How Horses Heal Our Emotional Wounds

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Photo courtesy of Stephanie & Eliza Lockhart Collection

Twenty years ago as I began to gather research that would eventually form the basis of my book, Riding Home - The Power of Horses to Heal, I had my first eyewitness exposure to the psychological impact a horse can have on a human. It occurred when I was invited to observe a unique equine program at a high-end health spa outside of Tucson, Arizona. Its name is Miraval, and then as well as today, it offers what it calls the Equine Experience, created and led by a brilliant therapist and horseman named Wyatt Webb.

Unlike other equine health spa programs, which focus chiefly on horseback riding, the Equine Experience offers what it says is "a program designed to help participants challenge learned behaviors, correct false beliefs, and rediscover one's authentic self." This is accomplished not only by interacting with horses without any riding but in short periods of time. Tasks are simple and range from getting a horse to walk from point A to B without the aid of a halter and lead rope to picking up and cleaning each of a horse's four feet.

A forty-year-old woman named Mary was asked to walk over to a horse named Daisy and pick up and clean all four of her feet. Mary tried everything she could think of--making noises, pinching the horse's leg, even verbal pleading--to get Daisy to lift up a hoof, but nothing worked. After about five minutes Mary stopped trying and tears started rolling down her cheeks.

Mary was asked to come back and share with the group what she was thinking and feeling. She said, "I feel like such a failure. I hate myself for not being able to do this." The therapist said, "Mary, have you ever done this before?" Mary said, "No." The therapist said, "Why didn't you ask for help?" Mary said, "It's embarrassing." Then she paused, thought for a moment, and almost absentmindedly added, "That's probably why I don't like to try anything new."

The therapist asked Mary to share what else was occurring for her. Mary told the group that she thought her need to look good and not ask for help was probably something she had done her whole life, without thinking. By now Mary had stopped crying and looked deep in thought. She said this had probably prevented her from doing things she had always wanted to try, both personally and professionally.

The therapist asked Mary if she could now see how a lifelong attachment to what others thought of her and wanting to look good in others' eyes might have caused her to overcompensate by "playing small" and, consequently, robbed her of wonderful, un- tried life experiences.

He also asked her if she thought exploring this insight with a therapist when she returned home was some- thing she might consider. Mary took a deep breath, smiled slightly, and said yes. Her entire session had taken forty-three minutes. I was astounded.

Miraval's Equine Experience brilliantly demonstrates the natural ability of horses, when interacting with humans, to instantly present a psychological awareness to a person that is often not only insightful but in many cases transformative.

Over the next few years I watched as horses were brought in to assist therapists in a number of varied human rehabilitation programs in what is now generally referred to as equine-facilitated psychotherapy, equine-assisted therapy, or sometimes simply equine therapy. In addition to how horses helped with self-awareness I could see how humans with mental and emotional wounds were also experiencing profound healing effects from interacting with horses.

Even though they may lack any knowledge of equine behavior, many humans with certain types of emotional damage experience positive feelings of well being, acceptance and compassion as they unconsciously identify with two primary equine survival traits:Hypervigilance ~ empowered by superhuman sensesandHerd-Dynamic-Based Social Skills ~ established and practiced with the greatest principles of love. This identification can lead a person to the self-awareness necessary for healing his or her emotional wounds.

Hypervigilanceallow horses to detect the slightest sound, smell, or movement, any of which might indicate the presence of a life-threatening predator. Their ability to read with flawless accuracy not just the behavior of others but theirsilent intentionsis what gives the horse the psychological mirroring expertise of the most gifted human therapist.

The horse's survival skill of external awareness through hypervigilance also exists as a symptom in humans suffering from PTSD. It can be acquired by a soldier in combat or by someone who has grown up in an alcoholic or abusive family.

It is both the identification with and the attraction to what is familiar between a hypervigilant horse and a hypervigilant human victim of emotional trauma that creates feelings of safety, acceptance and compassion that constitutes the first of the two natural equine qualities that enable horses to dramatically help in the healing process of these wounded individuals.

The second natural equine survival characteristic that gives horses their unique ability to heal the emotional wounds of humans involves herd dynamics. In order to increase their chances of survival, horses live in herds. Any species that depends on living in groups in order to survive must be able to continually get along with all of that group's members.

To promote social harmony and keep the herd together, horses possess a number of evolutionary hardwired qualities. These include: being accepting, tolerant, kind, respectful, honest, fair, nonjudgmental, compassionate, and forgiving. All of these innate equine qualities are also utilized when a horse interacts with a human.

Horses do not judge humans they judge our behavior including our most subtle intentions. A person, with or without the assistance of an equine therapist, can see himself or herself reflected back from the behavior of a horse. A horse will consistently mirror back the exact feelings, attitudes, and intentions of a human that initiates even the slightest interaction. This can instantly be observed by how the horse responds to the person. Amazingly the fastest and most accurate way to discover who you are and what your presenting to the world is revealed from interacting with a horse.

The horse's sophisticatedHerd-Dynamic-Based Social Skills along with their Hypervigilanceare not only at the core of their epic fifty-five million years of survival, they constitute the basis of the horse's power to heal our human emotional wounds many of which often originate in either a past trauma or from one's damaged feelings of self-worth.

The populations that most often suffer from these wounds are War Veterans with PTSD and troubled teenagers, defined as At Risk Youth. Although Autism is not classified as an emotional disorder, many autistic children have also found significant emotional healing from participating in equine therapy.

Today, with the guidance of a professional equine specialist, a horse with its natural mirroring ability can help initiate therapeutic psychological epiphanies for anyone in need of emotional healing. Equine therapy has become one of the most beneficial and cost-effective programs for today's Veterans with PTSD, At Risk Youth, Children with Autism and Families in Need.

To think that millions of emotionally wounded men, women and children can get a second chance at a healthy and meaningful life is heartwarming. The idea that this can be achieved from a breakthrough in self-awareness that occurred from simply interacting with a horse is extraordinary.

This story is adapted from my new bookRIDING HOME - The Power of Horses to Healand appears in Chapter 3 ~"Horses Healing Humans . . . Bodies and Minds". It is this amazing power of horses to heal and teach us about ourselves that is accessible to everyone and found in the pages this book. To learn more about the book please visit:http://www.ridinghome.com/.Every book ordered will benefit children of families in need, veterans with PTSD and children with autism. To contact and for articles & blogs by Tim Hayes go to:http://www.hayesisforhorses.com/