

My guess is that this happens less frequently then most of us would like to admit. And yet, changing our busy distracted lives can be tough.

Well, one area where it is almost impossible to be distracted is when working with a horse. Not only is focus a safety issue, but also in order to convey any message to the horse with clarity, one must be aware of what is being conveyed nonverbally.

For example, if a person is telling a horse to slow down, yet the body is tense, the message the horse hears is “Slow down but go.” Obviously, the response a person will receive from the horse in this situation would be that of confusion, perhaps even fear. in order to rectify this situation, the person would then have to examine exactly what is being conveyed verbally, and nonverbally, and in order to get the desired response, make the two align.

In addition to this, in order to work successfully with a horse, a person will have to pay attention to what the horse is conveying, and being that horses are 100% nonverbal, learn to attune to this communication method. Of course, the more closely a person can listen, the more they will read the horse’s communication correctly, and also be able to communicate more effectively.

As it turns out, much can be said be saying very little…when we truly listen.

Horseback photo available from Shutterstock

Claire Dorotik-Nana, LMFT http://www.leverageadversity.net <![CDATA[Do You Connect Better With Animals Than People?]]> http://blogs.psychcentral.com/equine-therapy/?p=1337 2013-04-04T18:23:30Z 2013-04-03T04:13:50Z lovemycatcrpdFor many people, being around animals is simply easier than being around people. No shortage of sentiments are written about the fact that animals do not judge, criticize, or reject us. And yet, do we ever stop to consider, is the ease with which we connect with  animals in any way distracting us from the very things that might be preventing connection in human relationships.

While the facilitators of equine therapy promote the idea that equine therapy offers a way for people who do feel understood by other people to feel accepted and perhaps begin to understand themselves, is this actually turning the focus away from the very things that might be obfuscating human connection?

Interestingly, this question can be explored beyond the context of equine therapy. Many people own dogs, cats, birds, and a host of other animals for the many companionship qualities they offer. Can we say that these people are ignoring their desire for human companionship — and the consequent search for it — by simply purchasing an “animal friend”?

As with any question, there are probably several separate circumstances which will give a multitude of different answers. Some people may own animals, and not have any trouble with human connection, while other may purchase a pet for this very reason.

But the two are not inter-changeable. Equine therapy, or owning a horse, dog or cat, will never be the same as developing a deep emotional bond with a person. At best, equine therapy can offer a window into understand what are the barriers to human connection? From that point, the work is with people, not horses.

Because our fears, insecurities, and defenses, whatever they are, needed to be worked out in the circumstances in which they were originated. As a horse did not do the original damage to a person who has been hurt by another, a horse cannot soothe the fears that it will happen again. While equine therapy can provide comfort, and understanding, that understanding must be taken into human relationships. It is at this point, that horses truly do their best work, because we allow them to be what they are — horses — and not expect, or force upon them our unmet human needs.

Love my cat photo available from Shutterstock

Claire Dorotik-Nana, LMFT http://www.leverageadversity.net <![CDATA[Want To Get Out Of Survival Mode? Try Equine Therapy]]> http://blogs.psychcentral.com/equine-therapy/?p=1329 2013-03-26T17:19:54Z 2013-03-24T02:03:42Z horsewomancrpdA major feature of PTSD, or any anxiety disorder for that matter, is a state of constant hypervigilance. In a word, people who struggle with very high anxiety can be said to be, for the most part, regularly in survival mode.

The problem, of course, is that for people for are in this overly-activated state, identifying that they are actually in this state, and the effects of this on themselves and those around them can be quite challenging. And because this state has been chronic for some time, knowing how to alleviate anxiety, bring down the physiological responses, and return to a calmer state, can be even more challenging.

Certainly, for those who work with anxiety disorders and those with PTSD, there are many modalities designed to lower anxiety. The idea with many of these interventions is to facilitate present-moment awareness, and thereby gain control over the sometimes overwhelming symptoms of anxiety. Yet, the question is, do these modalities require a person to be fully present?

For any person who has ever tried to meditate, the answer is unfortunately all too clear. Because meditating doesn’t force a person to be fully present — that is to say we can attempt meditation while the mid wanders, and it is up to us to bring our attention back — for many sufferers of anxiety, the experience itself may be more frustrating than it is helpful.

So is there a way to, in a sense, require a person to get out of survival mode and be fully present? The answer is yes. When the lack of present awareness actually jeopardizes safety, a person will become present. For example, let’s say that Jim, a PTSD sufferer arrives home one day to find his 6 year old son trapped underneath a bookcase that has fallen on him. We don’t have to guess what will happen, Jim’s senses will heighten, his reactions will quicken, and he will act, in the moment to save his son.

