by April Phillips, StableStrides
Horses are not only “good for the inside of a man,” but uniquely suited for mental health therapy for veterans due to both instinct and behavior.
When paired with a human, a horse will intuitively react to behavioral patterns or body language from the human. This gives insight into how a person is being perceived. Because they are prey animals, horses are constantly on the lookout for danger and respond quickly with either confrontation or flight. This instinct allows for a deeper level of intervention with a therapist that surpasses any other mental health treatment.
StableStrides is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit whose primary focus is mental health therapy with horses. Situated in the large military community of Colorado Springs, CO, StableStrides is uniquely positioned to serve veterans, active duty servicemembers and military families. On a mission to significantly improve the lives of people through a connection with horses, StableStrides exists because of horses and their ability to touch the lives of people.
Horses and humans share a history that goes back to ancient times and has continued to today. Their role in medicine was first prescribed by Hippocrates (460 BC-375 BC) as a form of natural movement that strengthened the body. Hippocrates, the “Father of Medicine,” believed in health that united body and mind and studied treatment for trauma and mental healthcare. Since then, relationships between horse and human has been studied and incorporated into modern medical practices, both physical and mental.
The physical aspects of horseback riding are used to develop physical strength, muscle development and other physical benefits, while the relationship between horse and human is known to strengthen both mind and spirit. Today, the term Equine Assisted Activities and Therapies (EAAT) defines the use of the horse in recreational and medical intervention. A large portion of EAAT is focused on veterans and their healing journeys during and after service. When partnered with a horse, a veteran is asking the horse to enter into a relationship with them that requires mutual trust and some degree of vulnerability.
One veteran reflects on his mental health sessions at StableStrides by asking:
“How could they go from resting and relaxed to full alert, with a first instinct to run, then to relax again, in seconds? How they could let go of that tension and anxiety and just “be?” As a herd animal, they entrust leadership to the strongest. That leader makes the decisions for the herd for as long as it’s capable or trusted. How can a prey animal, the horse, come to trust an apex predator, a human, with their safety? What a concept. This huge, powerful animal, easily capable of killing me, that fears me because I am a predator, could come to trust and work for me because it wants to.”
As prey animals, centuries of domestication have done little to lessen the horse’s response to danger. They understand that their best chance in escaping danger is to flee. As a result, the horse’s “fight-or-flight” instinct is used for decision making. In addition, horses are extremely perceptive and communicate with body language to convey fear, anger, calm or anxiety.
In a herd, each member relies on the leaders in the hierarchy to make decisions for the safety of the herd, if that leader can be trusted. When in the absence of a herd, the horse will determine if the human is to be trusted as the leader. If not, the horse will decide on his own what is safest.
Therapists have selected horses to incorporate into therapy due to these characteristics, including what many call “mirroring of emotions”. While horses aren’t mirrors, they will often reflect their leader’s emotions. If their leader senses danger and responds with fear, so will the horse. If the horse senses calm in their leader, the horse will likewise be calm, trusting their leader’s instinct. In mental health therapy, the therapist incorporates the horse and the relationship between veteran and horse for a dynamic and therapeutic environment. Through the horse’s reactivity, a veteran and therapist are able to examine and process behavioral reactions or emotional incongruencies. This requires the veteran to be present and mindful as to what is unfolding, and to be transparent about reactions.
Many organizations such as StableStrides exist for the horse-human connection and improve lives through EAAT. Through a connection with horses, mental health therapy strengthens families and individuals. Because of the horse’s unique qualities and instincts, incorporating horses into mental health allows for a therapeutic intervention that surpasses any other form of mental health therapy.
Photo Credit: Amy May Images