Head to the Barn to Horse Around: Equine Therapy and Recovery

This Old Horse volunteer with a Paint horse named Sassy who was surrendered due to her owner’s hardship.

Anne K. was having a bad day. An unpleasant experience while shopping set off massive feelings of anxiety. Her husband knew what would calm her. He pulled up on his phone a photo of one of Anne’s horses with a rainbow in view behind it. When she saw the photo, she sighed a huge breath of relief.

“My safe place is a horse,” says Anne. “I connect with their company, their spirit, their love. When I’m with a horse, I can’t think about COVID or any of my stresses.” Just seeing a photo of one dispels her anxiety.

Horse lovers like Anne are a special breed. When you ask them, What is so attractive about horses? you can count on hearing, “It’s about the relationship.”

According to Anne and others who are fond of them, horses can be not only great companions, but also teachers and even therapists. Horses are known to be remarkably precise at mirroring what people are thinking and feeling. Also, they only want to be around someone who is authentic, approachable. Their immediate, blunt reactions give clear feedback on whether you’re showing up that way or not. Some addicts find their way out of addiction due, in part, to what they learn from horses in equine therapy programs.

Get up close with a horse

But how can you get anywhere near a horse? Some people like Anne buy them and care for them on their own property. Anne has seven horses on her hobby farm in Carver County. She has a special fondness for acquiring rescue horses, those that have been mistreated or abandoned.

Equine therapy programs offer another way to encounter horses up close. Several can be found at stables within easy driving distance of the Twin Cities.

Monica Roczniak tried equine therapy when deciding whether to retire from her job. “My first experience was so eye-opening,” she says. For starters, Monica was extremely fearful of horses. “While I was sitting in the barn for the interview, the barn door opened, and a lady brought a horse through. I was watching and I felt fear go through by heart. The horse picked up on this. It was really startled. It started jumping around. I knew it was responding to my fear. It was so immediate.” Adds Roczniak, “I wanted to get past this fear.”

Soon after, Monica was standing near a horse in a stall, and the therapist asked her a question. Before she could respond, “The horse started peeing and pooping,” says Monica. “The therapist asked me, ‘Do you feel like you’re being shit on?’”

“That’s exactly how I was feeling at work, not respected.” It was the first of many times, Roczniak says, that the horse “reflected back to me where my problems were and where my strengths were. It was powerful work.”

Roczniak left behind her stressful job, but she still wanted to get over her fear of horses. Working with a horse trainer later, she learned to brush and groom horses and lead them through movements around the stable, including getting them to follow her.

“I was developing the trust,” she says. “I had to learn to be the leader, to get comfortable with that, to feel strong in myself.”

At times, she would take her favorite horse out to the pasture just to watch it graze. “The last time I was there,” she says, “the horse was out in the pasture, and then she just came to me. It felt so good.”

Make friends with yourself first

Melissa Patterson is an addiction counselor and equine therapist who uses a trauma-based approach to treatment at Stable Living, a therapy-oriented horse farm in the Twin Cities suburb of Minnetrista. Key to her approach is getting clients comfortable in their own bodies. People with addiction, she says, “are used to using chemicals to feel something — or not feel something.” She has them slow down, notice what they are seeing, hearing, and smelling – and their emotional state.

“Before you can connect with someone else,” she says, “you have to be able to listen to your body and notice what’s going on in yourself.”

If her client is filled with stress or afraid of horses, Patterson may get the person to pay attention to their own breathing and use other relaxation practices to bring their stress level down. Then she asks them to watch how the horse reacts: Does it want to come over?

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That pattern of clients noticing their own bodies and then noticing the horse’s reactions keeps revealing how well the relationship is going between the person and the horse.

People going through addiction have burned some bridges and may struggle to connect with others, Patterson says. “They are unsure of all kinds of normal social behavioral things. Working with the horse, their brain learns a new pathway for making connections.

People learn, if I can do this with this gigantic horse, if I can make this connection, I can go out and do it with others.“I had a client who would yell, ‘Get over here. C’mon.’ And that horse did not want to have anything to do with him. He ended up getting so frustrated, and one day he just started to cry. He was able in that moment to feel all those uncomfortable feelings he had, and they were able to come out. When he did that, the horse came up behind him and touched him on the shoulder.

“People learn, if I can do this with this gigantic horse, if I can make this connection, I can go out and do it with others. They feel like: I’m not broken. I’m not damaged. I have value.”

Photos courtesy of This Old Horse (from top left, clockwise): A barn manager introducing her infant to Albie, a racehorse rehabbing from a track injury; a woman who was receiving hospice wanted to spend some time with horses as she had done in her youth. This horse is a rescued wild mustang named Owen.; one of our volunteers with her adopted off track Thoroughbred racehorse named Moon; one of our volunteers with a blind horse named Dude; one of our youth group volunteers who adopted this miniature horse named Catherine who was an unexpected bonus when we rescued her mother and a few weeks later a foal was born!

Care for a horse as a volunteer

Another option for those interested in horses is to spend time volunteering at one of the twelve This Old Horse sites in Minnesota. The barns there are home to horses no longer wanted by their owners.