Obviously, this sort of situation could not be considered a therapeutic modality, but in a way, working with a horse — otherwise known as equine therapy — does require a person to be fully present for many reasons. For one thing, a horse itself is an animal that is in a very frequent state of hypervigilance, and to work with a horse and communicate effectively, a person has to be calm, or the horse will become startled, and yes, potentially dangerous. Further, if a person is not fully present with a horse, let’s face it, he/she is at risk. The is after all, a very large animal, and for any person, PTSD or not invokes a feeling of reverence.

Perhaps the most appealing part of equine therapy for those with anxiety is simply that nothing other than present moment awareness is required. There is no need to revisit the trauma verbally, not need to attempt to direct attention anywhere, no need to practice any form of relaxation routine. The horse’s behavior itself will serve as a barometer for a person’s anxiety, and naturally, as every person most likely wants to be around a calm, rather than startled, horse, the inclination to be present, and thereby reduce the symptomatology of anxiety is already there.

Horsewoman photo available from Shutterstock

Claire Dorotik-Nana, LMFT http://www.leverageadversity.net <![CDATA[The Mythology of Equine Archetypes]]> http://blogs.psychcentral.com/equine-therapy/?p=1322 2013-03-15T18:31:40Z 2013-03-15T02:24:08Z horsecrpdWhile much has been written about human archetypes, and mythology in general, little has been authored about the role that horses play not only in myths, but also in our own understanding of archetypes, and of ourselves. However, there are two important publications that do pertain to this subject.

Linda Kohanov, a practitioner of equine facilitated psychotherapy and author of several books, including The Tao Of Equus, has recently written a new book, titled, “Way of the Horse: Equine Archetypes for Self-Discovery,” which also including 40 cards designed to help promote understanding of these equine archetypes and of ourselves.

Working with Kim McElroy, who is renowned for her equine artwork, the book explores the way in which horses can guide our understanding of ourselves and the archetypes that may be at play in our lives, and has been quite well received.

Another powerful accounting of equine archetypes and the role of the horse in mythology has been written by Beverly Kane M.D., who is best known for her development of the “Medicine & Horsemanship” program which is the monograph for the Medicine & Horses course syllabus as taught at the University of California San Francisco and Stanford University medical schools.

Titled, “The Mythology of Horses” Kane’s work explores the five archetypes that horses can embody, and the myths, stories and fables that pertain to each. Kane then also discusses the way in which of these archetypes can be seen in our present-day relationships with horses. A comprehensive and intriguing account, “Mythology in Horses” provides a thought provoking read, and a profound understanding of why we incorporate horses into our lives in the ways that we do.

With works like Kohanov’s and Kane’s that incorporate archetypes and mythology into equine-facilitated therapy, hopefully our understanding of ourselves through horses will be enhanced, which, of course, is just one of the many gifts that horses offer.

For more information about kohanov’s work, visit: www.eponaquest.com and for more information about Kane’s work, visit: www.horsensei.com

Stallion photo available from Shutterstock

Claire Dorotik-Nana, LMFT http://www.leverageadversity.net <![CDATA[Equine Therapy: Can Working With Horses Reduce Suicide Risk?]]> http://blogs.psychcentral.com/equine-therapy/?p=1315 2013-03-04T22:30:36Z 2013-03-04T02:18:04Z  

horsesadcrpdIn 2008, at the East Mountain Youth Lodge, Dr. JoAnn Jarolmen, a social worker, conducted a pilot study on equine therapy for troubled youth. She studied 13 teenagers who took part in a program called HorseTime, founded by Kathy Krupa, an Equine Growth and Learning association certified instructor, and found that, after working with the horses, the teenagers were less angry and aggressive, improved their relationships with their parents and peers and had fewer suicidal tendencies.

And perhaps not surprisingly, the public is quite supportive of the idea of using horses to prevent suicide. Veteran Rescue Equine Therapy Ranch recently used Stay Classy, a crowd supported fundraising site to fund their equine therapy program, quickly reaching their target goal of $500,000.

To help generate interest in the program, Veteran Rescue stated their Short term objectives as, “Provide PTSD and Suicide awareness. Give On the Job (OJT) training. Network out Veterans seeking employment.  PTSD therapy will be conducted for Veterans using service dogs and horses, while, providing Veterans employment along with apprenticeship programs.  We will have Licensed Physical Therapists and Counselors available on site for the Veterans’ use. We will have a work out gym, Jacuzzi, pool, and Obstacle course set up to help them utilize their strengths and work on their weaknesses.  We will have a library available for their use along with cabins and other amenities. These medical personnel are for use by all of our participants including, men, women, children, disabled, battered, burned out, and more.”

