Equine therapy, a holistic connection, horses healing trauma
I’ve got splinters in my butt. Sitting on the top rail of the weathered round yard, I’m hoping the greyed timbers will hold. The coach, Pam, helps a child on, a girl about nine or ten, her helmet perched on a cascade of brown ringlets. She sits stiffly on the horse, tears fall in rivers down her face. Pam asks if she’d like to get off, ‘That’s fine for today.’ But the little girl shakes her head, and they set off at a very slow walk. The girl grips the saddle horn, legs splayed straight, her rigid body lurching at every step. The horse moves so slowly it’s almost in a coma. Around the ring a dozen times, and then more circles the other direction. The child looks grim, her eyes fixed, tears still running silent.
Gradually, there is a barely perceptible softening. The child’s body sways slightly with the left-right motion of the Arab’s elegant gait. She still holds the reins in a strangled grip, but her seat relaxes into left sway, right sway, left, right. Watching, I feel my breath let go, and my heart too. It goes out to that brave child, that quiet horse, that patient woman. For a time, we’re all suspended in perfect attuned slow motion. Right, breathe in. Left, breathe out.
Years later, my own daughters were in high school, and we’d recently moved to a country area of Australia. We’d always taken on volunteer work as a family. This time we elected to volunteer with the Riding for the Disabled Association. Saturday mornings were spent leading horses and riders around an enormous sandy arena or along winding trails in the eucalyptus shade.
The children and adults had a variety of disabilities, but these faded to the background of their abilities. The small feisty girl with Down’s syndrome confidently jumps fences on a compact dark gelding. A golden haired girl sits beaming between two supporting helpers, making gleeful noise, while her grinning parents take photos. A woman with one sided paralysis, drills figures of eight over and over, working toward a Para-Olympics place.
The determination and the joy of those Saturdays was brimful, humbling, and inspiring.
I was working in a rural psychotherapy practice with children and adults who had experienced sexual assault. I contacted my local Riding for the Disabled Centre. They were happy to have my able-bodied but emotionally-suffering clients for riding every week. Through a decade of collaboration with RDA, we had groups of teen girls with trauma histories, children who had suffered every type of abuse, adult women survivors of domestic violence, and Aboriginal children affected by inter-generational traumas. Of course, the labels fall away when you’re just a horse and a rider on a beautiful afternoon.
Every session was healing in some way. Some clients took 3 or 4 sessions to dare to get on the horse. Some clients were cantering, jumping and mastering dressage. It didn’t matter. The healing was in the connection of mind and body, renewed trust in a body that had been betrayed, and no longer felt disconnected. Making friends with the horses, the kind volunteers and stern coaches was an element of the healing magic. Sometimes healing was in facing fear, and mastering a big scary unpredictable beast. Sometimes, it was about mastering anger and fiery emotions to keep a flighty horse calm. For others, it was summoning assertiveness to make a reluctant horse move.
We had an old chestnut gelding named “Turbo”. He had been hopefully misnamed as a foal. We’d often pair the more frightened and timid riders with Turbo as he was a reliably calm gentleman. Also, he required a lot of determination and a firm seat to get him moving. Lessons learned on a horse are embodied lessons. You know it in your bones when you learn to take charge of your fear, to act assertively, to sit tall and confident. And oh, the sweet celebration, with coaches, volunteers, and other riders cheering, when a rider got Turbo to canter around the ring.
On those long dusty afternoons as I led horses and riders around the arena, I was fortunate to be entrusted with many disclosures. Stories of present pain or past suffering were revealed and let go in the calm rhythm and quiet intimacy of left-right-breathe.
You can’t always change what hurts, but you can accept, and know as surely as you can smell the animal warmth of your horse and feel the soothing movement that joy still exists, despite the pain.
To the dedicated tireless coaches and volunteers at Riding for Disabled Centres a gi-normous thank you, and may your coffers be filled with donations to keep your good work going. To the many clients who were joyful to work with on those sweaty, heart-lifting afternoons, a warm hello and well wishes wherever you go. You’ll always remain in my heart.
And to those special horses, an apple for the teacher.
Interesting links and resources:
https://rdansw.org.au/ (Riding for Disabled Association)
https://www.dosomethingnearyou.com.au/2430/organisation/riding-for-the-disabled-manning-great-lakes-branch-1559017 (‘do something social’ connects volunteers with opportunities)
https://www.cbc.ca/firsthand/features/everything-you-need-to-know-about-horse-therapy (all about horse therapy)
https://www.abc.net.au/news/2018-04-07/equine-therapy-takes-psychology-to-the-paddock/9618718 (equine therapy)
https://www.smh.com.au/lifestyle/health-and-wellness/equine-therapy-horse-power-that-heals-20150226-13phoj.html (drug and alcohol addiction and equine therapy)
https://www.theguardian.com/science/2015/jun/23/equine-therapy-horses-medical-treatment (homelessness, mental health, trauma and equine therapy)