Horse Therapy for Humans

by Inga Yandell

Adrenal fatigue, joint inflammation, anxiety these are some of the issues we seek therapy for—athletes may visit their movement or mobility coach, entrepreneurs may book a mentoring session with their business/life coach, we all visit Dr. Google for advise on supplements and strategies to ease our pain, combat insomnia or any other number of ailments. But for the lucky who live close to nature, work with animals or wildlife the remedy is often much simpler and sustaining.

Science acknowledging the medicinal qualities of wild therapies from forest bathing to swimming with dolphins is still in it’s infancy but the research indicates an untapped potential for healing. Our guest author today is Cindy Jacobs, a trauma specialist who practises Somatic Experience® (SE)* training with a herd of horses in the filed of equine therapy. Her observations suggest horses amplify the SE processes, especially atomic nervous system (ANS) regulation. With the support of the horses Jacobs has seen people move quickly through their traumas, expand their resilience, and increase their capacity to function with greater vitality.

Can horses accelerate the healing of stress and trauma?

The World Health Organization has called stress the epidemic of the 21st Century. Stress is our biological response to threat in our environment—whether it is real or perceived. And leading experts in various health and science disciplines such as Dr. Stephen Porges, Dr. Bessel van der Kolk, and Dr. Peter Levine, concur that most diseases and mental disorders are disorders of the autonomic nervous system—which is responsible for our stress response.

Since humans and other mammals share this biological response to threat, why is it that animals in the wild frequently escape near—death experiences and return to ‘life as usual’ without any post-­traumatic symptoms or other stress related conditions that humans often get? This is the question that predicated the groundbreaking, life’s work of Dr. Peter Levine in the field of trauma.

Dr. Levine postulated that if we could understand and support our biological responses to traumatic and stressful events, we could also recover as the animals do and return to ‘life as usual.’ He explains that a normal stress response cycle completes with a discharge of the residual survival energy—often in the form of movement that may involve shaking or trembling, after the danger has passed. This discharge informs the brain that it is time to reduce the levels of stress hormones. However when this message to ‘normalise’ is not given, the brain continues to release high levels of adrenaline and cortisol so the body remains in its high-­energy, ramped-­up state and can result in various disorders including adrenal fatigue, anxiety, depression, post-­traumatic stress and many others. Failure to complete the stress cycle has many causes, it may get interrupted, or we override or suppress our natural stress response—sometimes with good reason.

Through my own work as a Somatic Experiencing® practitioner and equine therapist I noticed a dynamic emerging between clients and horses that seems to accelerate the healing of trauma compared to working with clients when horses are not involved. Although my work and observations are anecdotal, I have noted consistent, reliable patterns and have drawn on various principles grounded in the sciences to explain what happens when horses support the process of healing trauma.

Our bodies entrain to the rhythms of the horses

Winston Churchill apparently said: “There’s something, about the outside of a horse that is good for the inside of a man.” Many theories abound about horses’ size, beauty, presence, and even their mystical qualities to explain this phenomenon, but none of them consider the interactions of biological rhythms and vibrations between horses and humans that may be explained by entrainment, resonance and coherence.

Entrainment occurs when the stronger, regulated and more powerful oscillating field causes the weaker, more chaotic oscillating field to synchronise with it. If the horse has a regulated autonomic nervous system, its body is producing the more powerful coherent rhythms that cause our body’s rhythms to entrain with theirs.

The heart is the most powerful oscillating field that influences all other rhythms in our bodies—for both humans and horses. Changing our heart rate via the breath is the quickest most effective way to affect all other biological functions. In my work, I have often observed horses intentionally changing their breathing, apparently to affect their heart rate in order to influence a person’s heart rate.

When a person is in a highly activated or anxious state, the horses will slow down their breathing, and shift into what looks like a trancelike state. This has the effect of down regulating the person’s heart rate – bringing more coherence to their body. When the person is in a depressed state where there is too little activation for a healthy autonomic nervous system, the horses will breathe rapidly, similar to a dog panting. This has the effect of speeding up the person’s heart rate. Intentional co-­regulation by the horses quickly brings people into a state of autonomic balance where there is more capacity for resilience.