A 2005 study conducted by a Masters student at Denver seminary for the degree of Counseling Psychotherapy also had similar findings, as at-risk adolescents, age 12-18 who participated in an equine-assisted therapy program demonstrated better psychosocial functioning compared to those who did not. While improved psychosocial functioning will not guarantee reduced suicide risk, it can certainly be considered to be associated with it.


Suicide is a very complex problem, and one that is not completely understood, however, finding effective interventions is an important step in beginning to reduce the risk. With the findings mentioned above, equine-assisted therapy may just be a promising treatment for those exhibiting suicidal tendencies.

Horse and woman photo available from Shutterstock








Claire Dorotik-Nana, LMFT http://www.leverageadversity.net <![CDATA[Of Women and Horses — Where is the Data?]]> http://blogs.psychcentral.com/equine-therapy/?p=1307 2013-02-25T23:03:57Z 2013-02-25T18:02:13Z womankissinghorsecrpdMuch has been written about the connection between women and horses, and for some time, it has certainly mystified us. While people can be attracted to a great many things in life, the relationship women and horses share is not only better represented than many other things women may do (perhaps the sad exception is dieting), it also holds a symbolism in the possibility of a curative force amongst us. Historically, we have always searched for something to relive suffering, eradicate pain, provide spiritual ecstasy in one form or another.

For many indigenous cultures, this may have been peyote, for others, hallucinogens (Oliver Sacks speaks of this), and for women, perhaps horses have a ecstasy-like effect. The question would then be, do women, in fact, achieve a form of spiritual elevation by way of the horse? Further, like induced states of ecstasy, could this be measured physiologically (ie: is there a chemical response that women experience in the presence of the horse)?

There is an interesting answer to this question in the research of Ellen Kaye Gehrke, Ph.D, a consultant and professor of international business and management. Gehrke used EKG measures to collect Heart Rate Variability (HRV) data on both horses and humans in different stages of interaction. At times, Gehrke, using herself as a test subject was grooming her horses, at other times, riding them, and sometimes, simply being in their presence. Gehrke’s data showed that HRV, which is an indication of psychological stress, followed a similar pattern between horses and humans, and and particularly strong between a horse and a person with whom that horse is closely attached. Interestingly, this pattern was also noticed between pairs of horses that are closely attached.

According to Gehrke,“Our pilot studies have clearly indicated that human emotion affects the state of the horse,” she says. “Our next study will be more complex. In the first phase, three horses and 12 humans will interact variously in human/horse pairs within a 40-minute protocol and HRV data will be collected. Then, the 12 human participants will receive training which includes specific positive emotional focusing techniques. They will practice “emotional-shifting” and “coherence-building” for four weeks prior to the second data collection. It is anticipated that the second set of data will show a specific and measurable change in the humans’ HRV patterns, which will be reflected in the horses’ HRV patterns. HRV patterns that are synchronized in a horse/human pair indicate a greater psycho-physiological linkage between them. In plain English, that means a stronger bond.”

While there has always been anecdotal evidence that “there is something about the outside of a horse that is good for the inside of a man,” with research such as Gehrke’s it may finally have some solid empirical evidence. More information about Gehrke’s work can be found at www.rollinghorse.com

References: http://www.horseconnection.com/site/archive/story-aug07.html

Woman kissing her horse photo available from Shutterstock

Claire Dorotik-Nana, LMFT http://www.leverageadversity.net <![CDATA[Why Equine Therapy Might Just Help Your Marriage]]> http://blogs.psychcentral.com/equine-therapy/?p=1299 2013-02-16T03:22:11Z 2013-02-15T19:00:01Z horseandcouplecrpdAs a practicing Marriage and Family Therapist I see a multitude of couples in crisis. As John Gottman, renowned marriage researcher notes, “The time between when a couple first notices trouble in their marriage and the time they seek professional help is six years.” Clearly what this tells us is that when couples finally make to the office, things have been bad for a long time. Insults have already been slung, defenses have solidified, criticisms have been stockpiled, walls have been built, and contempt may have even settled in. For those of you familiar with John Gottman’s work, you will recognize what Gottman dubs “The Four Horseman of the Apocolypse,” otherwise known as the four telling factors that characterize a marriage that is headed toward failure.