As a child, Nancy Turner spent much of her free time in a neighbor’s barn caring for horses. In mid-life, wanting to be around horses again, she decided to create what she calls “a welcoming place for people to come and have a horse in their life.”

She has welcomed thousands of volunteers who show up because “they have a heart for horses and compassion,” says Turner. They can come anytime and have lots of choices about how to assist the horses, from grooming and feeding them to aiding other volunteers who offer massage, energy healing, and other services to the horses. Some volunteers accompany miniature horses on visits to nursing homes, libraries, and schools. Mostly the volunteers just like being with horses.

“Horses have so much personality. Invariably there is one horse that will resonate with them,” says Turner. “It becomes ‘their’ horse. It’s a relationship that develops, and it’s intimate. It’s like going to see a friend.”

Some people volunteer together – couples, families, parent-child pairs. People form community there too. They become friends, even travel together.

“One of our barn managers is getting married,” says Turner, “and all of her bridesmaids are people from the barn.” Last year a woman, who started as a volunteer and was later hired on as a stable hand, was married at the barn (to another volunteer turned stable hand), and one of the horses walked her down the aisle. The bride, who is blind, had created braille labels for the horse halters to make her work at the barn easier to do.

A horse community at home

Anne K. cares for her seven horses mostly on her own, with some backup from her husband and son. These horses are her community – her “church,” she says. “They are so soothing to me. It’s like a privilege to be accepted into their herd as their leader. Their heartbeat matches mine. It’s a very symbiotic relationship.”

Even when she gets tossed off their backs – which has happened more than once. Each time she’s had to remind herself to be more mindful, paying closer attention to what’s needed in the relationship. “If you’re not listening to them, things can go badly.”

Since some of her horses have a history of being mistreated, she is extra sensitive to their anxiety and what creates it. It’s a lot like her own, she says. So, she teaches the horse to relax and do yoga breathing alongside her. Standing next to Oz, a gypsy horse, she drops forward exhaling a huge breath of relief, and Oz follows suit.

Relationships can be tricky

Her own fears mounted after each of her falls. For months she had to rebuild her courage and comfort with the horses. For a few weeks, she would just get up on the horse and get down again. But while on the horse, she paid attention to her breathing – and the horse’s breathing as well – to determine when they were both relaxed. Then she got down. It sometimes took months to gently rebuild the trust so she could ride again.

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But riding is only a small part of what matters to Anne around her horses. She spends much of her time just being a friend and caregiver, putting soothing ointment on a sore joint, confiding in their ears, scratching their itches, helping them with stretches, and giving care for one horse’s asthma and another’s impacted tooth. Sometimes she just watches them.

She swears that horses are quite humorous. She says with a big smile on her face that one horse may have even “intentionally dumped me” as a form of teasing. Friends play pranks on each other, she explains, laughing wholeheartedly.

Trotting with Oz around the circle in the large horse barn on her property, Anne and Oz raise up a fog of dust. The clicking sounds in her mouth, the wave of her arms, and her voice commands give direction, and Oz follows her faithfully. Well, not always. Like, in any relationship, you have to keep working on it.

Sidebar: Have a good time?

I once was invited by a friend to go with him to a horse stable for a workshop about what we can learn about ourselves from horses. I agreed, even though I had no interest in horses. In fact, I was scared of them.

When I first went near the horses, I was terrified. I kept as far away as I could. But the workshop leader called us all into the barn to give us practice in relating to horses. I watched from a distance as others tried to get horses to follow them and did other exercises. Every one of us would be expected to take a turn getting a horse to walk in a circle with us.

I wanted nothing to do with any of it. During lunch break, I tried to convince my friend to take me home. He wouldn’t. I was growing increasingly anxious. After lunch, I was asked by the workshop leader to approach a horse, and the horse pulled away and left me standing there. I felt deeply rejected and powerless. I just wanted to get this thing over with. But I knew I had no idea how to get the horse to follow me anywhere after that blatant rejection. I was mad and feeling rebellious.

By then, I felt I had wasted a good part of a day and didn’t want to waste another minute of it. I suddenly got the idea that I was going to stop caring whether the horse followed my commands or not. It didn’t really matter if I failed.

Once there was nothing at stake for me anymore, this surprising question popped into my mind: “How can I have a good time doing this?” Suddenly, I felt much lighter, curious. How could I have fun, I wondered? I relaxed, grinning, and adopted a “what the hell” attitude.

When my turn came, I stepped near the horse, feeling loose and at ease with myself, ready to somehow salvage the day with some fun. I guess the horse liked my stance, as it followed me, more or less, around the circle, seeming relaxed. I was having fun and feeling some satisfaction at doing this thing imperfectly.

I’m still not very comfortable around horses, but in the 15 years since I took that workshop, I have stopped myself many times in the middle of things I didn’t feel much like doing and asked myself, “How can I have a good time doing this?” That horse taught me how to tackle my hard-to-do list with a sense of fun. I’ll be forever grateful.

Pat Samples is a Twin Cities writer, writing coach, and champion of creative aging. Her website is patsamples.com.

Last Updated on May 29, 2021

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