Why do horses do this? One theory draws on their natural instincts of herd dynamics within a domestic environment. Any member of the herd whose nervous system is dysregulated—from stress, injury or pain, is a liability to the herd because a stressed horse may attract predators, and this horse may not be present enough to alert others to potential danger. In the wild, a horse with a dysregulated nervous system may be sent out of the herd, however a domestic herd may not have this choice. Perhaps the horses attempt to co-­regulate the dysregulated individual (whether horse or human) for the safety and survival of the herd.

Horses touch to bring localised coherence

Sometimes our bodies hold physical patterns deep within their tissues that are associated with trauma, and these are most easily accessed through physical touch. When a powerfully coherent ‘system’ such as a healthy horse, makes contact with these areas of the body, greater coherence is brought to that particular area. Horses often intentionally touch clients with their noses or rub their heads on specific areas of the client’s body. Clients are surprised at the accuracy of the touch—being related to a trauma, and frequently report experiences of release, energy moving, and reduction of pain.

Horses enable the discharge of discordant energy

Prior to any release, our bodies need to feel safe. Just as the animal in the wild that escapes danger, it will not release the residual energy until it feels safe.

When clients engage with the horses, they often feel emotional. Their bodies may be releasing heavy emotions that could be from very early traumas or unresolved events. But what causes this seemingly spontaneous release?

Emotions have a quality of vibration where dense, uncomfortable emotions such as guilt, fear, anger, grief, resentment and so on, feel heavy compared to joy, gratitude, compassion, and peace—that are much lighter.

Healthy horses are more likely to experience their emotions in the moment and let them go—unlike humans who tend to over-­analyse or suppress difficult emotions, which then amplifies and keeps them stuck. Since most humans carry some stuck emotions, their vibration (a unique energy signature made up of one’s thoughts, emotions, experiences, and health) is lower than the horses.’ According to physics, when a lower vibration comes into proximity with a higher vibration, the lower vibration rises. Consequently we can feel emotional around horses as the heavy vibrations we are carrying rise to be released from our bodies.

Horses contain clients’ activation within their limits

Discharging even a little amount of the highly charged survival energy and intense emotions can overwhelm the person and cause further trauma and stress. However, in the powerful resonant field of healthy horses, this discharge is contained and down regulated. Sometimes when clients begin to activate too much energy—such as when they are telling an intense story that has a lot of emotional content, horses step in between the client and me to disconnect us and stop the story. They seem to have the ability to detect when the client’s nervous system activation is reaching its limit before the client begins to feel overwhelmed—even when she reports that she is feeling ok. I have come to trust that the horses’ interventions are often more accurate than my own observations or what the clients report.

All equine therapies are not equal

Interest in horses’ potential to support human learning and healing has been rapidly growing for decades, however simply exposing clients to horses has the potential to burden the horses and open people’s wounds without a path to completion.

For this work to be ethical, sustainable, and beneficial to both humans and horses we have to ensure that horses are not exploited. This requires an approach that recognises the needs of the horses, and allows them to live as wild horses do—in a herd that can graze, rest and play without human intervention or any type of conditioning.

“Horses as well as humans must always have choice, and be free to express themselves without fear!”

Practitioners need to have the expertise to not only recognise the contribution of the horses, but also to navigate the delicate territory of our biological responses to stress and trauma, in order to facilitate a return to equilibrium.

Cindy Jacobs practices trauma healing with the support of her 19 horses in Torquay, Victoria, Australia. Visit Cindy’s horses at: sehorse.com

* The Somatic Experiencing® method is a body-oriented approach to the healing of trauma and other stress disorders. It is the life’s work of Dr. Peter A. Levine, resulting from his multidisciplinary study of stress physiology, psychology, ethology, biology, neuroscience, indigenous healing practices, and medical biophysics, together with over 45 years of successful clinical application. The SE approach releases traumatic shock, which is key to transforming PTSD and the wounds of emotional and early developmental attachment trauma. SE Offers a framework to assess where a person is “stuck” in the fight, flight or freeze responses and provides clinical tools to resolve these fixated physiological states. It provides effective skills appropriate to a variety of healing professions including mental health, medicine, physical and occupational therapies, bodywork, addiction treatment, first response, education, and others.

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Inga Yandell
Explorer and photo-journalist, passionate about nature, culture and travel. Combining science and conservation with investigative journalism to provide educational resources and a platform for science exploration.
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