A Whinny and a Neigh Keeps the Psychotherapist at Bay

Horses, a four-legged partner in the therapeutic relationship

Posted Jan 18, 2016

Horses as an iconic symbol of grace

Ana Carolina/Freeimages.com Content License
Source: Ana Carolina/Freeimages.com Content License

Horses are an icon of grace and beauty. They spark the imaginations of young children, both boys and girls. One of the authors of The Ultimate Horse Book, Sharon Ralls Lemon, is attributed with the quote "The essential joy of being with horses is that it brings us in contact with the rare elements of grace, beauty, spirit and freedom."

My iconic passion for horses started at a budding horse rescue ranch in Upstate New York in which I was first introduced to rescue horses who indeed imbued grace, beauty, spirit, and freedom. It was through the Equine Assisted Growth and Learning Association, or EAGALA, which my eyes were opened to the healing nature and authentic ability horses possess to build rapport and allow individuals and families to look upon themselves.

Equine - Assisted Psychotherapy (EAP) has been a growing buzzword within the professional helping community. Organizations have gathered in many varying specialties and focuses of treatment. Just a few of the more common are: EAGALA, PATH International, Epona Quest, Natural Lifemanship, Equine Experiential Educational Association, and the list continues.

Let’s get back to the horses

What is it; however, about the horse itself that causes such an experience as we spend time with them? Why does a horse project such a drawing presence for some, and a fearful intimidating experience for others (both of which can be very therapeutic when handled appropriately)?

One school of thought would suggest that horses are able to readily connect with the nonverbal gestures and body positions of humans due to their limbic system. An article written for the Tribune Business News was cited as saying, “horses, because of their large limbic systems, are quick to acknowledge human gestures, movement and breathing.”[1] This article continues to point out a common belief within the horse-human relationship, that the horse’s process of licking and chewing expresses an understanding to a human action, or an emotional release by the horse.

What we can say for certain is highlighted well by authors Baragli, Padalino, and Telatin “It becomes evident that in order to obtain good results within the horse-human relationship, it is essential to consider the psychology of the horse and its emotional involvement”[2]

Natural empowerment in a disempowering world

For many who are attracted to a therapeutic relationship with horses, this relationship can be one of the most empowering relationships they have ever had. If you think about just the physicality of horses, they can weigh anywhere between 840 – 2,200 pounds! What must it feel like to gain the mutual respect of your horse partner as you navigate challenges together, and by doing so, discovering who you are.  

Adam Clark / Zuma's Rescue Ranch
Source: Adam Clark / Zuma's Rescue Ranch

 Horses will not expend energy needlessly and will look towards their “herd.” In order to gain the respect of the horse you are working with, you must present yourself with a sense of calm confidence. This is a confidence that never expresses power, or domination to another living being. This type of confidence knows your own worth, your value, and expresses a mutually respectful relationship between yourself and your horse.

How empowering is it then, by learning such a calm confidence while working in conjunction with such a powerful being?

Oh right, that disempowering world

We are faced with a barrage of challenges throughout the day. A society that is struggling to keep up with growing demand, and what can feel like less and less time to get more and more accomplished throughout everyday.

Add to that a gender-biased society, institutionalized discrimination, and vast differences in socioeconomic status across the board, it becomes easy to see how disempowering society can be, even when you strive to “give it all you’ve got.”

When we can step back into a sense of calm confidence and visualize our worth. When we take a moment to breathe through the chaos and look into what really matters. When we spend some time with a horse and take the time to slow, we might just get to know the warmth that comes with a whinny and a neigh.

Adam Clark, LSW, AAW is a writer, therapist, and animal assisted practitioner. Adam’s areas of interest include life transitions, mental health, and resiliency. Adam focuses within the psychology behind the human-animal bond, specializing in endings and transitions. He is passionate about reducing the cultural stigma associated with pet loss, supporting pet owners, and educating professionals. More information on Adam and his current projects can be found at www.lovelosstransition.com

[1] Mason, D. (2010, October 29). Horses and healing. McClatchy - Tribune Business News. Retrieved January 16, 2016.

[2] Baragli, P., Padalino, B., & Telatin, A. (2015). The role of associative and non-associative learning in the training of horses and implications for the welfare (a review). Ann 1st Supter Sanita, 51(1), 40-51.