Healing with horses
On June 23, 2010, at the age of 26, I was diagnosed with stage III invasive ductal carcinoma. Four years later, I met Lolli, a one-inch tumor in the left side of my brain. I had metastatic breast cancer. My brain tumor, Lolli, became active again in 2017. As a result of treatment, I have limited mobility in my right leg. I thought I had my emotions in check, but, for many years, I most definitely did not. When family and friends kindly suggested I look into therapy, I reacted as if they were personally insulting me–saying I was unable to keep myself together. I avoided therapy at all costs. I finally hit an emotional brick wall, and I no longer could tape myself back together. I needed a more permanent solution.
I began Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) therapy, a comprehensive and integrative treatment for trauma. I felt pieces of me, both old and new, mold back together. I could think more clearly and had space to fill with positive thoughts and feelings. I had been focusing so hard on trying to just get through a day that I had a short temper and no space for anything else. Since then I have continued therapy and feel strongly that it should be a part of a treatment plan when you are diagnosed. If I would have begun therapy earlier, I know my experience, post diagnosis, would have been so different. There is a type of therapy for everyone. I wanted to try something different, and equine therapy seemed like it would stretch my comfort zone.
Equine therapy is an out-of-the-office approach to therapy. It doesn’t require any previous experience with a horse, and you don’t need to do any riding. Horses are intelligent, highly social animals that use sounds and body language to interact with the rest of their herd, and they can communicate with humans in similar ways. In fact, it is their ability to recognize and respond to human emotions that gives them a unique role in the therapy process. I was looking forward to adding this experience to my therapeutic resume.
Arriving at the facility I immediately felt like an outsider. My sessions were held at a working farm—lots of people, hay, work boots, and horses. I hadn’t been around a horse in over 20 years, and I was shook. I was worried I would “mess up.” Fortunately, I had the support of a therapist and a therapist-in-training, who was also an animal specialist—keeping an eye out for any change in the horse’s behavior that could put us at risk. The patient/therapist relationship is always important—throw a horse or five in the mix and your one-on-one is now a group therapy session. I’ll admit it took some getting used to, but with support I quickly became comfortable. My therapist had a “hands-off” approach, and I either stood using a walker or cane, or I sat in a chair. Because I wasn’t getting any interactions with the horses, I asked questions.
Q: “What are their names?”
A: “What do you want their names to be?”
Q: “Why did that horse do that?” (Picture anything you may bring up when you are awkwardly standing with a therapist in a horse corral where the horses are the farthest they can get from you.)
A: “Why do you think they’d do that?”.
Horses are prey animals, and, as a result, they’re very attuned to the environment and able to pick up on the emotional states of others. They easily give patients feedback on how their emotions can affect others. I was an outsider, and the horses knew it. I was told “prey animals wake up every day saying to themselves ‘I don’t want to die today.’” It was like I got hit in the chest. In response I said, “That’s how I feel about my cancer.”
So, prey animals that they are, the horses read me and went into a protective formation—lining up alongside the corral standing one right behind the other. They stayed that way the entire session. The lineup included one “regular” horse, two “medium” horses, two “mini” horses, and a donkey.
You could say my first session wasn’t the most…interactive. I felt a little dejected. I wasn’t expecting to create an unbreakable bond my first time, but this seemed ridiculous. I knew the horses were mirroring my emotions, and I was nervous and very anxious. As a result, I ended my first equine therapy session with no equine. Despite the lack of interaction, I felt a dopamine boost afterwards. I had just been completely out of my comfort zone, for an hour, with two people I just met, five horses, and a donkey, and survived! I was thrilled with myself.
My second session I was less anxious. I was once again reminded that horses are prey animals because, once again, it seemed I wasn’t going to have any interaction with them. The horses were much closer to me, all lined up, looking out of the corral, with their tails facing me. These prey animals were exposing their flanks, leaving me feeling heroic! I was encouraged when my therapist acknowledged my achievement. I had regulated my emotions for the benefit of both myself and the horses. Once again, when I left, I had a dopamine rush, and the positive feelings lasted all the way to my session the following week. I don’t know what type of magic was working, but it was working!
On the way to my next session, I did some meditation and deep breathing, drastically reducing my anxiety. Some of the horses met me at the gate! I was able to rub the face of the big horse and pet and rub the two minis. The mediums weren’t into me. But I hardly noticed because I had a big win. I was able to reduce my anxiety to the point of being welcomed at the gate. Being conscious of my emotions was key. Now I knew that on the way to my sessions I should practice deep breathing to help me relax.
At my fourth session I was met at the gate by all the horses--and the donkey. It was raining, so my therapist suggested we sit under a little covered area. While I was sitting in that chair every single horse walked and stood in front of me—within arms-reach and wanted me to show them physical attention. Every. Single. One. They just kept coming in front of me, one after another—like a carwash of horses. I was able to rub the nose of the big horse and put my face up to his. I felt like a success story. In four weeks I went from being side-eyed by the horses to having them jockeying for spots for attention. I am not ashamed to admit I cried a little.
Equine therapy gave me the opportunity to adjust my anxiety levels. The way the horses responded to my physical demeanor and psychological anxiety reached a part of me that traditional therapy has not. I would recommend equine therapy to anyone who is looking for a non-traditional therapeutic setting. I have found that it is a great addition to traditional, or other alternative, therapies.
I have found that the horses’ eyes plead for you to see inside of yourself. I agree with George Gaylord Simpson who wrote “From horses, we may learn not only about the horse itself but…indeed about ourselves and about life as a whole.” My serotonin was buoyed after each session–but I can’t put my finger on why. Rubbing noses with a horse is my new happy place.
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