How horses help us heal

As a natural horsemanship clinician for more than two decades, I have learned that horses can help people become not only better riders but better partners, friends and parents.
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As a natural horsemanship clinician for more than two decades, I have learned that horses can help people become not only better riders but better partners, friends and parents.

Horses evolved to communicate with each other primarily through body language. The herd establishes its pecking order initially in “strong terms,” such as biting and kicking, but thereafter relies on more subtle gestures, a variety of small movements of the ears, tail, feet and body.

This ability to silently communicate and create a smoothly functioning group has helped horses to survive by enabling them to stay together and travel in the safety of large herds. They are able to live in harmony and get along with each other because of the entire herd’s ability to practice the flawless social skills of acceptance, tolerance, kindness, honesty, patience, understanding, forgiveness and compassion.

The horse’s extraordinary ability to read equine body language translates to humans as well: You may think you’re acting “normal,” but if you’re angry, impatient, grieving, stressed or worried---your horse will know. You can’t hide things from a horse. He will always see, feel and respond to your true emotional state. To paraphrase Ralph Waldo Emerson: “Who you are speaks so loudly I cannot hear what you say.” Those words could have been written by a horse.

As a natural horsemanship clinician for more than two decades, I have helped people create better relationships with their horses. At the same time, I was fascinated to see how the horses helped their owners become, not just better riders, but better humans, better partners, better friends and better parents.

And so I began a journey to explore the ways horses can influence the people who spend time with them. After years of research, study and experience, I have come to believe that the horse’s capacity for “reading” human body language may go much farther than simple communications. I believe the horse’s ability to demonstrate qualities like acceptance and compassion also enables them to help people heal from a wide variety of physical, psychological and emotional wounds.

I have visited equine therapy and other programs where people with various types of emotional and physical problems are able to work with horses. Some of the programs were helping veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), children with autism and prison inmates. In each case, I witnessed some astonishing transformations as interacting, training and riding horses helped people with deep emotional wounds begin to heal. Let me share some of those stories with you.

Inmates: The basics of compassion

One of my first experiences in witnessing the amazing dynamic that can develop between horses and people occurred at a maximum-security prison in Florence, Colorado. There I learned about the Wild Horse Inmate Program (WHIP), which was created by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) as a way to help manage the country’s free-roaming wild horses.

Thousands of mustangs have been removed from the American ranges over the years, and gentling and training them greatly increases their chances of adoption to good homes. However, the number of experienced horsemen needed to safely gentle so many horses makes the process prohibitively expensive. So the BLM came up with an ingenious solution: If prison inmates could be taught to manufacture license plates, why not teach them how to gentle wild horses?

I had come to this prison to study the wild mustangs and learn what effect, if any, working with horses might have in the rehabilitation of hardened inner-city criminals. What I saw was a transformation I don’t think anyone could have imagined. I certainly hadn’t.

The inmates who participated in WHIP had committed every crime imaginable, some violent and frightening. They arrived at prison with a lot of swagger. Most were from gangs. In their world they were tough guys, dangerous, bad. The only way they knew how to relate to anyone was with anger, mistrust and deadly force.

Then they met the wild mustangs. Some of these horses, too, were violent and aggressive, lashing out at all who approached. It quickly became obvious that the inmates’ old ways of relating to the world wouldn’t work with these horses.

As the men learned the basics about how to gain a horse’s trust, a realization began to dawn on them. A young in-mate named Morris told me that he saw in these horses something that he knew was also inside him, something he could never admit to himself or anyone else: Morris had been living his whole life in fear. If these powerful, tough, wild animals could be afraid, he said, then maybe he could say he had been afraid, too. Morris had had an amazing epiphany.

The rest of the men in the WHIP program came to similar conclusions: They saw that the mustangs’ violent behavior was caused by fear. The horses were just trying to survive. They acted aggressive, but in reality they were scared to death---just like the men. For the first time in their lives, these men were shown the undeniable truth about who they were. They had internalized the belief that being tough and vicious was their only hope of survival. But now---just like these beautiful, wild and unpredictable animals---the men could see that their motive had also been fear. And maybe, just like the horses, they too could change. Gradually, their rock-hard attitudes crumbled. They began to feel compassion, an emotion they had probably never known or felt before. They felt it for the horses, they felt it for each other, and they felt it for themselves.

The inmates had set out to gentle the horse, but in the end, the horses gentled the inmates, too. Put another way, the process of gentling wild horses to fit into human society was simultaneously gentling “wild” humans to fit back into the same society.

As I drove away from the prison, I realized I had not only watched the use of prison labor to save a great American icon, the wild mustang; I had witnessed the healing of lost souls.

Veterans: The wounds of war

Horses For Heroes started out as a program that used horses in physical therapy for veterans who had lost the use of their limbs or the limbs themselves. Over time, however, the therapists noticed that the horse-human connection was also having a dramatic impact in healing the emotional wounds of many of the soldiers. Not only was it helping them overcome depression and anxiety but, to everyone’s surprise, it had a profound therapeutic effect on soldiers who suffered from PTSD.

