How horses help us heal

IMPORTANT: This blog is not a substitute for therapy, but provides evidenced-based education for the purposes of self-help, or to compliment the therapeutic process. ​ ​This blog is non-monetized.

Episode 37: How horses help us heal

Anyone who has ever spent time in the company of a strong, majestic but silent horse, might tell you about the felt sense of calm and serenity; it’s often difficult to describe in words.  The moments of energetic unison with a horse, either as a rider, groomer, health care provider or farmer, are nothing short of transformational. 

Often what we are looking for in therapy is the elusive a-ha moment. Some sort of emotional breakthrough, to free us of the  invisible shackles to our past. And when you meet your therapist (even if it takes a while to find them), it can seem like your mental health stars have finally aligned. 

But it can be hard to find The One. Even then, it can be hard to find the a-ha. In my clinical experience, it’s primarily because “talk” therapy keeps us in our cognitive (higher thinking) brain, rather than our emotional self (which is actually where the a-ha remains hidden). 

So what happens when your therapy session includes a 900 – 1200 lb. animal, as wary of you as you are of them?  AND you cannot rely on spoken language to get your point across…

My backstory

Christina, bareback and unsupervised in the 80’s, in Grand Prairie, Texas.

Christina, bareback and unsupervised in the 80’s, in Grand Prairie, Texas. My own personal experiences with horses began in my childhood, growing up in Texas, with casual riding (and falling) at  neighbouring ranches. A few decades later, in 2014, I had an incredibly transformative experience, at a corporate team building event, at Monty Roberts’ Flag is Up Farms, in the Santa Ynez Valley, in California. At this event, we gathered in a round arena to witness a demonstration of Join-Up – Monty Roberts’ force-free (non-violent) training method of starting (rather than “breaking”) a horse.  We all watched a bit breathless, as a yearling learns to accept blanket, saddle, and rider in less than a half an hour, a process that conventionally takes weeks for a horse to accept. Watch it happen HERE

“For centuries, humans have said to horses, ‘You do what I tell you or I’ll hurt you.’ Humans still say that to each other – still threaten, force and intimidate. I’m convinced that my discoveries with horses have value in the workplace, in the educational and penal systems, and in the raising of children.
​At heart, I’m saying that no one of us was born with the right to say ‘you must’ or I’ll hurt you, to any animal or to another human.”

– Monty Roberts

It was an exhilarating experience that left me deeply curious about what exactly happened to me that evening. I went home with his book, The Man Who Listens to Horses, and the following month, named the puppy we were about to receive Monty (not yet diagnosed with ADHD, I intuitively knew I needed to have a permanent reminder of this experience!). 

Aside from the occasional ride on a beach vacation, I didn’t really ride again, until I discovered Rusty Jade Ranch (RJR) in Palgrave, ON, in early 2022.  I was looking for a family activity for myself and our youngest teenage son, to learn something new together. We started Western riding lessons in April, and the rest is history.

From my first visit to RJR, I felt a strong connection to ​founder Kelly Solowka and the family run business, enjoying the incredibly welcoming and warm environment created by herself, her partner Brad Matchett (Caledon’s own cowboy!), and daughters Andi Solowka, Shannon Matchett and Jody Benko. The incredible depth of knowledge about both horsemanship and mental wellness has made the partnership with Dig a Little Deeper, a natural evolution. Reflecting back on both my experience at Monty Roberts farm in California, and the experiences my family shared at RJR throughout the course of 2022, truly a wild horse couldn’t have prevented me from this next natural evolution of service offerings at Dig a Little Deeper. 

How exactly do they help?

Horses, like humans, are mammals. 

​Horses have long been domesticated and live alongside humans, it’s thought they are especially attuned to humans’ emotions and nonverbal signals, and that they respond accordingly. In humans, we often refer to the process of atunement, or simply ​our ability to be present to, and with, another’s expression of their experience.

We both have a mammalian nervous system and, one way to think through your horse’s unusual behaviour is to consider what we know about how human nervous systems perceive threats, danger and safety – what starts with a process known as neuroception.

​While engaging in activities guided by your psychotherapist, with the horse, clients will attempt to recognize how the horse’s behaviours might be due to their own emotional signals—a client who is angry or anxious, for example, may see the horse pull away, or otherwise respond negatively.

