For as long as I can remember I have been fascinated with horses. I couldn’t begin to put into words where or how this fascination first developed, but it’s been a life long love of all things horse related. I’ve never owned a horse, I’ve never had a horse that was considered mine or my sole responsibility, but I’ve always had horses in my life. I was told, and have seen photographic evidence, that I was riding horses from before I was able to walk. I’ve always had friends or relatives that owned horses and I’m the first to volunteer to help care for their horses, but have never had the chance to own one of my own. So when the chance came to work with horses in a therapeutic setting, I jumped at it unaware of the profound impact it would have in my own life or the lives of others.
One of the most rewarding volunteer experiences I’ve had has been with a charity called HORSE- Helping Others Reach Success and Excellence. HORSE uses equine therapy techniques to counsel children with special needs and children with autism. Seeing horses used as therapy tools further fueled my fascination with them. Most people think of horses as obsolete forms of transportation or working animals replaced by better technology. Some people think of horses as forms of entertainment in racing, rodeos or movies. And there are some who believe horses to be companion animals for an elite “horse crowd”. What ever your thoughts about the usefulness of horses, I was happy to discover that because these animals were bred to assist humans, it is nearly impossible for them to become obsolete. These animals have a rich history of being our partners, we feed and care for them and in return they are loyal companions willing to work hard at any task we present them. And it is because of that equality of service that we can still learn from them today.
“Your horse is a mirror to your soul, and sometimes you may not like what you see. Sometimes, you will.” So says Buck Brannaman of who the documentary “Buck” is about. Mr. Brannaman is the person who the novel and later movie “The Horse Whisperer” is based on. He uses a technique that can best be described as gentle breaking to train horses. And it’s true, you can’t hide who you are from a horse, they’re practically instant karma. If you approach a horse with anger or fear, the horse will be angry or fearful toward you. If you approach a horse with love and serenity, the horse will return love and serenity to you. Each horse has it’s own personality and temperament, much like we humans do- but not in the same way we do as humans. A horse to me is pure energy, there is no ego or prejudice in a horse’s way of living, it is simply a connection to us on a level we aren’t even aware of most of the time. Horses connect with the part of us that is the most basic level of who we are… our truest selves. In my opinion this is why horses make such great therapeutic tools. Horses see past our BS to the heart of what we’re feeling.
When I first started volunteering with HORSE, I presumed that I wouldn’t learn much aside from a reminder of how to care for horses. I was just happy to be around them, to have a chance to spend time near horses was my only goal, I had no idea how much the horses would teach me about myself. My very first day I was told that the horse that approaches you first, is the one that is most like you in personality. I have always believed in the concept of like attracting like, but to see in so vividly my first day with the horses was eye opening to say the least.
The horse that approached me was called Joker. Joker, I later learned and observed for myself, was exactly like me in a lot of ways. Joker had come to the program by way of adoption. He had once been a cowboy’s roping horse, but being overworked from a young age had left him with severe joint problems which made him useless as a roper, but perfect for a kid’s therapy program. Even though he was a retired horse, he still knew how to work hard. Joker got his name because of a backward question mark blaze on his forehead- (by way of definition a blaze is a white mark of fur usually on a horse’s face going from it’s “forehead” down to it’s nose). His name however was more fitting than just his curious blaze. Joker was indeed a jokester. He loved to create mischief. His favorite thing to do when he got bored with the repetitive or intense therapy was to play a version of horse basketball. He would take a large beach ball in his mouth and dunk it into a barrel in the arena. If you were distracted with another horse he’d call out for your help in retrieving the ball… if that didn’t work he’d come over and nudge you. If you still ignored him, he’d then kick the barrel over to get the ball himself. Everyone knew if you didn’t keep Joker busy he’d find something to do on his own and it would usually involve trouble for you! Not that I was a trouble maker in the same sense, but I had been known for doing silly things if I got bored too. I tended to use humor to diffuse tense situations, which was Joker’s way as well.