And sometimes, it feels as if there is nothing that can turn things around. While a skilled therapist may point out negative patterns, suggest alternative communication styles, attempt to reduce stress, and provide encouragement, the couple may simply be stuck, unable to step back from the anger and pain they feel to recognize the very negative pattern that perpetuates it.

It seems as if the minute the couple sits in the same room together, they are already angry, before either one has even said a word. And yet, neither one seems to be able to let it go.

So what is there were some intervention that put the couple in a position where they had to let go of the anger to be effective? Interestingly, this is exactly what we see in the case of a troubled child. As long as the child is sick, and the parents have to come together to help the child — such as in the case of an addiction —  their anger will tend to abate. Of course no one wishes for a sick child.

But when couples come together to work with a horse, in a way, it is not that different from working with a resistant child. There is no guarantee that the horse will listen, and no guarantee that the couple will be effective — that is unless they work together. However, there is a much larger issue at state here.

While working together may provide some initial effectiveness with the horse, we cannot escape the fact that the horse is a flight animal, bound by a delicate system of nerves designed to detect anger, fear, and anxiety. So let’s say that the couple does manage to communicate with some clarity, but the anger hasn’t left. In this case, the horse will attempt to respond, but eventually his fear will simply take over, and he will likely try to escape the situation. He may bolt, run, or even act out defensively, by kicking or biting. This, after all, is the only way a horse knows how to handle fear — run away, and when you can’t run away, fight back.

Of course, while the therapist can draw the couple’s attention to the way in which their behavior — and underlying feelings — are affecting the horse, it is up to the couple to change it. And unless they do, the horse will not respond differently.

Every time I’ve used equine therapy as an intervention for couples, an interesting thing happens — the couple develops an affection for the horse. While this affection seems to facilitate therapeutic interventions, it also is rather infrequent in traditional therapy.

In a metaphoric way, when the couple realizes that they like the same thing — the horse — they also seem to recognize that they like each other when with the horse, and maybe even after. And in marital therapy, especially with couples in crisis mode, this is an essential component.


Gottman Institute Youtube Channel: http://www.youtube.com/TheGottmanInstitute

Horse and couple photo available from Shutterstock

Claire Dorotik-Nana, LMFT http://www.leverageadversity.net <![CDATA[Clydesdale Superbowl Commercial First Place in USA Todays’s Ad Meter]]> http://blogs.psychcentral.com/equine-therapy/?p=1290 2013-02-07T19:17:05Z 2013-02-07T00:07:12Z winning Super Bowl adThere is no denying that the bond between a man and a horse evokes a powerful emotion for people, but Budweiser’s recent Superbowl Commercial really hit a home run.

Intended to touch a chord with consumers, the ad features a young Clydesdale being raised and trained, only to be removed from his trainer, and then reuniting, powerfully, years later.

So just what is it about this particular experience that brings about a tearful response?

Is it that we are in awe of the power of the human-animal connection, or is it that the ad, and the connection it portrays rarely exists in human relationships?

After all, when was the last time someone came running up to you the way the horse in the ad runs up to his trainer? Or further, when was the last time someone actually remembered, and seemed appreciative of the time and devotion you might have given a relationship.

Sadly, it happens rather infrequently. And yet, it — the powerful unspoken connection that the Clydesdale and his trainer have — is something that we all long for.

Think about what happens between a man and a horse. First of all, there is an absence of judgement. But more than anything, there is an honesty that is simply inescapable. The horse, after all, being a herd animal, communicates on a feeling level, and receives and expresses information — important information — physiologically. He will tell you exactly how he feels, and he also will tell you exactly how you feel — even if you are not aware of it.

This is something that happens regularly in equine therapy. We come to the relationship with the horse with all of our hidden thoughts, feelings, and defenses, for the most part unaware that they are there, and the horses sees right through those defenses to the only thing that really matters, which is us, defenseless, vulnerable, scared, and finally, real.

It’s no wonder that is something we all long for.



Clydesdale photo available from Shutterstock

Claire Dorotik-Nana, LMFT http://www.leverageadversity.net <![CDATA[Can Horses Help Your Internet Addicted Teenager?]]> http://blogs.psychcentral.com/equine-therapy/?p=1285 2013-01-25T00:46:34Z 2013-01-25T00:46:34Z A recent article in Reuters reported that in South Korea, internet addiction is a huge problem. In fact, 1 in 10 children are now internet addicts. And even after a government ban designed to address the problem, internet addiction continued to escalate as children simply learned to use their parents passwords to circumvent the law. So when a young South Korean teenager’s parents were given the suggestion to try equine therapy to combat her addiction to the internet, being at their wit’s end, they eagerly gave it a try.


