Psychotherapy That Integrates Horses

Integrating horses into psychotherapy is a technique used by state licensed mental health therapists. Therapists partner alongside trained horses to enhance the growth and healing in the therapeutic process. It is a collaborative effort between a licensed Mental Health Professional (MHP), the Horse(s), the client(s) and sometimes an Equine Specialist (ES) all working together. In some instances the MHP and ES are one person dually certified.

At MoonRise Therapeutics we offer therapeutic and educational experiences that foster self-discovery, empowerment, and build emotional resiliency by bringing together highly skilled clinical and equine professionals, a herd of well-loved horses, and a nurturing environment.

The horse and human relationship offers a unique interactive experience. It is a powerful one having lasting impact on people struggling with a wide variety of mental health issues and developmental needs. Being experiential in nature, the learning goes deeper. Through connection with the horses, participants learn about themselves in relationship and then can “process” and transform behavioral and emotional patterns. This approach has been shown to be effective for individuals, groups, couples, families and youth. To date this field continues to expand, and suggests great promise with ongoing research trials underway.

This work is not just a cognitive process as the mind and body are one. Trauma, for example, unconsciously lives on in our whole system after the event(s). Many of the traumas that live in our bodies derive from relational wounding, either in our lifetimes and immediate family systems, or intergenerational, or in our larger socio-cultural system that oppressed or abused us. Working with the horses can help bring an awareness and processing, or digesting, of this trauma to help our mind/body to heal.

How Do Horses Help?

There are a number of recent studies that validate equine assisted mental health as an evidence based practice promoting physical, spiritual, emotional and mental health. Judging by its success, there’s no doubt that horses have a lot to teach us. But what is it about horses that help humans heal?

Researchers, therapists and others who practice equine therapy believe that part of the answer lies in the nature of horses. Horses are sentient beings that are prey animals, highly attuned to their surrounding environment and most comfortable as part of a herd. Their social acuity is paramount as their survival depends on it. They live in the present moment and when we are with them they invite us to join the present moment.

They have similar nervous systems as humans, having flight, fight, freeze or connected states. Their preferred state is connected, where they can play, eat or rest in ease. However, they are able to switch their state from relaxed and connected to flight within seconds to protect themselves. Unlike humans, they do not have storylines that keep them trapped in a fight/flight or freeze state so are able to switch back to relaxation when the danger passes. When we are with them our nervous system attunes with theirs and we often find our calm.

Horses are sensitive and intuitive animals that communicate with each other using body language. In order to survive in the wild, they became masters at reading body language. And when you enter their space, they will read you subtly but with intent, just like they would read any other herd member. They will pick up on what’s going on inside and sense if you are happy, sad, feel lost, anxious or are excited and they will respond without judgment, ego or agenda.

According to Mehrabian’s communication study; only 7% of what we say verbally with words actually communicates, 38% is based on tone of voice and 55% is communicated through body language.  This is where we believe the horses can help us to develop and improve our communication skills.

Having no pretense, being open and honest creatures, horses often act as a mirror giving us instant feedback and helping to create awareness. For instance, if you are unaware of your angry or agitated state, a horse might shy away from you. Once you become aware and congruent, the horse can trust. Winning a horse’s trust takes time and as you work on that and watch the animal’s reaction, you become more aware of your emotional state and how it affects those around you.

Once understood and experienced, most people are happy to engage and relax around horses. It becomes easy to find joy in their presence. Unlike other forms of therapy, equine facilitated therapy has no stigma attached to it. It is easy to open up quickly since the horses don’t judge or criticize. Horses invite us to show up exactly how we are in the present moment and to get curious around improving our own mental health.