Horses and Humans: A Unique Partnership in Therapy
The earliest recorded mention of equine therapy is found in some writings by Hippocrates, a physician born in 460 BC in Greece, who wrote about “hippotherapy,” a term derived from the Greek word for horse: “hippos.” Much later, German physicians in the 19th century advised patients suffering from hypochondria and hysteria to engage in horseback riding to reduce their symptoms, a trend which spread across Europe and eventually reached the United States of America as working with horses has become increasingly integrated into mental health treatment inpatient and outpatient programs.
What makes horses so uniquely suited for partnering with humans in their healing processes?
1. Horses and humans both have a mammalian nervous system and brain
2. The nervous system of both engage in fight, flight, freeze or fawn when faced with threat
3. As a prey animal, the horse’s brain develops similarly to the brain of a traumatized human
4. Both are social creatures who need connection with others in order to survive and thrive
5. Horses and humans both hold traumatic experiences in their bodies but also can heal by experiencing safe and trustworthy repeated relational interactions
In other words, trauma affects horses and humans in similar ways, and they also heal in similar ways. This makes them natural partners in the healing process when facilitated by those trained in both the psychology and physiology of horses, humans and trauma informed care.
Equine Assisted Psychotherapy (EAP) is an experiential form of therapy that involves working with horses to address issues resulting from the traumatic effects of abuse, neglect, combat, grief and loss, eating disorders, depression, anxiety, chronic illness and other adverse life circumstances. People often develop negative coping mechanisms and unhealthy relationship patterns as a result of relational wounds.
Similarly, horses are prey animals and spend a great deal of their time in their brainstem, or survival mode (fight, flight or freeze), much as trauma victims do. Horses will respond honestly and directly to whatever behaviors and internal states a client presents to them in the round pen, allowing the client to experience immediate and helpful feedback about the communication and relational patterns they create with the people in their lives. Horses provide opportunities to practice assertive communication, set boundaries, make requests, learn emotional regulation skills, and build trust and confidence in a mutual partnership. All of the skills used to build relationship with the horse are transferable outside the round pen to human relationships.
Working with horses in the healing process includes many benefits, including:
1. Building Trust: This is a profound step towards growth in interpersonal relationships and healing. Learning to trust a very large and possibly unfamiliar animal such as a horse is very powerful in the development and restoration of trust for those whose ability to trust has been violated by difficult life experiences. Horses who come from a background where they may have not been treated with kindness and understanding similarly benefit from new experiences where they are given choices and treated with patience and gentleness.
2. Anxiety Reduction: Research on the human-animal interaction indicates that contact with animals such as horses significantly reduces physiological anxiety levels. When calm and relaxed, horses generally have a resting heart of around 44 beats per minute, while people struggling with anxiety may have a heart rate upwards of 100 beats per minute. Horses have an electro-magnetic field around their heart that extends 6 feet and beyond, which literally pulls down the heart rate of the anxious human through a process called synchronous co-regulation.[i]
3. Decreasing Depression and Isolation: Many clients presenting with trauma are struggling with depression and have withdrawn from social relationships. They may have experienced relational rejection that makes it difficult to be vulnerable in requesting connection from others. Horses are genuine and unconditionally accepting and provide an opportunity for people to engage in connection without fear of rejection or judgement. As client experience success connecting with their equine partner, they may feel encouraged to seek more relational connection with people in their lives as well.
4. Mindfulness: Horses live in the moment rather than the past or the future. Their ability to be uniquely present helps to draw people into the moment to be fully present as well. Feeling safe in the present moment helps the nervous system re-set from survival mode, which keeps people in a perpetually exhausting state of fight, flight or freeze, into a regulated state of rest.
5. Embodiment: Horses communicate with their bodies, through postures and gestures and energy. They respond to the energy people bring into their space, which encourages the client to become aware of their own energy and emotions, and how these might be influencing the interaction. Mirror neurons “read” the nervous system state of another being, picking up whether that system is activated or at rest. [ii] Traumatized people often dissociate from their bodies to avoid their pain and are unaware of what is actually happening inside them. When a human seems calm on the outside in terms of body language, but is anxious or frightened or upset on the inside, this feels incongruent to a horse, much as a lion stalking the herd will move slowly and low to the ground but have an intense predatory energy in his body that he hides in order to not alert the horses as to his intention. When our insides and outsides “don’t match” horses sense this inner conflict and are their senses are heightened. This provides helpful feedback to a person working to establish effective communication and connection with their equine partner. [iii]
When horse/human interactions are safely and intentionally facilitated by trained professionals who understand both human and equine physiology and psychology, benefits abound for both. For better or worse, the lives of most horses are inextricably bound up with humans, on whom they rely for their care. The better relationship skills horses learn to interact with humans, the better they will be cared for, the less often they will be sold or end up in undesirable environments like kill pens. Similarly, horses have much to teach humans about being mindfully present in the moment, reading and responding to energy in the body, and communicating clearly in trustworthy and safe ways without judgment or pretense.
[i] https://www.heartmath.org/research/science-of-the-heart/energetic-communication/ https://www.heartmath.org/assets/uploads/2017/10/effect-of-equine-assisted-psychotherapy-on-emotion-regulation.pdf [ii] https://www.psychologicalscience.org/observer/mirror-neurons-how-we-reflect-on-behavior [iii] Jobe, T., Shultz-Jobe, B., McFarland, L. & Naylor, K. (2021). Natural Lifemanship’s Trauma Informed Equine Assisted Services. Liberty Hill: Natural Lifemanship.