She walked over and rested her head on the person’s shoulder then leaned in to gently touch heads – something she hadn’t done before. How could she know that the person’s brain surgery was scheduled just a short time in the future? Somehow she did. When comfort was needed she knew how to respond in a healing way that made all the difference. The expectations and anticipatory stress of the impending procedure were made easier by the support and non-judgmental connection offered through this equine-assisted psychotherapy session.
Yes, this is one of many encounters Razzy, one of our horses, has prompted during her tenure at Rise Canyon Ranch. The rest or our team: Sawyer, Scarlett, Savanah, Marah, Zoey, Rocky, Ollie and many other horses across the globe provide unique and profound healing to people experiencing and recovering from life’s struggles, ailments, losses and traumas. Equine-assisted psychotherapy is a curious endeavor. Therefore, understanding horses and the ancient human-horse connection is essential. Education is key and opens minds and hearts to the power EAP harnesses to create change in a person’s thoughts and behaviors. When added to traditional forms of psychotherapy, breakthroughs are not only possible they are repeatedly witnessed at Rise Canyon Ranch.
The science and sociology of horses
Horses are considered herd animals with focus being placed on safety and thriving for the young, middle-aged, and elders of the group. A horse cannot be fully understood in isolation. Instead, evaluating their role as part of the herd and how they interact provides valuable information. This aspect applies to humans because the dynamics of a family system parallels that of a herd. During EAP humans work with horses to build trust and the horses accept them as part of the herd.
The power of the herd is devised through earning their roles, and respecting others for the qualities they bring to the group. There exists a definite hierarchy within the herd as leaders and protectors reveal themselves just as supporters and those needing protection do. Each horse understands their role and learns to fit in. Utilizing this aspect in EAP allows participants to learn how to fit in and be accepted, which is a common struggle for so many people. Horses have an incredible capacity to be open and allow humans the opportunity to earn a role. They want to know who the leader is, they want safety, relationship and connection.
In the animal world horses are considered animals of prey, which makes them keenly aware of their surroundings to avoid predators. Their biology attunes to their environment, which has helped them to survive for centuries. This quality allows them to tune into humans within their environment while astutely assessing emotional and physical cues. This instinctual behavior creates a dynamic that takes time for a horse to trust humans. Consequently, they require a person to respect them before they give respect in return.
How intelligent are horses? Research studies conducted by Charles Sturt University, Huntington University, Otterbein University and Truman University have shown:
Horses recognize, respond and remember human emotional expressions
Horses can complete cognitive challenges and learn to communicate opinions, emotions and needs to humans
Horses can recognize human facial expressions with voice tones
Horses possess high levels of social cognitive skills
Horses solve problems using visual and touch related signals to get human attention and ask for help
Horses demonstrate impressive memory and have shown they remember their training 10 years later without practice in between.
Horses are experts at reading and understanding the environment and human body language
Why is a horse the ideal therapeutic partner?
A horse helps you get to the truth. You cannot lie to a horse, and in return a horse will not lie to you. They give us honest feedback we can apply to our lives. Due to their perceptive nature they sense your emotions even if you are trying your best to keep them hidden, or you simply are not aware. This is communicated to you in various ways including mirroring what you are feeling, or providing you the behavioral manifestation of a personal struggle. For example, if perfectionism has riddled your life with negativity, our horse Marah may sense this and playfully mess up the EAP activity simply to challenge you. Together, with the Licensed Mental Health Professional and Equine Specialist you address the issue and work toward solutions for improved wellness.
Horses help you close the gap between what you have overly compartmentalized or tried to quiet or avoid, and digging deep to ultimately address issues and create changes. This may be an unconscious issue that has yet to be brought into your consciousness. The first step toward creating change is becoming aware and conscious of underlying issues.
IN REAL TIME:
Horses live in the present. They respond to what we do now, not what we did in the past or may do in the future. This provides humans with an opportunity for constant change without concern for the past or the future. Horses are forgiving animals, yet have incredible memories.
Their size commands respect, even our miniatures Scarlett and Sawyer, making them amazing for therapeutic activities because they can’t be pushed around or bullied. We cannot manipulate horses with our words.
Horses are sensitive creatures. They read our emotional state, sense our heartbeat, feel our energy level, and then relate to us accordingly.
Being social animals, horses have a need to know who their leader is so they can feel safe and connected. This gives endless opportunities to practice the skill of providing these things with instant feedback-and-reward relationships.
The foundation of interacting with a horse focuses on lessoning and managing stress and increasing levels of acceptance and trust. The relationship that is developed between client and the horse can be healing in itself.
Like a human a horse has his or her own personality and thus experiences a range of emotions, moods and attitudes. Great care is taken to match complimentary personalities between humans and horses for every EAP session. Some people benefit from similar personalities, and some benefit from contrary personalities. The focus is on the need of the client and their therapeutic goals.
Horses have a very strong sense of awareness, which makes them extremely sensitive and at times reactive to a client’s shift in their external/internal mental landscape.
Horses have the ability to mirror what a person’s body language is telling them, and become a powerful stand-in for different situations or complicated challenges the client(s), couple or family is experiencing. Horses provide the Licensed Mental Health Professional and Equine Specialist with behavioral metaphors and the opportunity for clients to learn about themselves and experience breakthroughs.
Horses possess the gift of teaching and reinforcing the following:
SELF-WORTH / CONFIDENCE:
A sense of self and confidence is established when you’re able to say to the horse, “You’re doing this because I figured out how to partner with you.”
Horses are used to gain self-understanding and emotional growth. Something as simple as an activity designed to teach a person how to approach a horse to gaining trust can have profound effects.
Achieving the mastery of communicating and having a relationship with a horse can replace feelings of “I can’t” with “I can,” which empowers the client to try new challenges outside of therapy.
By building trust with a horse a person can heal the wounds of their prior experiences that damaged their ability to trust others. Horses learn to trust and show humans the way. For example, our Savannah, a wild mustang was traumatized during a horrendous round-up that caused her to lose her foal. She understands trauma and she knows what it means to build trust. She suffered at the hands of humans and amazingly learned to trust again.
Safe and caring interactions are created through grooming experiences with horses. This provides an opportunity to set aside feelings of depression, anxiety and stress and focus on helping the horse by demonstrating mutual respect.
Due to the nature and size of a horse, humans must demonstrate an ability to present emotions that are conducive to having a productive interaction with a horse. If the client is not able to do so, then further work can focus on achieving this goal.
A horse’s instinctual capacity to allow others into their herd provides clients experiencing isolation a sense of belonging and an opportunity to experience unconditional acceptance.
When people observe and interact with horses they see that horses enjoy the comfort of human interaction. This transmits to those working with the horse. And any fears of embarrassment while interacting with a horse dissipate.
Those experiencing isolation may suffer a diminished ability to interact in social situations. Forming a positive relationship with a horse can provide the first step toward building the skills necessary for closer relationships with humans.
It is true that some people are fearful of horses, but a horse’s genuine display of affection toward humans helps to manage and extinguish this fear with practice. Through this activity a person sees that anxiety can be effectively managed.
When it comes to relationship building and going after what you want in life there are degrees of initiative, assertiveness, and an ability to direct that promote positive outcomes. All of these and other skills can be learning while discovering and practicing them with a horse.
At Rise Canyon Ranch our horses play an integral, indispensable role in the work we do. We know that working alongside and partnering with someone, accepting them for who they are, both good and bad provides the bedrock of all meaningful and trustworthy relationships.