Updated May 18, 2017
“Rusty, I promise to keep you safe and I need you to keep me safe, and if I make a mistake I want you to forgive me, and if you make a mistake I will forgive you.”
If you overheard this conversation, you might think that Rusty and this person have a trusting relationship. They do. Yet, there’s something you should know about why this connection’s so special.
Rusty is a horse.
Equine-assisted therapy as it’s formally known today has been around for 20 years. As with any counseling mode it isn’t helpful for all people, but it has given many people a real, honest insight about themselves that might not have been revealed otherwise.
Animals as Natural Therapy (ANT) operates at Windy Acres, a former dairy farm, nestled beside the Queen and King mountains in Bellingham, Washington. Upon arrival, you’re greeted by a menagerie of sights and sounds. Horses nudge each other vying for the first mouthful of hay. Juan, the banty rooster, crows with his squeaky little voice. The contagious giggle of an 8 year old spills into the arena as Patriot softly tickles her cheek with his long whiskers.
People who come to ANT think they are coming to learn about horses; this is often their only goal. But ultimately they learn about themselves.
As prey animals that have roamed and survived this planet for thousands of years, horses have a finely tuned intuition that can reflect a person’s emotional state at any given moment. This gift allows us two-legged humans to become aware of our own emotions that we might not have noticed. Too often our culture has taught us not to feel or emote so we don’t upset anyone. The horses—by mirroring emotions—remind us that emotions aren’t good or bad. They just are.
A large percentage of ANT’s visitors—adults, veterans, teenagers, children, and foster care youth—have anger issues. I have seen a marked increase in anxiety, stress, and depression as a new norm of mental unease in youth. Many of these young people have turned to drugs or self-harm to push emotions further away, suspending any feelings. Remarkably, I don’t witness much anger at the farm. What I often witness is frustration.
An ANT client braids Siennas mane as part of her therapy. Sienna is known for her gentle and wise demeanor with human companions from children to teens to war veterans.
Photo courtesy of Lorna Shepardson.
The other day I was working with a teen and Moonshadow. Moonshadow wasn’t interested in leaving her herd, much less her pile of hay. And you can’t move a horse that is unwilling to move. Moonshadow planted all 4 feet and 1200lbs in resistance. I asked Mike (name changed) if he is like this with his mom. He said, “Yes, and by now I would be angry.” We promised Moonshadow a hay bag while we brushed her, and she began to move with us. I asked Mike, “What will it take for your Mom to get you peacefully out of bed tomorrow?” He wasn’t sure, but a seed was planted.
We have seen our horses reach a place in the human heart that more traditional therapies may not have touched. Patriot puts his muzzle on a young person’s chest, and she starts to open up about her pain, letting healing into her darkness. People of all ages can be seen walking beside their horse partner in the arena, telling their story, sometimes spilling their guts without interruption—or judgment.
My role is to be an observer and ask questions from a non-judgmental place. I also interpret the horse’s body language, noticing and drawing attention to the horse’s response to an individual’s actions or reactions.
Often times we hold our breath when our anxiety rises. A horse knows that just before a predator pounces they hold their breath. I have personally concluded this is why I have heard of people who get hurt during their first riding experience—the horse felt a “cougar” on its back. When a client feels anxious, I suggest singing or humming a familiar song, and to check in on his anxiety level using a scale of 1 to 10—“1” is totally relaxed after a peaceful night’s sleep and “10” is watching a really scary movie. By simply acknowledging the anxiety, a person becomes less anxious. Horse and human begin to relax, and trust builds.
So, how might this translate to students in our schools? Equine therapy can help struggling students by giving them the confidence to be seen and heard without hiding behind a facade. Learning how to walk in partnership with a 1000 lb horse gives people the self-confidence to see themselves as leaders. Oftentimes a horse will pull a youth to a patch of grass, and I’ll ask, “Do you want to be a strong leader and set a boundary, or are you going to let that horse take you for a walk?”
Lorna stands with Penny whos a combination of gutsy and gentle. She’s unwilling to give in quietly to horses that try to take her food yet she is gentle with children and teaches them to build confidence.
Courtesy of ANT
I also cannot say enough about the power of meaningful relationships. Counselor to young person. Teacher to student. Parent to child. We all have an inherent desire to be seen and heard by someone—even the most shut down, angry individual has this need. And we all need to feel we have something valuable to contribute.
My dream job at ANT allows me to work with kids and horses—two of my favorite things in the world. Horses add an element of surprise and inquisitiveness that I couldn’t possibly create on my own. I see youth feeling empowered— or at least asking questions of themselves—tuning into the glimmer of insight they now have into their true authentic self.
At the end of each day, preteens thru adults leave ANT with a fresh outlook and a less heavy heart. The younger ones leave with good dose of joy and a new sense of confidence. All leave with a greater feeling of hope. Including me.
This article was updated on May 18, 2017, to reflect changes in Lorna Shepardson’s equine-assisted therapy practice, Animals As Natural Therapy.
Full Value Contract
Many of you may have contracts with your students. Contracts are valuable because they are a mutual agreement created by and adhered to by both parties. The Full Value Contract was created for use in outdoor courses like Ropes and Outward Bound, and is an important principle in adventure-based counseling.
At Animals as Natural Therapy, we use our own version of the Full Value Contract with all of our clients— individuals and groups. It gives us a common language and a point of reference to keep each other moving in a positive, and physically and emotionally safe environment. When each person signs the contract they add a gift they bring like compassion, humor, or knowledge.
- Principle One: I will keep myself and others physically and emotionally safe.
Physical and emotional safety provides a foundation for participants to be free and to be vulnerable—making them open to lessons from their equine partners. By learning to recognize and name their present physical and emotional state, clients establish and strengthen boundaries necessary for a harmonious relationship with each other and their horses.
Looks like: Horses are kept at least two horse lengths apart. People move calmly among the horses, using quiet voices. Riders wear boots and helmet. People are respectful toward each other, avoiding put downs, name calling, or blaming yourself, your horse, volunteers, or staff.
- Principle Two: I will give and receive respectful feedback.
Respectful feedback is helpful communication. It may be in the form of a statement or question. We use respectful feedback to keep each other safe.
Looks like: At the end of each session, each person expresses what went well (or not) about the day. Telling a fellow participant or leader, “I am afraid, and I need help cleaning my horse’s hooves.”
- Principle Three: I agree to work as a team.
Teamwork is essential in a smoothly running society, and the farm is a great place to practice. Teamwork also requires communicating clearly. Knowledge is shared and respected—regardless of the source—building trust and cohesiveness.
Looks like: Opening a gate for someone whose hands are full. Two people working together to move a 45-pound saddle from the tack room and lifting it onto the horse’s back. An experienced participant training new volunteers how to groom or massage their horses.
- DISCOVER: The mutually beneficial relationship between horses and humans. Northwest Equine Stewardship Center (NESC).
- LEARN: Animals as Natural Therapy
- EXPLORE: Human-Equine Alliances for Learning (HEAL)
Lorna Shepardson wrote this article for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas with practical actions. Lorna is the resident equine-assisted mental health counselor at Animals as Natural Therapy in Bellingham WA, and has worked for over 26 years in social services, with children, at-risk youth, individuals, and families. When she’s not in the riding arena, Lorna has a private counseling practice called Therapynmotion and spends time with her husband Paul, children Athena (16) and Orion (13), and their menagerie of horses, dogs, cats, fish, and a parrot.