Horses make great companions for psychotherapy because they can mirror and respond to human behavior. And crucially, ‘there’s no judgment with a horse’
Cross-posted from The Guardian
By JOSHUA THAISEN
It’s Saturday night in downtown Long Beach, California, and laughter can be heard from the streets below. Sarah Smith is sprawled on her bed, diligently peeling through sociology notes, preparing for her impending exams. An acoustic guitar rests against her bed, and a colorful gay-pride flag is pinned next to her bookshelf.
At first glance, Sarah comes across as a typical college student – but her serious blue eyes sometimes betray a history of violence, abandonment and emotional trauma.
Sarah was born into adoption at a private hospital in Orange County and was molested by her pre-school teacher at the age of three. Eighteen years of psychological and sexual abuse followed Sarah into adulthood, where the lingering devastation of her childhood spiralled into uncontrollable drug addiction and mental illness.
Sarah eventually surrendered to the streets, becoming homeless aged 19. She was living out of friends’ cars and public bathrooms until Pathways to Independence found her and gave her food, healthcare, education and a place to live. She is now five years sober, and is close to graduating from her sociology program at Cal-State Long Beach with a 4.0. Two years ago she was diagnosed with throat cancer, and after a determined battle against the disease, she is now in full remission.
To work through ongoing problems attached to her self-esteem, confidence and trust in other people, Sarah enrolled in an equine-assisted therapy program.
Horses make great companions for psychotherapy because they can mirror and respond to human behavior. Being herding animals, they rely on an acute stream of sensory data to sense safety or danger; they can also hear the human heartbeat within four feet, and research on heart-rate variability indicates that horses have a profound ability to synchronize their own heartbeat with that of human beings.
When people are introduced to the herd environment for therapy, horses respond within the same spectrum of physical and emotional responses that govern their own behavior, allowing therapists an insight into the inner psychology of the client. Continue reading >>
Featured Image: Sarah Smith found she was better able to deal with problems of self-esteem, confidence and trust stemming from a traumatic history of abuse after attending the Ortega Equestrian Centre. Photograph: Joshua Thaisen.