Equine Therapy is based on a non-verbal activity between the patient and the animal. Horses are very social and emotional animals and they must have a trust relationship with the person that’s working with them in order for them to cooperate.
Survivors of abuse and neglect have lost (or never developed) their sense of trust or personal empowerment. As the girls are introduced to their horses, they must confront their trust issues immediately.
A horse is a large animal and they very quickly identify that they don’t trust that large animal, but over the process of time, as they begin to trust and to transfer their feelings of powerlessness onto that animal, they become empowered through that relationship. They learn that they can ask what they need from their horse, and the horse in return begins to trust them as well. So in this mutual trust-building relationship, that girl is being healed, and she’s taking her power back.
It takes approximately three months with a patient before they start transitioning from thinking in the brain stem (survival) and begin using the prefrontal cortex (reasoning). Once in a state of more rational thinking, the patient will start to think and feel, and become self-aware. A flood-gate will open and a flood of emotions and feelings will begin rising to the surface. Perhaps, a patient has been under the influence of strong drugs or medications. As they begin to come out from under the influence, feelings will be heightened, emotions are in turmoil, and the patient seeks a way to ‘release.’ Often the emotional release comes in unhealthy ways.
At this point, they are not necessarily going to immediately connect to human beings.
It’s important to realize that victims of sexual abuse and/or trafficking are often exploited by the people they are supposed to be able to trust. In many cases, it is their own parents who are either selling or abusing them, so it might be very hard for a patient to establish bonds of trust with people. This is where the horses play a vital role in successful therapy outcomes.
Horses are naturally emotional animals. They are prey animals, so their observation instincts are impeccable. Horses have a high desire for relationships and are very loyal. All of these character traits make a horse a loyal companion and listening friend. When the patient bonds with a horse, they find a safe place, a listening ear, and a non-partial audience.
Through activities such as brushing the horse, stroking the horse, feeding, grooming, and talking to the horse, a relationship of trust and attachment is formed. The patient will eventually experience a ‘let down’ allowing the process of ‘emotional release’ to begin. Once the patient establishes a good talking relationship with their horse, it automatically transfers over to their other personal relationships.
During an equine therapy session, the certified (human) therapist will ask the patient certain questions while watching for a physical response from the horse. When a question triggers an emotion from the patient, the horse will often raise their ears, turn their heads toward the patient or show signs of empathy as they try to provide comfort by nuzzling or offering reassurance to the patient.
The horses hear all the stories, they are the recipient of the ‘release’ the patient needs to experience before they can begin to work through the feelings with a human therapist.