Ever wonder how a horse could help you cope with grief, trauma and emotional pain? Turns out, horses possess an evolutionary advantage that enables them to pick up on our most subtle emotions, while at the same time not being judgmental and even uncovering emotional blind spots. That means they are the ideal tool for teaching people how to deal with everything from a life-ending diagnosis and physical death of a loved one to miscarriage, divorce and much more.
"As a prey animal, horses don't rely on vocalization to communicate, because using sound would give away their position to a predator," says Gail Carruthers. An equine-guided learning teacher, she founded and owns Skye Blue Acres, a 187-year-old farm in Puslinch, Ontario, Canada where she operates a non-clinical Equine Learning Center — called the Equine Intelligence Agency — that helps clients manage grief and major life losses.
"Horses instead have developed a sophisticated silent method of communication that is built upon sensing the energy (or chi) by using their body language, stance and position," Carruthers explains in an email interview." A mere twitch of an ear, rise of a shoulder or a shift in the hips is enough to convey life-sustaining information to the entire herd simply by being able to detect the ripple of energy."
How does this come in handy at Skye Blue Acres and other similar equine-guided learning centers? Open spaces, natural landscape and horse teachers allow individuals to access and engage their emotional, feeling, sensing, non-verbal and intuitive right brain. That, in turn, helps them regain self-awareness and insights into their own personal understanding and emotional expressions of grief and loss.
"In my work, horses have been observed to reflect back to a client an uncanny and accurate reflection of their inner emotional map, and to zero in on emotional states that neither the client or a trained facilitator has previously detected," says Carruthers. "Emotions that have long been held within the body, and are essentially stuck and unable to move forward, are now being released."
"I think equine therapy is especially effective as it pertains to grief and loss, because grief is a relational experience," says Lissa Corcoran, founder and executive director of Atlanta-based Flying Change Equine Therapy, which also helps clients process grief and loss, in an email interview. "We are missing a connection with someone we love, so a new relationship with a horse can soothe that ache."
So, How Exactly Can Horses Help Your Mental Health?
Horses are extremely sensitive to human emotions, mirroring feelings and providing feedback. Equine learning/therapy offers people the chance to interact with horses via exercises such as coaxing them to come, picking up and cleaning their feet, or walking them through an obstacle course. An equine therapist then observes how a person interacts with the horse, and that helps shed light on issues that need to be worked through.
According to Spring Reins of Life, a New Jersey-based program that combines the skills of mental-health professionals and the guided assistance of horses to promote psychological healing, emotional well-being and personal growth, horses can provide a safe and neutral environment to process grief. “In their herd,” the group’s website says, “we are heard and allowed to just be present with the emotions we are experiencing without any judgment. Interacting with the horses naturally elicits an opportunity to bond. It, therefore, provides opportunities to reconnect the parts of ourselves that shut down after a loss.
“Interacting with horses can naturally bring about feelings of wellness, empowerment, peace and confidence,” the website continues. “For many, this is just the space needed that will allow the healing and adjusting to life without your loved one to take place. Finding a presence of peace and acceptance from the horses provides an outlet to seek out realistic solutions to problems posed by life without your loved one, and finally to deal with and accept the reality of your situation.”
Carruthers adds that many unrecognized emotions that might have been ignored or even forgotten from past situations can become prominent when a person passes away. "While the loved one was alive, resentment, anger and the inability to forgive could have been managed," she says. "But once a person passes away, the opportunity to find resolution is over, and people can feel profound guilt and or anger from past unresolved situations.
"Horses are built to feel this energy, mirror it back and provide a safe container for the grieving individual to release the emotion," she adds. "The release can be a simple acknowledgment of that anger, or even a response of forgiveness as the anger is expressed, and mourning can start to heal the emotional pain."
Is Equine Therapy Scientifically Proven?
Dr. Hallie Sheade, a licensed professional counselor and founder of Texas-based Equine Connection Counseling, explains in an article titled "Brains, Relationships, and Horses" that a horse's mirror neurons might provide an answer as to why the animal is able to reflect a client's inner world back to them so accurately. According to Sheade, whose organization provides equine-assisted counseling for military service members and their families, mirror neurons are a type of brain cell that helps recognize and empathize with emotions in other living things. This enables us to feel sad when we see someone cry, embarrassed when we see someone humiliated or happy when we see someone smile and laugh.
Some believe that horses have substantially more mirror neurons than humans, which makes them experts at understanding nonverbal communication, writes Sheade. In fact, these mirror neurons enable horses to empathize even more than people. While horses share a similar limbic system (the region of the brain responsible for feelings and emotions) to humans, they also have a smaller neocortex (the area of the brain responsible for thinking and analytical thought) than humans. This limited analytical capacity is what endears horses to people; horses render no judgment to our stories and we have their undivided attention when we're in their presence.
The result? A horse's reliance on a highly sensitive limbic system, combined with a refined system of nonverbal communication, has set them up to be remarkable teachers for humans struggling with grief and major life losses like divorce. Horses also are astute in reading the energy in their environment, and human emotions are just another source of energy to be noticed and responded to. When horses interact with humans, they act like a biofeedback mechanism in their ability to detect a person's emotional state.
Is Horse Therapy Better Than Other Interventions?
Although every type of therapy is valuable in its own unique way, each one might not be suitable to treat every disorder or client. Traditional approaches, such as talk therapy, are effective for certain individuals. At the same time, some clients might not respond well to any of the traditional talk therapies.
Equine therapy is an experiential psychotherapy that has done well not only in assisting typical clients, but also with clients that have had trouble with traditional modes of therapy. It offers a different experience by bringing people outdoors, into a non-threatening and inviting atmosphere, and offering them a chance to use all senses while learning and processing through emotional challenges.
"At Skye Blue Acres, we not only teach the leading research on grief that helps to put the experience into normal human terms, but we couple it with a program," says Carruthers. "The horses allow people to identify blocks of their grief, where they need support, how to recognize grief, and how their own choices, mindsets, attitudes and biases are framing and compounding their grief. The program allows them to build resiliency skills to help them manage the process through education and experiential learning through their own unique circumstances."
How Much Does Equine Therapy Typically Cost?
"Equine assisted psychotherapy is often more expensive than traditional talk therapy, but usually requires fewer sessions to reach the treatment goals," says Corcoran. "I've seen individual therapy priced between $125 and $300 per hour."
The fees for equine-therapy services will vary by location. Because equine therapy is only more recently growing in popularity and gaining traction as an effective treatment for mental health and even substance abuse, keep in mind that this service may not be covered by insurance benefits, so you should contact your insurance company and local equine-therapy facility to discuss the details in advance
At Skye Blue, meanwhile, Carruthers charges $180 for individual 90-minute sessions.
How Do People Respond to This Type of Therapy?
It depends on the type of session in which the client participates. At Skye Blue, Carruthers offers both individual sessions and six-week programs. "The outcomes are client-centric," she says, "meaning the outcomes will vary for each participant, because their own journey is personal and unique."
Some examples of outcomes, she adds, include a deep sense of support that helps identify a specific next step needed in the healing journey, as well as resolutions of feeling at peace with the altered framework of a new life without their loved one. Development of a mindfulness practice also enables the client to stay present in the more difficult moments of their grief, rather than ignoring or numbing the emotion. In other words, they have learned to stay present enough to process it.
"As for how people respond," says Carruthers, "I have had clients reach out months after just one session to tell me how profoundly the session had changed their lives."
"Through Flying Change," Corcoran adds, "we have seen clients of all ages and backgrounds motivated by the guidance, acceptance and love of a horse to grow into happier, healthier, more peaceful and more loving people."