Sergeant Fran Kirkson, a veteran of the Iraq war who had been participating in the Horses For Heroes program at High Hopes Therapeutic Riding Inc. in Old Lyme, Connecticut, shared her story with me: “The hardest part of war isn’t being there; it’s the coming home. You’re not the same person. When I came home, I felt like everyone wanted something from me---my friends, my family. They wanted me to spend time with them; they wanted me to be happy. They wanted me to help them feel OK about me. They meant well, but they didn’t understand. I just wanted to be alone---that’s all I could handle.

“War kills your sense of trust. I didn’t know if somebody wanted to be with me to make me feel good or to make themselves feel good. My horse Rainbow didn’t know me from before the war. All she knew was what she saw when we met. She didn’t want anything from me, didn’t expect anything. I didn’t have to talk about my feelings; I could just feel them, and she was OK with it. She opened me up. When I realized she had started to trust me, it was the first time since I had come home from the war that I felt like me, like I had gotten my old self back.”

Today many equine programs help veterans. The Wounded Warrior Project (WWP), working in conjunction with PATH Intl. Equine Services for Heroes, is a nonprofit veterans’ service organization that offers a variety of programs, services and events for wounded veterans of all military actions that followed September 11, 2001. As of August 2013, WWP has helped connect more than 35,000 men and women with programs to help them recover, and more are added every year.

Autism: Making a connection

Horses also demonstrate a remarkable ability to create profound therapeutic connections to children with autism. Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is not a single illness with consistent symptoms; rather, it is a collection of behaviors that can vary widely among individuals. Some of the more common characteristics of ASD are difficulty communicating and interacting with others, problems making eye contact and reading facial expressions, and severe language deficits, characterized by problems with the use of language for social purposes. The causes of autism are not fully understood, and there is no cure for it.

In 2012, I spoke with Lynn Robbins, whose 11-year-old daughter, Rachel, is autistic. Most of the time Rachel was simply unable to sit still. When Rachel was 7, Lynn says, she took her to three different child therapists for what she called “traditional talk therapy.” Rachel hated it and, after a while, refused to go. Rachel was also periodically put on medications---including multiple antipsychotics and an anticonvulsant and mood stabilizer---in the hope that one of them might improve some of her everyday functions. “The drugs didn’t help,” Lynn said. “It was like there was something inside her that kept making her move, which she couldn’t turn off.”

Then they decided to try equine therapy. The first time Rachel arrived at Good Hope Horse Farm in northern Vermont, her equine counselor Sherri led her over to a large gray horse named Alfie. Rachel stopped about two feet in front of Alfie and looked up at his soft, dark eyes gazing down at her. After about a minute, Rachel lifted her hand toward Alfie’s nose. The horse dropped his head and sniffed Rachel’s fingers. Rachel quickly pulled her hand away, turned and walked toward the gate. Alfie followed her. When she got to the gate, she turned back and was amazed to see Alfie standing right behind her.

Sherri walked over, looked at Rachel and said, “Alfie likes you.” Rachel broke into a broad smile. As Lynn told me this, she became emotional and said, “I had never seen Rachel smile like that before in her whole life. She could tell that Alfie was interested in her and that it didn’t matter to him that she was autistic.”

Horses do not ask, demand or expect anything from us; they just want to feel safe, comfortable and get along. When Rachel experienced this with Alfie, it was unlike any interaction she had known with another person. Alfie showed Rachel that she could trust him, and if she could trust him, one day she might learn to trust people. As Rachel continued working with the therapists at Good Hope, she did indeed start interacting with other girls and their horses.

Horses don’t see a child with autism. They see a child. Autistic children know this, and it feels good to them. In order for anyone---autistic or otherwise---to grow, heal and have positive relationships with others, they must first have a positive relationship with themselves. Horses can make humans feel good about who they are, and they have enabled some people with ASD to become more confident, more trusting and to feel love for themselves and others.

Not everyone likes horses. Interacting with these large animals is not a silver bullet solution for healing every emotional or physical wound a person has. That said, mounting scientific evidence suggests that equine therapy has been making a profound difference by helping thousands of men, women and children achieve life-altering emotional breakthroughs. Remarkably, all of these people are recovering from deeply painful afflictions with the aid of the simple love, understanding and acceptance that come from establishing a relationship with a horse.

But creating such a relationship, I fervently believe, has the power to do even more. No one is born emotionally wounded. Discovering who one is, how one fits into the world, and how to connect with one’s own humanity can begin long before a person is subjected to life-damaging traumas. What if more children could spend time interacting with horses? Regular visits could help more children to learn, grow and become healthy, functional adults.

For many people reading this article, the power of this interspecies relationship is unquestionable. It is my hope that understanding this will help you reach out to those who know nothing about horses as well as anyone who may need help: a husband, a wife, a partner, a child, a friend, a troubled teenager, a war veteran with PTSD, someone with autism, an addiction---anyone in emotional pain or who has lost their way. Either invite them to visit with your own horses, or direct them toward one of the many therapeutic programs across the nation. This amazing power of horses to heal and teach us about ourselves truly is accessible to everyone.

This article first appeared in EQUUS issue #455, July 2015.