Neighing Days: Horses as Therapy

I’m an animal lover. My sisters and I grew up with a menagerie at home. From dogs and cats down to turtles and fish. My youngest sister even had snakes once- am NOT a fan of those. Just an FYI.

There is something about the presence of an animal that’s soothing to me (and so many others). I can’t imagine not having one. I will be honest and say that it took me some time before getting a new dog after mine died. I had had Friskie since I was 8 when I lost him. I was 24- I had him literally my whole life. Now, Bennett is my sidekick. I picked him out at two weeks old. It was a long six weeks of waiting before I could bring him home. We were meant to be- he and I. He knows when I’m not at my best. He’s constantly at my feet to begin with, but when I’m not feeling well he REALLY doesn’t leave my side. When I self-harm he whines at my feet before jumping on me to get my attention.

Dogs are amazing. I’m definitely more of a dog person than a cat person…

… I’m also a horse person. There is something about the outside of a horse that is good for the inside (and outside) of a person’s soul. I know that line has been used, but there is no truer way to put it. I have had that lesson reemphasized time and again over my years of owning a horse. The relationship you have with a horse (whether yours or one you are extremely attached to) is far different than one you will have with almost any other animal. There are several reasons, but I will just name one to save time: Size. Even Miniature Horses are larger than most dogs. Trust is oh so important. For you and for them.

Keep these things in mind:

1. Horses are very perceptive. I have learned, as I’ve started to [truly] ride this year, that they can feel whatever you’re feeling. It is something I knew in the back of my mind, but the fact takes on a whole new meaning when you are ON THE BACK of an animal that puts you 5.5-6 feet off of the ground. This can be both a blessing and a curse. Sometimes both at the same time.

2. Horses are just like people (for those of you that haven’t had the chance to get to know one). When I say that, I am talking about personality and character. There are those that are as sweet as can be. Others not so much. There will be horses that click with some people and not with others. Moods can change in a blink of an eye.

3. Horses are intelligent. Highly. They can figure far more out than some people give them credit for.

Equine Assisted Therapy isn’t new, but the idea seems to be gaining notoriety in the public eye as of recent years.

I think those of us that have the opportunity to be around horses all the times don’t always realize how healing it is until one day we walk in the barn after a bad day and hear the snickers and whinnies going through the isle. I mean… We KNOW it is, but sometimes I think we let it slip our minds.

What can horses help us with? Oh so many things- from problem solving skills to impulse control… I can’t speak for everyone as to how and what horses do for them, but I can speak for me. I know my own experience. The things I learn from Zoe, my horse, and being at the barn is never completely about the Equine world itself. I can use my experience as some examples of how amazing horses are as therapy. I am going to give you two examples. I could go on and on, but here are two:

Example 1: Anxiety reducing. The horse world brings me peace. The barn and Zoe bring peace. There are times when I will just go in Zoe’s stall with my brushes and groom her. I’ll talk to her or just put my head against her. It makes the whole world better.

I use this as my first example because Debbi and I were just talking about it yesterday. There are aspects of my life that my OCD controls mercilessly. The barn is not one of those places. It can’t be. As was pointed out to me, I can’t control all facets of my barn time. I love taking Zoe out to graze, but sometimes that doesn’t happen. It might be raining or I get sidetracked and spend the whole time talking to people there.

My anxiety leaves my life in shambles. Speech is impossible without leaving me exhausted. My OCD kicks in to the max. Noises are unbearable. This past Spring the anxiety was through the roof for around three weeks. I couldn’t work. I need to be able to communicate clearly and I was far from that. I spent almost seven days a week at the barn while I was off. I would take Zoe out to graze or just groom her in her stall. I would sit and watch lessons being given, relax with those there during the day… As the days progressed at the barn my speech began to clear. Debbi decided to get me on Zoe so that I could use my new saddle. She had me in the turnout riding and gave me the task of making Zoe kick a ball. It was NOT easy. I loved it! After a time, Debbi asked if I noticed anything. My speech was near PERFECT. It didn’t last once I was on the ground again, but for that short time I had some form of peace. Of normalcy from the chaos of my life at the time.

Example 2: Self-confidence. I will be the first to tell you I don’t have great self-confidence when it comes to most things. I am a perfectionist. Over the top perfectionist with high standards for myself. My therapist tells me they are standards that no one can keep. If I don’t think I am going to be able to do something well then most times I won’t even attempt it without someone pushing me to do so. I have this horrendous fear of letting people down. Making a mistake. Riding was one of those areas where I didn’t think I would have a chance at doing well. Riding wasn’t MY idea actually. My hand was pushed. I was put on Zoe’s back for the first time (which was my first time on any horse) three years ago this past week. I rode once that year, twice last year, and then this year I have no idea how many times. Each time, my anxiety peaks a little less with the idea of getting on. Most times. There are days like yesterday where that isn’t the case and putting the saddle on is beyond reach. I am learning, slowly, that when something happens on horseback that it isn’t always in my control. It is a lesson I need drilled into my head. I’m working with a partner that has a mind of their own. I have goals with riding that go through my head that I need to put on paper and give to someone so that I’m held accountable to them because self-doubt kicks in when I think about them too much. I know, deep down, that Zoe and I will be fine. That isn’t something I always knew. At least I didn’t know I knew it.

People often treat you differently when they know of your mental illness. That leaves a lasting impression and a view of yourself that isn’t great.

Horses don’t see that. They don’t care if you have Bipolar Disorder. They don’t care if you have scars from self-harm. They don’t judge. Zoe is always happy to see me. Even when I am not even remotely okay with myself.

I am extremely lucky to have horse that knows me. That loves me as much as I love her. I am told she must know it’s me when I’m on her back. I do know this…

I believe horses are extremely intuitive. The ones that we bond with even more so. They know what we need from them. Zoe weaves. It’s an anxiety thing. She does it less than she used to, but she does it still. On my bad days… the days when I can’t manage to bring myself to put her halter on to go outside… on the days when I can only handle going in her stall to groom her… On those days she stands there. She doesn’t weave. She doesn’t do anything other than allow me to spend as much time as I need brushing her coat. If I drop the brush from her side for too long Zoe will turn to me as if to say “Keep going.” On days when grooming isn’t even an option and just standing in her stall in a corner or watching out from the door is the case, what does she do? She’s right next to me.

Horses are some of the best therapists in the world. My HUMAN therapist and I have our appointments early in the days so that I can get out to the barn when the weather is nice. She told me when we were setting our appointment times up to suit this, “I know that there are times that Zoe is a far better therapist for you than I am. And I am completely okay with that.”

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