I did some horseback riding for a while after my husband’s death. I’d always been intrigued by horses — blame it on Black Beauty — and it was a good release for pent-up emotions.
I didn’t realize just how good an outlet it was until I talked with various horse people and read Adele and Marlena McCormicks’ Horse Sense and the Human Heart: What Horses Teach Us About Trust, Bonding, Creativity and Spirituality. Both the book and the conversation opened my eyes to the ways in which humans and horses interact.
“My horses have always been my best pals,” reflects Donna Sicuranza, the executive director of Tait’s Every Animal Matters in Westbrook, Connecticut. She has been riding since she was a child and has several rescue horses. “They will mirror what you’re feeling. If you’re anxious, they’re anxious — if you’re calm, they’re calm. Horses will bring up every fear and insecurity you’ve ever had. I think they are mirrors of who we are.”
Horses as Healers
Equine therapy has been around much longer than many realize; in fact, it dates back to ancient Greece and Hippocrates of Cos (circa 460–370 B.C.), the “father of Western medicine.”
Hippocrates — whose name actually means “horsepower” in Greek — wrote about the benefits of horseback riding. And in the 17th century, it was regarded as a remedy for low spirits and neurological problems.
Today, equine therapy is used to address a wide array of issues, including anxiety, addiction, physiotherapy, traumatic brain injury, autism and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The work that horses do as emotional/psychological healers is particularly fascinating.
“Unlike smaller therapy animals like dogs and cats, these gentle giants have a calming effect that’s magnified by their size and empathy,” writes Al Donato. “Horses are herd animals known for attuning themselves to human emotion, often reflecting the behaviors of those around them.”
The bond between horses and humans is very old. They were the first animals domesticated by man, which may explain part of this sensitivity. But horses have a trick up their hooves, so to speak: They can, according to Joshua Thaisen, “hear the human heartbeat within 4 feet, and research on heart-rate variability indicates that horses have a profound ability to synchronize their own heartbeat with that of human beings.”
Of Kids and Horses
My friend Connie grew up with horses. She was, she says, a shy, anxious child; once she got up on a horse, however, her anxiety would just melt away. “Such peacefulness,” she recalls happily. “I loved it. Horses are very rhythmic: All of their movement has a beat. When I rode my horse, it was so soothing. All my stress and worries disappeared with the music [of that beat]. It was like a meditation.”
Equine therapy works well with children and teens. It is often used with at-risk youths or kids who have undergone various types of trauma.
A 2004 study by Hilda Glazer, Myra Clark and David Stein showed how working with horses at the Buckeye Ranch in Ohio helped school-aged children in a bereavement support group. “The parents and guardians all described the therapeutic riding as a positive experience,” noted Glazer, Clark and Stein. The adults also saw “an increase in overall communication, including talk about the deceased, as well as an increase in the child’s self-confidence and self-esteem.”
Equine Therapy Programs
There are many equine therapy programs to choose from. Here are just a few:
- Three Eagles Equine Experience: Adele and Marlena McCormick didn’t just write about horses; they made them an essential part of their psychotherapy program in Calistoga, California. “When the rider or participant resonates feelings with a horse, healing occurs,” they write. “The healing relationship is a reciprocal one in body and spirit. Through the mind/body connection, horses help and invigorate many people from all walks of life, whether couples, individuals or people in business, whether under stress or advancing in spiritual development.”
- SpiritHorse Therapeutic Riding Center of Canton in Connecticut: This center offers riding programs tailored to the individual rider’s needs. “The main reason for starting SpiritHorse in Canton is that I am the parent of a child on the autism spectrum,” explains founder Cheryl Cleaves. “There were no riding centers in the immediate area, and the ones I found had waiting lists or did group lessons, and I wanted more one-on-one instruction for my son.” Working with horses has proven beneficial to children on the spectrum.
- Joy of Jasper in Easthampton, Massachusetts: This is technically a horse sanctuary that lawyer Gina Barry started in memory of Jasper, a quarter horse whom she worked with in her adolescent days. Children and teens work there on a volunteer basis, however.
Check out this heartwarming clip of horse therapy in action:
At Joy of Jasper, those who work there are at-risk kids — kids who are lacking self-confidence and/or failing school. Working with the horses helps them blossom, just as Barry did with Jasper.
“Horses and ponies are powerful yet graceful,” the lawyer reflects. “They have an uncanny way of inspiring confidence, self-esteem, love and trust in those who care for them.”