Equine therapy has been used with drug addicts for many years, and with much popularity. Here are a few of the reasons many drug rehabilitation centers look to horses to help their addicted patients.


Less Judgement 


For one thing, horses come with much less judgment than a person, and since being judged is something that addicts are uniquely sensitive to, equine therapy can look attractive to an addict.


More Sensitive


Horses are also much more attuned and sensitive to physiology than people typically are (being dependent on it for their survival), and therefore can respond to addicts in ways that will help them decipher hidden emotions (things they feel yet are not entirely conscious of), and sort out just how they feel.


Interactive relationship Building


Unlike working with a therapist in a traditional setting, equine therapy involves the addict physically interacting with a horse. The patient may have to work to build trust, establish boundaries, or convey messages clearly. In any case, often what is acted out, yet unspoken becomes very telling for the addict in terms of just how he/she does relationships. These behaviors can then be addressed through the work with the horse, and the relationship can shift visibly in ways that the addict can identify.




While internet addiction is relatively new, addiction, and the treatment for it is not. What is fascinating, however, is to witness just how an animal can help a teenager unplug from a cell phone, computer, or ipad — especially when all else has failed.








Claire Dorotik-Nana, LMFT http://www.leverageadversity.net <![CDATA[Can Equine Therapy With Teens Reduce Incidences of Adult Obesity?]]> http://blogs.psychcentral.com/equine-therapy/?p=1277 2013-01-19T19:30:33Z 2013-01-18T23:01:16Z equine therapyWhile there are many factors that contribute to obesity, and certainly, it would seem presumptuous to pin obesity on any one factor, as of late there has been some fascinating research that sheds needed light on obesity and, more importantly, the development of it.

Looking at three separate studies, we can make a few associations.

Association one: Animal-Assisted Therapy is related to increased levels of oxytocin in adolescents. 

Cynthia Chandler, Ed.D, a counseling professor at the University of North Texas, the Center for Animal-Assisted Therapy’s founder and director and the author of Animal Assisted Therapy in Counseling, cites a study that showed an increase in “health inducing and social inducing” hormones such as oxytocin, dopamine and endorphins after 20 minutes with a therapy dog. Chandler explains, “There is actually a psycho-physiological, emotional and physical (component) to interacting with a therapy animal.” She continues, “Oxytocin is one of the best, most powerful, wonderful, healthy social hormones we have and it’s the one that’s the most grossly affected in a positive way through human-animal interaction.”

Association Two: Increased Levels of Oxytocin are related to increased generosity.

Here is the abstract from a study done by Paul Zak, a foremost researcher on oxytocin’s effects on human behavior:

“Human beings routinely help strangers at costs to themselves. Sometimes the help offered is generous—offering more than the other expects. The proximate mechanisms supporting generosity are not well-understood, but several lines of research suggest a role for empathy. In this study, participants were infused with 40 IU oxytocin (OT) or placebo and engaged in a blinded, one-shot decision on how to split a sum of money with a stranger that could be rejected. Those on OT were 80% more generous than those given a placebo. OT had no effect on a unilateral monetary transfer task dissociating generosity from altruism. OT and altruism together predicted almost half the interpersonal variation in generosity. Notably, OT had twofold larger impact on generosity compared to altruism. This indicates that generosity is associated with both altruism as well as an emotional identification with another person.”

Association Three: Children who are lower in conscientiousness have greater levels of obesity as adults.

Studying more than 2,000 elementary school children in Hawaii who received personality assessments in the 1960s, researchers funded by the National Institute of Mental Health and the National Institute of Aging, completed medical and psychological examinations for 60 percent of the original group, who, as adults, agreed to further studies starting in 1998.

The study revealed that children rated by their teachers as less conscientious had greater obesity and higher cholesterol levels 40 years later than their more conscientious counterparts.

The study will soon be published in the Health Psychology journal.

Again, while obesity research is complex at best, and animal assisted therapy in need of more research in general, the links between animal-assisted therapy, oxytocin, and adult obesity, offer some exciting direction in the field of preventative care for obesity.


Citation: Zak PJ, Stanton AA, Ahmadi S (2007) Oxytocin Increases Generosity in Humans. PLoS ONE 2(11): e1128. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0001128

Understanding Personality for Decision-Making, Longevity, and Mental Health, Society For Personality and Social Psychology, Press Release, January, 17, 2013.

Teen and horse photo available from Shutterstock