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Equine Therapy: How Connecting With Horses Supports Recovery

Equine Therapy: How Connecting With Horses Supports Recovery

A slightly anxious, markedly skeptical Veronica stepped into the horse arena wondering how equine therapy could help in her fight for recovery. Within an hour of the first session, searing insights started emerging for her in spades.

A nursing journal article once defined healing as an incremental awakening to a deeper sense of self in ways that foster profound change. Equine-assisted psychotherapy is yet another forum for Foundry participants to explore their individual array of underpinnings that can drive addictive behavior.

So why horses?  

They are prey animals that are hard-wired to instantly interpret and respond to the emotional states of those around them with moment-to-moment acuity. Horses tend to mirror human behavior, which makes them ideal for this kind of work. Therapy horses can help people work through their emotional struggles in real-time as they can serve as powerful metaphors for problematic perceptions, relationship patterns, and obstacles.

Veronica, her real name withheld to protect her privacy, said her experiences with the horses has led to her redefining her perspectives on confidence, vulnerability, and success.

On confidence

“When we were first trying to get the horses to do these exercises, I would use bribes and other forms of manipulation. The horses didn’t respond to that at all. You can’t hide what you are on the inside from them. It’s like they can see right through you. The horses only respond to authenticity. Only when I absolutely believed I could get the horse to do what I wanted and demonstrated it with my actions, only then did he respond. The immediate feedback taught me to recognize what true confidence feels like on the inside. The horse taught me to connect with that confidence which is huge because one of the reasons I would drink is because I felt I wasn’t good enough.”

On vulnerability

In one of the group exercises, Veronica was asked to stand blindfolded in front of the horse. “I felt like that was a forced vulnerability which was a bit scary for me. The horse picked up on my fear so he allowed me to pet him for support. In most all of my relationships, I’m the caretaker. I focus all of my time and energy on tending to the needs of others without giving any consideration to my own needs. For those moments with that horse, I felt like we were in a partnership. I surrendered my caretaking self and allowed for him to support me and that was really enriching. It showed me the value of a true partnership as opposed to just caretaking.”

On frustration

At one point during a session, the horse Veronica was working with decided to lay down on the ground and not get up. “I was so frustrated with that because I knew the horse trainer could do something and the horse would get up for her instantly. I tried to get the horse to get up, but he wasn’t having it. That’s when the equine therapist and horse trainer explained the horse’s behavior and that made me look at it in a completely different light. The trainer explained there is no way the horse would have taken such a completely vulnerable posture if he didn't feel an unusual level of comfort and safety in the presence of the group. My agenda for the horse suddenly wasn’t so important anymore. With that new understanding came new perspective. Before this, I would look at success and failure as two distinct things. Now I understand that failure can lead to success and to not put so much pressure on myself to make it happen all of the time. My experiences with the horses was amazing.”

At The Foundry we offer an equine therapy program that includes sessions with horses and a certified equine therapist, all held over a three-day period. Participants are encouraged to explore the healing process by connecting, interacting and observing these kind, gentle animals. Equine therapy sessions are available to all residential Foundry participants.

Nicole Roberts, MA, LAC, LPC is a Clinical Residential Therapist at The Foundry, a rehab and substance abuse treatment center in Colorado. She has worked in substance abuse treatment for five years and supports an integrative and individualistic approach to recovery.

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