​The unintentional benefit of a partner in therapy who cannot use language, is that client and therapist must tap into their emotional functioning and powers of observation to influence the horse. 

The neuroscience

The process started about 200 million years ago, when humans were both predator and prey. We mammals have nervous systems that keep us safe by constantly scanning for danger – long before any kind of sophisticated thought comes to mind about how we should deal with a potentially threatening situation. 

You may have heard of the ‘automatic’ responses all mammals have, called “fight or flight.”  While humans can tend to lean one way or another, we do experience both responses. Horses on the other hand, are almost always flight animals. They will move away from danger, long before they would dare come near it. And they most certainly recognize humans – the original predators – as potential threats. So how do you get your horse to want to hang out with you? 

We must ensure our horse doesn’t see us a a threat. It sounds simple, but isn’t always. 

IS EQUINE-ASSISTED THERAPY RIGHT FOR YOU?

You do not have to have any prior experience with horses, or horsemanship to participate in equine-assisted psychotherapy.  Equine-assisted therapy does not typically involve riding, but ground based exercises designed to specifically to create experiences that engage our physiological processing, for the purposes of psychological change and healing. Evidence for the benefit of equine assisted therapy has been researched and demonstrated in the following area’s:

  • Anxiety: Agoraphobia, generalized anxiety disorder, panic disorder, separation anxiety, social anxiety disorder or specific phobia’s,
  • ADHD: Individuals, couples and families can all benefit from experiential nervous system regulation, intentional focus and attention strengthening and social cue reading. 
  • PTSD: Veterans, first responders, medics, firefighters,
  • Complex trauma: Intergenerational trauma, developmental trauma, spiritual and religious trauma, cultural trauma and discrimination, sexual assault, childhood sexual abuse, betrayal trauma, domestic abuse survivors, chronic childhood trauma, 
  • Autism: Riding can be a getaway away from overwhelming everyday life, which can benefit those dealing with sensory overload,
  • Mood Disorders: Those living with depression, overwhelm, emotional disconnection from self or loved ones, 
  • Grief: Complex grief and loss, 
  • At-Risk Youth: Programs for at-risk youth and substance use recovery maintenance programs, 
  • ‘Connected Calm Space’: Could also be offered as an adjunct to EMDR therapy in the early phases: grounding, regulating, and integrating components of the relationship between the client and the horse with the standard protocol.

​In equine-assisted psychotherapy, neuroception, atunement and co-regulation happen, in a nonjudgmental environment, which is when learning – for both horse and human – can occur. Anyone hoping to address relationship issues, social skills, or family dynamics, would also benefit since equine-assisted therapy helps you practice building a relationship, skills which can transfer to relationships outside of therapy.Learning to gain a greater awareness of the automatic functioning of these protective systems in our bodies, is what leads to greater flexibility in how we respond automatically to stress and anxiety. We can get ourselves unstuck, safely connect to others to gain more satisfaction from our relationships, and feel more empowered to improve the quality of our lives.

Equine-assisted therapy can take a very different shape from person to person, based on the model used and the goals of the client.Learn more about the various Equine-Assisted Therapy in Caledon program formats offered by Dig a Little Deeper,
​in partnership with Stable RelationsHERE

Interested?
If you are a current client of a therapist at Dig a Little Deeper, just let your therapist know you are interested, and they will help you navigate.

If you would be a NEW client, pease fill out the New Client Intake Form, which can be found on our Equine Therapy services page. We look forward to sharing these transformative experiences with you. 

Equine Therapy

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Picture of ​Christina Crowe, H.BSc. MACP, RP, (S-Cert) OAMHP (she, her)

​Christina Crowe, H.BSc. MACP, RP, (S-Cert) OAMHP (she, her)

Registered Psychotherapist, Validated Clinical Supervisor, ADHD Therapist & Coach Podcast Host The Christina Crowe Podcast Christina is a Canadian Registered Psychotherapist, a member of CADDRA's Advocacy Committee and relentless mental health advocate. Christina believes great mental health information should be available to everyone, loves creating content that makes invisible things VISIBLE and finding new ways to bring healing experiences to as many people as possible.

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