Why Partner with Horses in Therapy?
When I explain "why horses" in relation to working with mental health issues such as trauma and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), depression, anxiety, grief, etc., I always explain that horses, as prey animals, developed a highly attuned ability to sense emotion as a means for survival. As such they are experts at reading the non-verbals of emotion in each other, people, predators, what have you. This is why they seem to mirror what is going on within us - more appropriately, they are responding to what is going on within us emotionally, even if we are not aware of what that is. When it comes to PTSD for instance, emotional avoidance is one of the 3 main symptom categories - it is also the mechanism which actually MAINTAINS the symptoms of PTSD (avoidance creates temporary relief of symptoms, but it also negatively reinforces the act of avoidance in coping with symptoms which makes the overall of symptom severity worse and more entrenched in the long run.).
For example, in the case of a person who is suffering with PTSD and is experiencing emotional avoidance, this avoidance is also keeping him stuck in his symptom pattern. When he is working with a horse, however, the horse is going to reflect what is going on emotionally in that person right away, even if he, himself is not aware (due to his emotional avoidance). The person is also more likely to recognize this reflection in the horse as being his avoided emotions more quickly because the feedback is coming from an animal instead of a therapist which is less threatening and less directly challenging. Furthermore, the horse becomes a walking biofeedback barometer for the clients to effectively gage when they are authentically accessing their emotion and when they are actively avoiding, which opens an opportunity to work with strengthening the ability to tolerate greater and greater exposures to emotional congruence, the antidote to emotional avoidance, and thus breaking up the symptom spiral of PTSD.
Avoidance of emotion in general is often what keeps people stuck in whatever problem or emotional state they find themselves, whether it be depression, anxiety, PTSD, grief, or relational conflict/discord to name a few. So, in summary, why use horses in the therapeutic process? Quite simply because the main factor which keeps people stuck in the maintenance of their symptoms, emotional avoidance, also happens to be the main factor that horses are naturally able to address with their instinctive tendencies of responding to and reflecting emotional information as a means of survival. We are able to get to the heart of issue much more quickly and in a much less threatening way (than exposure therapies, PE, CPT and other traditional "talk therapies").