Equine Therapy

I've had numerous out-of-control encounters with horses: one bit me in the back after I dismounted. Another bolted at the sound of a motorcycle, charging straight at a corral fence with me in the stirrups.

I’ve had numerous out-of-control encounters with horses: one bit me in the back after I dismounted. Another bolted at the sound of a motorcycle, charging straight at a corral fence with me in the stirrups. I’ve slid down a horse’s neck, had my saddle fall off, and have generally met with mounts that knew I wasn’t boss and refused to do my bidding.

I’m hoping that Gaits to Growth, a two-day equine therapy program offered by Equine Etcetera (equineetcetera.com) will give me insights on my response to horses and…um, men. Developed in North America over the past decade, equine therapy combines basic horse skills, from grooming to riding, with human therapeutic exercises that promote trust, surrender, and emotional release. Books such as The Tao of Equus (New World Library, 2001) by Linda Kohanov describe the essence of this work.

“Horses force you to be in your body,” says Kathy Higby, a Las Vegas-based counsellor and avid horse owner who co-facilitates this workshop with West Vancouver counsellor Paulette Tomasson. “Go into this with your feelings,” Kathy tells me and three other participants at Semiahmoo Stables in Surrey, BC, east of Vancouver. “It’s powerful,” she says.

I’m not sure I want to explore my fear. It’s scary up here, sitting in the concave dip of Boo’s backbone, under a hot July sun. I feel like a vulnerable tot on a pony. Yet, I chose this horse and chose to sit backwards on him, to say good-bye metaphorically to my past and move on.
Two participants stand on either side of Boo, ready to give me support if I need it. Kathy and Paulette watch without judgment, their nurturing presence much appreciated.

Symbolically, I’m sitting atop my relationship with my father, defined by a childhood battle of wills, competition and, I breathe deeply, I can feel the tears coming. I have memories of sitting in my dad’s lap as I feel Boo’s weight shift under me. What does this movement mean?

“He’s relaxed,” says Paulette.

“How can you tell?” I ask.

“His penis has dropped,” she replies. That’s supposed to reassure me? I’m the one with intimacy issues about men, remember?

This exercise, one of many explorations, reveals our connection, or lack thereof, with a particular horse. This mirrors our human relationships, personal power, and daily coping mechanisms. As a group, we are facing issues that range from alcoholism, incest, and sexual abuse to a marriage on the rocks.

Why, my logical brain argues, will horses provide healing when I’ve felt so alienated from them? Yet Boo seems gentle and responsive. Originally, I had rejected him, the “unavailable male” at the far end of the paddock. I dismissed him for a mark on his neck, a supposed blemish. Gee, how many times have I done that with a man?

Instead, I first pick the mare Zipshin, an apparently docile dark bay. (I choose Boo for my last exercise, when I feel braver.) Ironically, when I try to put a halter on Zipshin and walk beside her, she bristles, feisty and stubborn. She won’t cooperate. Locked in a battle of wills, this seems familiar. I feel frustrated and powerless. “Horses will test your boundaries,” says Paulette. “This is about being present with yourself.”

When we shift to grooming, I feel more in control. Zipshin stands still as I brush her smooth skin. Yet, while the others talk soothingly to their horse as if bonding with a best friend, I feel as if I’m relating to an almost-inanimate object. Will Zipshin trust me enough to raise her leg and let me clean her hooves with a metal pick?

“Tell her you’re scared,” advises Kathy. That feels silly, but I do it. I lean into Zipshin’s solid flank and tap her leg. Please, please, lift it, I plead silently. She does. I feel blessed. “Honour the risks you’ve taken,” said Kathy. I feel triumphant.

My confidence continues with the maze exercise. While I’m out of sight, two participants prepare an obstacle course inside the paddock. Then, blindfolded and on foot, I lead the horse through the course, led by a partner who gives me verbal directions. The rules? If the horse steps outside the prescribed boundaries, we have to start all over. This could take a long time.

We begin gingerly, with small steps, but my partner and I soon develop great rapport. She gives me excellent directions and I trust her completely. The horse sails along beside me as we twist and turn. When we reach the finish line, the group applauds. I take off the blindfold and discover that I’ve made the horse do a 360-degree turn in an extremely tight space, led her around two plastic cones in a figure-eight pattern, and manoeuvred her through two parallel poles set less than a metre apart on the ground.

Wow, where’s my blue ribbon? Now, I understand why so many people are horse crazy. This stuff is contagious. I feel empowered, with greater faith in my choices and abilities. Trust and surrender do work. Okay, Pegasus, er, Knight in Shining Armour, where are you? I’m ready to take on a steed.

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