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How Horses Help People to Heal

Riding Through Trauma: how horses can help people reconnect and recover By Lindsey Crosbie (This article first appeared in Equine Wellness Magazine December 20222)

Trauma-focused therapeutic riding is a valuable tool for people recovering from abuse, neglect, and other traumatic experiences. Here’s a closer look at the positive effects it can have on participants.

WHAT IS TRAUMA-FOCUSED THERAPEUTIC RIDING? An emerging field that harnesses the healing power of horses, trauma-focused therapeutic riding helps people who have experienced violence, abuse, neglect, and abandonment. It can help people for whom all other interventions, including more conventional therapies, have failed. Horses make excellent therapists. They do not lie, they do not judge, and they have no hidden agenda. Even the most traumatized person can learn to trust a horse because horses are always congruent. When a horse looks frightened, he is frightened. As their responses are authentic, horses are trustworthy learning partners. They provide accurate feedback. HORSES AS MIRRORS In trauma-focused therapeutic riding, horses act as a living mirror, reflecting our emotional and physical states back to us. They are extremely sensitive to our emotions and can pick up on tiny visual and non-visual cues that tell them exactly how a rider is feeling. When a rider’s actions and intentions do not match, horses sense the discrepancy. They might become distracted or uncooperative. All riders have experienced a moment when their tension, fear, or frustration is being telegraphed down the reins to their mounts. The only remedy is to relax, breathe and focus. We are most effective in the saddle if our body language and tone of voice accurately reflect our inner emotions. Much of the work that takes place in a trauma-focused therapeutic riding lesson centers around the participant identifying her emotions, being clear about her intentions and ensuring that her vocal cues, body language and emotional state match up. The increased level of self-awareness that results can have life-changing consequences. Some participants find they have never been truly honest in their lives until they got on a horse. As prey animals, a horse is constantly alert to danger and can sense a predator’s hidden intent by simply observing its body language. Children like Lucas (see sidebar) who have survived traumatic experiences often exist in a similar hypervigilant state, constantly on the lookout for the next threat. They may have experienced trauma at a time before they were verbal and therefore struggle to process it in words. They identify with horses because they also communicate non-verbally and know how it feels to be prey. Many people who have been abandoned or neglected lack a sense of stability and security. When a mother doesn’t respond to her baby with strong positive emotions, its bloodstream is flooded with fight and flight chemicals like adrenaline and cortisol. What began as emotional stress ends in brain damage as a lack of soothing sensory input causes neurons in some regions not to fire. Areas of the brain quite literally go dark. THE BENEFITS OF SAFE PHYSICAL TOUCH When we groom or touch horses, oxytocin is released and both the person and horse are flooded with feel-good hormones. When we ride, the close bodily contact and the rocking motion mimics being held. When a child’s caregiver is involved in the lesson, the mutual release of oxytocin can facilitate bonding and the development of trust. The movement of the horse and the soothing sensory input it provides can also help calm the amygdala and reduce stress. Although trauma-focused therapeutic riding cannot erase neglect, trauma, or disordered attachment, one of the things it can do is help heal the areas of the brain that were affected, creating new neural pathways. The activities may vary, but our focus is always on the connection between human and horse. Horses can help people recover both physically and mentally after trauma, so they can reconnect with themselves, their environment, and other people. EXPERIENCING TRAUMA-FOCUSED THERAPY WITH YOUR OWN HORSE This is an exercise you can try at home with your own horse. It can help you to both relax and focus fully on the present moment. It works best bareback. Before mounting, step back and look at your horse. Use your eyes to trace his outline, taking in all the details. Now step forward and mount. Take a good look at him up close. Pick out five different colors in his hair. Take a moment to use your hands to explore his coat and mane. What are four textures you can feel? What are three sounds your horse is making? What two scents can you smell? Take a deep breath in over your tongue. What can you taste in the air? What happens to your mental state when you focus on your senses? Now take a moment to notice your horse’s breath as his rib cage moves in and out. Close your eyes and breathe in sync for a while. Open your eyes and try to maintain the rhythm as you begin to ride. Do you feel an overwhelming sense of connection? That’s trauma-focused equine therapy at work. THERAPEUTIC RIDING IN ACTION Lucas*, a tiny eight-year-old whose growth was so stunted that he looks more like a toddler, wobbles in his saddle, listing to one side as he tries to dismount. He tries again but finds that this time he cannot quite lift his leg over the cantle. He sits for a minute, frowning, unsure. Lucas’ new adoptive dad is by his side, a hand on his leg, holding him steady. Lucas hesitates for a second, looks at him shyly from underneath the brim of his helmet. Then he holds out five shaky little fingers and says, “Daddy, can you help me?” Lucas’ dad, Mark*, a big man with a bald head, wraps his arms around the little boy, lifting him gently to the ground. As he does so, silent tears stream down his face. This is the first time that Lucas, who was so badly abused by his birth father that he did not speak for the first six months after being adopted, has ever asked for help. This is the first time he has trusted an adult man to keep him safe. This is just one moment in the life of a trauma-focused therapeutic riding instructor. *Please note that names and identifying details have been changed to protect the confidentiality of clients and their families. AUTHOR PROFILE Lindsey Crosbie Lindsey Crosbie is a board-certified equine interaction professional and a PATH International certified therapeutic riding instructor. She is also a Natural Animal Centre equine behaviorist who has a special interest in rehabilitating rescued horses. Alongside her herd, she has spent the last decade helping women and children who have been neglected, abandoned, or abused to begin healing from trauma. To find out more, visit Lindsey is the author of four books on equine assisted learning curricula, all of which can be purchased on

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