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The emotional health benefits of equine-assisted therapy

What is it about a horse that helps people heal from various mental and emotional health problems? The answer to this question is multi-layered and involves the unique interplay of the horse’s qualities with the specific needs of humans that are related to connection, attachment, and trust. These human needs associated with social engagement and relationship are essential for all humans; however, problems with meeting these needs are most often at the root of mental and emotional health issues such as addictions, depression, anxiety, and other disorders. A primary factor in most psychotherapeutic interventions involves the relationship between the client and therapist. Although the equine therapist along with the equine specialist are involved in that relationship with the client during an equine-assisted psychotherapy (EAP) session, the horse plays as much, if not more, of a significant role in attuning to the client.

Why?

•Horses are prey animals that are acutely sensitive to their environment, which helps keep them safe in the world.

•Horses are highly emotionally intelligent due to their large limbic system, which contributes to their ability to attune to human emotion and body language. They sense our feelings – even the ones out of our conscious awareness.

•Horses’ size and power can help people overcome fear while increasing confidence and self-esteem.

•Horses do not have an agenda as families, therapists, or doctors oftentimes do. Thus, people tend to feel less pressured to be someone they aren’t yet. Additionally, giving people the opportunity to be present with themselves while connecting with a feeling, sensing, non-human being, allows whatever is most pressing or important to come to the fore.

•Horses give us clear, immediate feedback about what we present to the world. They tend to move away from a person who is hiding their real feelings, whereas they move towards honesty and authenticity.

•Horses value relationship, connection, and inclusion in their herd. The community in which they live is similar to the way the right hemisphere of a human brain functions, which is non-verbal, emotional, and intuitive. Horses are almost always in the moment, as they don’t think about the past, plan the future, or judge themselves or us. Horses teach us what it means to just be – in the moment, in connection, without words – which isn’t typically familiar or comfortable for many people.

In addition to many factors that contribute to mental and emotional health problems such as genetics, brain chemistry, character/personality traits, family/social environment, there is another perspective that these issues stem from the lack of healthy interpersonal attachment during early developmental years. Attachment issues manifest in a few different ways, and are usually dependent upon the ability of the child’s primary caregiver to emotionally connect and attune with him or her, both verbally and non-verbally. Attachment disorders are associated with problems regulating emotions and dysfunctional patterns in relationships.

Horses have the qualities needed for healthy attachment to take place, as they are unconditional, non-judgmental, emotionally present, involved in connection, and they help us cultivate self-awareness.

The ability to emotionally self-regulate seems to be an essential coping strategy to learn in recovery from mental and emotional disorders. Healthy development of the regulatory systems such as the right brain and autonomic nervous system may be compromised by the lack of healthy relational and attachment experiences early in life. The neurobiological effects of attachment transactions are built into the nervous system of an infant, and involve a “conversation between limbic systems,” where the mother resonates with the rhythms of the infant’s internal states and then regulates the arousal level of negative and positive emotional experiences. According to Schore (2002), attachment is an interactive regulation of emotion between two organisms. From this perspective, a horse’s developed limbic system, plus their ability to be emotionally attuned and present, can help foster self-regulation and secure attachment transactions.

For addicts like Amy, who was also a trauma survivor, entering the round pen with a 1,000-pound horse was terrifying. Although she had choice about entering the pen, she agreed to go in and was willing to approach the horse. We asked her to place one of her hands on the horse’s abdomen, just in front of his rear thigh where his breath is most palpable. We suggested she simply stand and feel the horse’s breath and synchronize her breathing with his. After a couple of minutes, Amy reported feeling less fearful. When she stepped away from the horse, he looked at her, stepped towards her, and gently nuzzled her. Amy became tearful and said she was amazed by the level of safety she felt with this large, powerful animal.

The non-verbal connection with an unconditional, emotionally present being such as a horse, helps facilitate attachment, bonding and trust. EAP is a viable therapeutic intervention that helps facilitate corrective emotional experiences for people.

From Sierra Vista Herald