Equine therapy isn’t a new way to help humans with the grieving process; it’s long been known that horses can heal grief, trauma, and emotional pain. But will equine horse therapy work for you or someone you love?
“Horses do not judge humans, but they do pick up on our most subtle intentions,” writes Tim Hayes in his equine therapy book Riding Home: The Power of Horses to Heal. “A person, with or without the assistance of an equine therapist, can see himself or herself reflected back from the behavior of a horse. A horse will consistently mirror back the exact feelings, attitudes, and intentions of a human even through the slightest interaction.”
A horse can instantly pick up on your intentions and emotions; how he responds to you can help you discover who you are and what you are presenting to the world. In this post, I’ll share a couple examples of how equine therapy helps people move through the grieving process. I’ll also share my own experience with Jackson – he’s a horse who lives on the acreage where my mom’s group home is.
“Any species that depends on living in groups in order to survive must be able to get along with the members of the group,” writes Tim in How Horses Heal Our Emotional Wounds. “To promote social harmony and keep the herd together, horses possess a number of evolutionary hardwired qualities. These include: being accepting, tolerant, kind, respectful, honest, fair, nonjudgmental, compassionate, and forgiving. All of these innate equine qualities are also utilized when a horse interacts with a human.”
How Horses Help Humans Heal Grief – Equine Therapy
Horses are extremely sensitive to human emotions. They mirror our feelings, providing us with feedback when we work with them. Equine therapy gives people the chance to do exercises such as coaxing a horse to come to us, or walking them through an obstacle course.
We need to be calm for the horses to comply. This article focuses on the emotional and psychological benefits of equine therapy for the grieving process, but horses have been extremely helpful for people with physical or mental challenges.
How horses help heal grief
In How Horses Heal Our Emotional Wounds, Tim Hayes shares this story of how equine therapy can be used in the grieving process:
Mary, a 40 year-old woman named was asked to walk over to a horse named Daisy and pick up and clean all four of her feet. This isn’t as easy it sounds – Mary tried everything she could think of to get Daisy to lift a hoof so she could clean it, such as making noises, pinching the horse’s leg, even verbal pleading. Nothing worked.
After about five minutes, Mary stopped trying. Tears started rolling down her cheeks. The equine therapist asked her to share with the group what she was thinking and feeling.
“I feel like such a failure,” she said. “I hate myself for not being able to do this.”
The therapist said, “Mary, have you ever done this before?”
“Why didn’t you ask for help?” asked the equine therapist.
“It’s embarrassing,” said Mary, and then she paused. “That’s probably why I don’t like to try anything new.”
The therapist asked Mary if she could now see how a lifelong attachment to what others thought of her and wanting to look good in others’ eyes might have caused her to overcompensate by “playing small” and, consequently, robbed her of wonderful, un-tried life experiences.
An equine therapist can observe how we interact with horses, and then help shed light on issues that need to be worked through, such as in Mary’s story. Or, equine therapy can be simply about being in the presence of these powerful, gentle animals.
Different types of equine therapy for grief
Equine therapy for the grieving process isn’t a “one size fits all” experience because moving through the grieving process is different for everyone. Some ranches or equine therapy programs focus on horseback riding, while others focus on interacting with horses, but not riding them. Horse-centered tasks might include getting a horse to walk from point A to B without a lead rope, or picking up and cleaning each of a horse’s four hooves.
Another example of equine therapy for the grieving process is from Gentle Carousel Therapy Horses, a non-profit group based in Florida. Their equine therapists frequently take a team of miniature horses and visit schools, hospitals, assisted living facilities and hospice programs. The horses are carefully trained for at least two years before they can begin working as therapy animals. These equine therapy horses walk up and down stairs, ride in elevators, and are even housebroken! Gentle Carousel chooses small horses with a naturally calm, agreeable temperament.
Equine therapy for healing after a traumatic injury
“I could sit with the horses and cry, or I could sit with them and not say a word,” said Michelle Wrubel in “Horses help rancher heal” in the Lansing State Journal.
Michelle sustained a head injury when she was 29 years old; equine therapy not only helped her recover, it gave her a new career and direction in life! She now works with licensed mental health therapists to provide horse therapy for people who are struggling with anger management issues, histories of domestic abuse, or transitioning into a blended family.
She is in the process of getting certified as a life coach. She hopes to continue working with equine therapists, and provide life coaching at the ranch. She will also offer the ranch as a respite for those dealing with head injuries, who could benefit from a few quiet hours watching the horses.
Life coaching combined with horse equine therapy can help you cope with different types of losses – everything from healing your heart when you miss your cat to healing emotional numbness after losing someone you love.
My own brand of “equine therapy”
In How to Help Your Mom Move to an Adult Group Home, I shared what it was like when my mother moved to a group home for adults with emotional health issues.
My mom has schizophrenia, and has been quite ill for my whole life. Despite her illness, she lived independently for most of her life…until three years ago. She set fire to her apartment because she went to sleep with a lit cigarette, and burned down most of the building she lived in.
So, to a group home she went! The one she lives on is on an acreage in Saskatchewan…and it has horses. Jackson and I got on famously, and he really helped me deal with the pain and grief of seeing my mom make this transition.
Sometimes equine therapy doesn’t have to be specifically about the grieving process. Sometimes it helps to just throw your arms around a horse and hang on for dear life.
Equine Therapy to Help Heal Grief
In Riding Home: The Power of Horses to Heal Tim Hayes says everyone knows someone who needs help: a husband, a wife, a partner, a child, a friend, a troubled teenager, a war veteran with PTSD, someone with autism, an addiction, anyone in emotional pain or who has lost their way.
In this book, he offers powerful examples of how Equine Therapy has become one of today’s most effective and therapeutic methods of healing humans with horses.
Horses help us discover hidden parts of ourselves, whether we’re seven or seventy. They model relationships that demonstrate acceptance, kindness, honesty, tolerance, patience, justice, compassion, and forgiveness. Horses cause all of us to become better people, better parents, better partners, and better friends. A horse can be our greatest teacher, for horses have no egos, they never lie, they’re never wrong and they manifest unparalleled compassion. It is this amazing power of horses to heal and teach us about ourselves that is accessible to anyone and found in the pages of Tim’s Riding Home.
Grief hits us in different ways — and sometimes it’s unresolved past grief that makes the current loss much more painful. If you tried everything to heal your heart after a painful loss, you might give equine or horse therapy a chance. What do you have to lose?