EMOTIONAL MIRRORS: EQUINE THERAPY
What is the gift of horses? What role can a horse play in the recovery process for addicts, trauma survivors, or people dealing with grief and loss issues? Liz Dampsey MA RSMT explains how these ‘prey animals’ mirror patients who silently reveal how they relate to the world and issues to be treated.
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I am often asked what is so special, so truly unique about horses that these particular creatures are able to so successfully and repeatedly help individuals struggling with behavioural and mental-health issues and addictions. What role can a horse play in the recovery process for addicts, trauma survivors, or individuals dealing with grief and loss issues? My answer is simple.
Horses know how to attune to people and their environment because of their nature.
Unlike humans, dogs, cats and other predatory animals who have eyes on the front of their head, horses are prey animals with eyes on the sides of their head, which helps keep them safe by allowing an expanded visual field. These powerful yet vulnerable creatures have a large limbic system, the part of the brain responsible for emotion and intuition, which greatly contributes to their keen ability to detect danger. Perhaps most importantly, this also plays a part in their heightened sensitivity to human emotion, body language, and energy.
Horses sense our emotions and often move away from fear and anger because these register as potential danger. However, they don’t feel threatened by the more vulnerable emotions such as sadness and loneliness. Horses can sense the feelings in us that are often out of our conscious awareness and, thus, give us information about ourselves. They mirror our feelings back to us through their body language, which is clear and immediate; they teach us how we impact those around us.
Horses relate from a place similar to the way the right hemisphere of a human brain functions, which is nonverbal, creative, emotional, and intuitive. Compared to our egoic left brain, which is logical, verbal, goal-oriented, and focused on the sense of “I” or individuality, our right brain is involved with community, connection, and the sense of “we,” much like horses are focused on inclusion in their herd. In addition, horses function, as does our right brain, in the present moment. They are not thinking about the past or planning the future, and they do not judge themselves or us… Sound familiar as a goal in recovery?
Relating to horses gives us humans a much-needed break from our left brain, which is where most of us spend most of our waking time. Horses inspire us to halt our thinking and begin feeling. They teach us what it means to just be – in the moment, in connection, without words – which isn’t necessarily a familiar or comfortable place for many of us.
Sierra Tucson, a behavioural-health treatment centre and psychiatric hospital excelling in treatment of co-occurring disorders, has pioneered equine-assisted therapy, or EAP, and offers this service to its diverse patient community. Many who admit to treatment are dealing with various kinds of addictions, mood disorders, trauma, eating disorders, and pain-management issues. Every other week, patients participate in group EAP, which is part of a Therapeutic and Recreational Activities Programme. For many addicts, as well as those dealing with other mental-health issues, participating in EAP can be very beneficial.
Research on the efficacy of various psychotherapeutic interventions indicates that the relationship between the client and therapist is a primary factor related to positive outcomes. Although the equine therapist, along with the equine specialist, is involved in that relationship with the client during an EAP session, the horse plays as significant a role, if not greater, in attuning to the client.
REAL-LIFE CASE STUDIES
For addicts like Bobby*, addiction was a dysfunctional strategy to cope with life stressors. During Bobby’s first EAP group, he approached the horse as though he was walking through the streets of Manhattan during rush hour. So the horse moved away from him and continued to do so the more Bobby tried to approach. After asking Bobby what this scenario reminded him of, his initial response was slightly guarded and defensive. On further inquiry into his present-moment experience, he was able to identify fear and anxiety, something that the horse sensed and responded to as a potential threat.
Bobby was able to relate the experience with the horse to his relationship with his father, who was alcoholic, belittling, and dismissive. Bobby realised that his opiate addiction was a way to escape the myriad of emotions such as pain, anger, hurt, and loneliness. He learned about his dysfunctional pattern of attempting to connect with others, as was evident by the many brief, unsatisfying relationships he experienced in his life, despite his desire for meaningful friendships and a long-term partner.
As Bobby continued to talk about his life in an honest way, the horse started to walk towards him. When Bobby noticed this, he stopped talking for a moment and made eye contact with the horse. The horse then took a deep sigh, licked his lips – both signs of relaxation – and moved a little closer to him. In this moment, Bobby had an experience of being accepted and “approached” in the midst of being honest and open with his true feelings, something that was very unsafe for him growing up with his father.
Many patients dealing with addictions and other mental-health issues have unmet developmental needs such as a significant lack of support, encouragement, love, and safety. This often leads to problems of attachment later in life, as was the case with Bobby. Horses possess qualities we need for healthy attachment, such as being nonjudgmental and emotionally present, which helps us cultivate self-awareness.
In another situation, Amy* entered the round pen hesitantly. She suffered abuse in both childhood and adulthood. When it was her turn to lead the horse, she stood frozen. Amy was willing to approach the horse and stand with her hands on the horse’s abdomen, just in front of his rear thigh, where his breath is more palpable. After several minutes, Amy’s posture and facial tension seemed to relax, and she reported feeling less anxious. After she stepped away from the horse, he moved towards her and leaned his shoulder towards her body. Amy became tearful and stated that she felt amazed by the level of safety she felt with this large, powerful animal.
The nonverbal connection with a non-judgmental, emotionally present being such as a horse facilitates attachment, bonding, and trust. The combination of its immense size coupled with its vulnerable prey nature makes a horse an excellent partner and therapist. It is a great gift for both patients and therapists to work with horses in this way. Every day they slow me down enough to notice whatever might be holding me back from meeting each moment.
*Names and identities have been changed.
LIZ DAMPSEY MA RSMT is a therapist who joined Sierra Tucson in April 2001 and has worked in its Therapeutic & Recreational Activities Programme (Trap) for six years, where she facilitates equine-assisted therapy, challenge activities, and expressive arts therapy. She also served as Sierra Tucson’s coordinator of the Grief & Spirituality department for five years. She received an MA in Psychology in 2000, and a BA in Psychology in 1993. She is being re-certified as an EAGALA/Equine Assisted Growth and Learning Association therapist and is a certified interfaith spiritual director. She is a registered somatic movement therapist and expressive arts therapist. Dampsey was also instrumental in building the Sierra Tucson ‘labyrinth’. She is completing her doctorate in clinical psychology and is interested in researching the effects of equine-assisted psychotherapy on the ability/willingness to engage in treatment and therapeutic change among trauma survivors.
Sierra Tucson assesses and treats co-occurring disorders. Programmes offer comprehensive neuropsychiatric treatment for addictions, eating disorders, mood & anxiety disorders, pain management, and trauma/PTSD. Its multidisciplinary treatment teams use a biopsychosocialspiritual approach to develop individualised treatment plans for patients. A family programme enhances the patient’s recovery and extends healing. In the foothills of Arizona’s Santa Catalina Mountains, the 160-acre campus offers a natural healing environment and the highest confidentiality. A member of CRC Health Group, Sierra Tucson is licensed as a special hospital and as a behavioural health treatment centre (UK freephone 0800-891 166; www.SierraTucson.com).