If Nothing Else Works, Try a Horse

Equine assisted therapy keeps coming up for me. I hear about people who provide it and I know people who are curious about it. Last weekend I read a piece in The Wall Street Journal about it that had some quotable things in it.

After reading it, I did some more research, and found a few interesting connections. For example, Hippocrates, the father of medicine, whose name (I never reflected on it) literally means Horse Power(!) described the health benefits of horseback riding two millennia ago in a work called “Natural Exercise”.

Horse therapy today encompasses both riding and being in the presence of horses, including grooming them, without necessarily riding them. Riders with physical disabilities can sometimes do as well or better than most other riders, for example the Danish dressage rider Lis Hartel, who won a silver medal in the 1952 Helsinki Olympic Games in spite of partial leg paralysis from polio, which prevented her from mounting her horse unassisted. Since then there have been many studies on the benefits of horseback riding on balance, coordination and muscle control for patients with neuromuscular diseases.

There is also more and more research published on what being with or riding horses can do for psychiatric conditions, from veterans with PTSD to depression to substance abuse.

Meggan Hill-McQueeney, featured in the WSJ article, runs an Equine Assisted Therapy program. She had a profound first experience with therapeutic riding:

M, a life­long eques­trian, first wit­nessed the heal­ing power of horses while work­ing af­ter col­lege on a ranch in Col­orado, where she was teach­ing peo­ple to ride. A fam­ily had brought their 4-year-old son, a boy with Down syn­drome who was un­com­mu­nica­tive. Some­thing about the horse cap­ti­vated him. Sit­ting in the sad­dle, he signed “horse”—the first word he had ever com­mu­ni­cated. His mother started cry­ing, which prompted his first spo­ken word too: “Mama.”

Horses, being prey animals, are exquisitely sensitive to their environment and their survival depends on fleeing from predators. They can sense the intentions of animals and humans around them. They are said to be able to smell adrenaline and they can “read” the intentions of predator animals and save their energy if such animals are only passing through without intentions of attack. They can synchronize their heart rates with the humans who care for them.

I know from my own experience with rescued Arabians, who as a breed have a reputation of being easily excited, that they help me be calm and unhurried around them. It is almost as if they provide me with biofeedback and reflect back to me what my own degree of tension might be. And not just because an edgy 1000 lb animal could inadvertently hurt me, but because I so much enjoy their unfrightened peacefulness and kindness, I automatically correct my own frame of mind in their presence.

As Meggan Hill-McQueeney puts it:

“When you’re near a horse, you have to prac­tice the art of keep­ing your en­ergy in a good spot. To trust them, they have to trust you. Help­ing the horse rec­i­p­ro­cates to help­ing the per­son. It’s just so nat­ural, but it ends up chang­ing you.”

Her focus is helping veterans and her mission is to prevent suicides. The article concludes:

This year, BraveHearts will see more than 1,000 veterans, and Ms. Hill-McQueeney longs to reach even more. “Is it unconventional? Innovative? Does it help?” she asks. Her answer to all those questions is “yes.” “We’ve got an epidemic of veteran suicide in this country,” she says. “If nothing else works, try a horse.”

2 Responses to “If Nothing Else Works, Try a Horse”

  1. 1 Nancy Dumond Violette January 16, 2020 at 3:10 pm

    Thanks for writing this! Well said. Of course as a life long horsewoman and Equine Assisted facilitator, it’s been a wonderful learning process all the way….. Really…. horses….Their intuitive radar is good for five miles on a calm day,…. horses will let us know how our behaviors and emotions (even if trying to hide them) are effecting those around us. That’s just when we’re on the ground! Mounted on a bareback or padded horse at a walk, the rider is treated to a motion that naturally calms the brain’s trauma center, allowing the rational and decision making parts to work in harmony……. and, sometimes we call it a fringe benefit: activates the speech center. But that’s just a bit of how they engage humans in so many powerful health benefits, including a breath of fresh air.

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