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A Salute to the Horse

Therapy is a daunting thing. Admitting we need help, asking for help and then accepting that help all requires incredible vulnerability and courage. There is a massive stigma on therapy still and on survivors of traumatic experiences. Psychologists often say, people that have suffered trauma or suffer from a physical or mental disorder feel different and disconnected from society, from friends and family. Animals allow people to feel connected again. Gaining the trust of an animal is one of the most significant things we as humans can do, in my opinion. You often hear stories and see videos on social media of owners and their relationships with their animals, the way a dog waited at a train station every day for his owner to come home from work, the way a horse protects an owner from angry cows. Stories of extraordinary animal and human bonds are all over the internet, there are countless movies that depict these relationships as well. Movies such as Flicka, Horse Whisperer, Sea Biscuit all have one thing in common… both horse and human recognize the brokenness within each other. There is a quote that always stayed with me from Sea Biscuit and that is Red saying, “You know everybody thinks we found this broken-down horse and fixed him, but we didn’t… he fixed us, every one of us. I guess in a way we kind of fixed each other too” This perfectly sums up this week’s blog.

Equine therapy is also known as Equine-Assisted Therapy (EAT). What is it? It is a form of therapy that involves an equestrian environment or equestrian activities to promote occupational, physical, and emotional growth for people. Horses have similar social and responsive behaviours to humans, which makes it easier for the person to create a connection with the horse. Riders with disabilities have demonstrated remarkable skills and accomplishments in riding competitions and watching these partnerships are always special.

Maybe some of you have heard of the rehabilitation programmes that use mustangs? In America the Bureau of Land Management determines how many wild horses have to be rounded up for sustainability reasons. Silver State Industries Ranch is part of the Northern Nevada Correctional Centre (one of many programmes of its kind), which is a medium-security prison. 12-15 inmates work under a man called Hank Curry to gentle these mustangs. Mustangs are known to be skittish and incredibly strong willed. Working with these horses and Hank teaches the inmates to have patience, to be less aggressive and to let their own guard down. A participant was quoted as saying, “Hank had to kind of gentle me”. There is symbolism within this project. Both inmates and horses are “penned” up and both rehabilitate each other. These horses do not want anything to do with humans, humans consider them pests, dangerous, untrainable. Prisoners are considered in the same regard by society. Often times the inmates develop such a bond with their horse that they want to adopt it themselves, however one inmate stated that he took a different view saying, “Me, personally, I just like seeing them getting adopted out. I look at them like us: I helped the horse become a better person so he can make parole”. I bet if the horse could talk, he would be saying the same thing.

Another story, that was wildly publicized, has been made into a movie and she has written books about her experience, is that of Jaycee Dugard. Jaycee was kidnapped as an 11-year-old child and held captive for 18 years in a backyard prison before being found and rescued. Since her rescue she has spoken extensively about what happened to her, about having children of her own in that environment and what coming back home has been like and the challenges that have come with that. Dugard’s therapist uses horses to help trauma victims regain trust and she uses them to help family members reconnect with each other. Dugard said, “Horses have a special ability to make you be totally in the moment, making talking about the trauma I went through so much easier and less painful”. Using animals in therapy allows the people involved to have interactions without conscious monitoring, there must be absolute trust there.

Horses are unbiased and often react to people’s behaviours and emotions and body language. People who have undergone EAT have described this as crucial to therapy as it aids self-esteem and self-confidence. By mirroring the person’s behaviour, horses also give feedback quicker and more consistently than a human therapist. Physical movements and emotions help the person be more aware of him or herself allowing them to feel “felt”. This is huge, because often trauma victims, people with mental health issues, and people going through a hard time do not always want to talk or let another person in. To know someone or something gets it and will be in your corner no matter what you do or say is quite profound. Writing this I am reminded of a movie I watched many years ago that was based on a true story called Dolphin Tale. In the movie a dolphin, Winter, is rescued but had to have her tail amputated. A mother brings her little girl to see the dolphin, the little girl has had her leg amputated and it has stuck with me for all these years because when this girl sees Winter she says, “look mom, Winter is like me”. Psychologists will say all humans are searching for the same thing, belonging and acceptance. Everyone wants to feel included and like they belong. Seeing that dolphin created that feeling for that little girl.

There are so many more stories that can be told. This blog was inspired by our recent visit to Tom Ro Haven for Equines and Children. They are doing such important work in providing a place for people suffering from mental health issues, physical disabilities, etc to come and work with horses that have been suffering too and are also in need of a place to feel safe and loved. Anyone wanting to learn more about Tom Ro Haven and the work they are doing look them up on Facebook and give them a call. Every animal and every human deserve a place where they will feel safe, loved and respected.

A vet shared a sentiment by a 6-year-old boy. When asked why dogs didn’t live as long as humans the little boy said, “people are born so that they can learn how to live a good life- like loving everybody all the time and being nice, right? Well, dogs already know how to do that, so they don’t have to stay for as long as we do”. I believe the same is true for horses. Remember to follow in your animal’s footsteps and be kind and compassionate towards others because you never know what is going on behind closed doors.

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