If you’re scared of horses, you actually have more to gain from equine therapy – even if you’re not in the grieving process – than someone who is comfortable with them.
“Horses do not judge humans, but they do pick up on our most subtle intentions,” writes Tim Hayes in 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.
What do you already know about horses or equine therapy? Take a moment to gather your thoughts. What are your preconceived notions about how horses might help heal the grieving process? I welcome your big and little thoughts in the comments section below.
Equine Therapy for the Grieving Process
“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 Hayes 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.”
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. Some ranches or equine therapy programs focus on horseback riding, while others focus on interacting with horses, but not riding them. Horse-centred 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, which is 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.
Michelle 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.
Equine therapy would be an amazing gift for women with breast cancer – it would be the most wonderful gift for women after a mastectomy.
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.
A question for you
What have your experiences with horses been like? Are you afraid of them, or completely at home in the saddle, a paddock, or a barn?
While I can’t offer advice, I do read every comment. I encourage you to respond to other readers’ comments if you feel led, and to share your experience of the grieving process or equine therapy.
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My next article is about letting go of the past – the “long goodbye.” Make sure you sign up below for my weekly email to receive new posts!