Despite being a jokester he was also very loyal to another horse named Star. She was for all intents and purposes his “girlfriend”- which wasn’t to imply they were in any way sexual with each other- it was more of a platonic deep bond of friendship, when they were separated he would get very agitated and call for her endlessly. As long as he could see her or hear her nearby he was okay, but take Star away and Joker was distraught. When Joker loved someone, it was deeply and with great affection. His qualities of humor, hard work, deep love and loyalty resonated with me. So the first day I was at the stable to have Joker approach me felt like meeting an old friend whom I’d lost touch with. Like had indeed attracted like.
I continued to work with horses in a therapeutic setting. I found that veterans who suffer from PTSD and their families can benefit from working with horses. That time of transition between leaving a war zone and coming home to a family that’s survived without you can be difficult. Each person seems to be caught in their own way of solving the problems without really seeing the other members of the family as having something positive to contribute can rip most military families apart at the seams. We did exercises with military families involving them working as a cohesive team to get the horse to do a task slightly unnatural to their normal routine. What I think we’re just beginning to understand about PTSD is that as a military member in a war zone relying on instincts is how to survive. Coming home and not having to live by instincts alone is a difficult transition. Letting go of those instincts or at least muting them to function in “normal society” is typically what causes symptoms of PTSD. A horse lives by their instincts alone- so in that sense a military member can relate perfectly with a horse who’s instincts cause them to fear what seems perfectly normal to us. The non-military members of the family don’t typically live by their instincts and have no concept of that way of life. Using a horse as a tool to demonstrate what instinctual living looks like can bring a better understanding to each family member, as everyone is forced to live in the moment while working with the horse. Simple tasks like getting the horse from one end of the arena to the other become exercises in forming bonds of trust and listening to your instincts as a cohesive unit. There is a sense of trust that is formed with the horse, with each family member and with yourself that military training and life in a combat zone teach you- but no one teaches your family. Likewise seeing your family members work with you to accomplish a task can bring a sense of security to an insecure home. The horse becomes not only a task to accomplish but a conduit toward forming or reforming bonds broken by war.
Watching as the horse mirrors each person’s emotions to them, teaching them not only their own feelings but the feelings of their other family members brings tears to my eyes. Seeing that same family now aware of each other, not caught in their own cycle of the drama, work together instinctually to solve the problem the horse is presenting… it’s priceless. A horse can do in a few minutes or even an hour what it may take a traditional talk therapist months even years to discover, let alone address in a therapeutic setting. I’m always fascinated by the process and how well it works.
My work with horses has taught me that they are forms of energy as unique as we are without the trappings of society, addictions, past fears or self-doubt. When you approach a horse with the energy of who you are at your deepest level of self, there is a communion between you, the horse and to me God that no one can take away. When you approach a horse with your problems, the horse will magnify it for you in ways that you might not even begin to understand, but will never stand in judgement of you. A horse thinks in the here and now. A horse doesn’t think about the past, or the future- a horse thinks of you in relation to you. Using that tool to further enhance therapy to me is as rewarding as it is effective.
Because equine therapy is relatively a new form of therapy there aren’t many programs available locally for military families or those suffering from PTSD. However, the Army specifically is beginning to recognize it’s benefits and is researching it’s effects. The VA is beginning to implement equine therapy into it’s PTSD programs. TriCare and some insurance programs will cover the cost of therapy but may not yet cover the cost of equine therapy, a counselor that accepts TriCare will help you understand what is covered by insurance. If you are interested in an equine therapy program the best way to find a reputable operation is through EAGALA. EAGALA is a national organization that trains counselors and horse people to do equine therapy. Their website http://www.eagala.org/ has resources to direct you to reputable programs across the country. My only advice is to be sure the program has a licensed therapist or social worker on staff that has dealt specifically with PTSD, and don’t hesitate to ask for references. I would not recommend using a program that does not have EAGALA training as this could be dangerous to you and the horses. Above all be safe and find a program that fits your needs.