By Lisa Esposito
Sitting within the confines of a traditional office, talking things out with a therapist between four walls, doesn’t always work for kids and adults grappling with tough mental, emotional and behavioral health issues. For some people, adding equine-assisted psychotherapy may be an option. Hanging out with horses could feel more natural and nonthreatening – and you don’t even have to ride.
“I use horses to help folks heal,” says Holly Hansen, an equine-assisted psychotherapist with Sabino Recovery, a residential treatment center in Tucson, Arizona. She’s part of a team approach that uses a mental health professional, an equine specialist and horses to treat people with emotional trauma and addiction.
This on-the-ground therapy incorporates a connection between troubled humans and highly sensitive animals. “Horses, while they’re very large animals, are very vulnerable,” Hansen says. As prey animals, horses are hypervigilant, constantly scanning their environment for potential danger. “People who’ve experienced trauma can really relate to that,” she says.
She recalls a client she treated at a previous workplace, a man with chronic relapses of drug and alcohol abuse. Along with receiving regular office therapy, he reluctantly agreed to walk out and sit in the adjoining pasture where horses grazed. After a couple weeks, the horses came closer and closer. Finally, a single horse approached and got down near him. The trusting relationship that gradually developed led to a breakthrough for the man, Hansen says. Instead of temporary abstinence, he achieved real and lasting recovery.