by Jessie Kersh:
The senses are a powerful player in the game of human design. They drive us in ways we only think we understand. In today’s world, the senses are often forgotten in our busy, habitual, and somewhat manic lifestyles. This can often cause unrecognized distress, distraction, unrest, anxiety, and all of those nasty things that people are desperately seeking to rid themselves of.
Over not so many generations, we’ve eliminated crucial elements of being human and what it once was like for our species. We were made to spend time thriving in our world, digging in the dirt, planting, growing, riding, climbing, gathering, harvesting, hunting, creating shelter and safety for our families. These elements have been exchanged for a more technological and convenient lifestyle, no doubt. However, our intelligence and innovative nature relies also on our ability to channel our focus and connect.
If we look at animals, from insects to mammals, there is an organic spectrum of differences in the level of innate busyness each animal possesses. As best we can say without too much anthropomorphism, an ant is inarguably a busy creature. The ant builds, serves, protects, eats, reproduces, and to be honest, I’m not sure if it does sleep, as I am not an expert on ants. Let us not forget squirrels, bees, certain breeds of dogs, birds . . . and thus the list of busy creatures goes on and on. The cow on the other hand, could be more or less described as a lazy creature. It sleeps, eats, and reproduces for most of its life.
By observation alone, people seem to fall all along that spectrum of busyness. Recently, the majority tend to fall closer to the ant-side. It’s as if we’re all in competition to stay occupied and moving. Due to the high-speed nature of our time, people have become sleepless, anxious, depressed, hopeless, isolated, and burnt out.
I would have considered myself one of these people at an early age, by no fault of anyone’s other than genetics and my environment. I knew I was different. Though there was this one thing that made an emptiness full, an anxiousness calm, and an anger soothed. My medicine was un-prescribed. It came in the form of animals, specifically horses.
My racing thoughts and worries would begin to cease as I took in the smell of green grass, the sound of the four-beat gait, the impulsion in each step that rocked my bones gently, the sound of the air exiting the horses lungs that made your whole being vibrate. It turned “the busyness” into focus. The feeling of the ants, and the general sense of unease, would be replaced with calmness. It was a light feeling in my stomach. Hearing the sound of the horses chewing and smelling their sweet hay was near to a lullaby.
It was about an incredibly unique relationship with a one-thousand-pound prey animal that chooses to willingly accept directions and collaborate with a predator. It was about being in nature, with nature, and utilizing all of the wonderful senses we were given to accomplish an ancient partnership. It was about learning a side to language many of us never once put thought into or explore. Personally, I gained an awareness about my body, brain, and presence in general that enhanced my ability to empathize and to look at situations from multiple new perspectives outside of my own.
We are all familiar with the studies that show how bonding with cats and dogs reduces depression, lowers blood pressure, and offers countless other benefits. People with pets generally live a happier life. Many animals have proven to be beneficial for people, and there are now dozens of different valid therapies involving them. Never mind the dozens of physical health benefits for humans that come from simply riding horses, equine therapy is different in that it’s not about the horse being trained to comfort an individual. Horses are particularly effective because their interactions are genuine and completely authentic. They typically don’t cover up their emotions, as their reactions are prompted by ancient instincts that have been reinforced for centuries.
I bid a person “good luck” to catch and successfully work with an extroverted mare on a day that that person shows up to the barn angry, frustrated, anxious, explosive, or simply with an increased sense of dominance—the “I’ll show you!” attitude. The horse is a mirror, a biofeedback machine, and an unbiased opinion of the handler who pairs with it. The clothes that a human wears or the level of education matters not to a horse, but the way that the human shows interest and treats the animal does. Whatever kind of energy a person puts toward a horse is the exact amount of energy that person will receive back. If the horse feels safe, it will interact as being safe. If the horse senses danger, it will interact as if in danger.
Horses are incredibly expressive as well. If we look at the multitude of abilities a horse has to communicate how it feels, it’s well beyond that of a human. It may swish its tail quickly, pin its ears, tighten its lips, widen the eyes, bare the teeth. Perhaps it shies away, ears alert, head high, ready to bolt. The reaction is dependent upon the stimulus, AKA the human handler. With a well-experienced facilitator, these things can be seen and interpreted with more ease than to the not-so-savvy horse person. This practice can help people to recognize other human emotions, reduce misunderstandings, and better handle situations regarding conflict.
In 2015, Courage Therapeutic Riding Center was co-founded by myself and another young woman who found horses to be her medicine. The nonprofit now resides on 18 acres in Arkansas’ historic Prairie Grove. Its goal is to operate in a way that allows services to be obtainable to as many people as possible who are seeking healing or a reduction of symptoms. From individuals with mental health issues to those with special needs, general anxiety disorders, and so much more, Courage TRC has been a place where equine and human can get back in touch with the senses and instincts we have deep down inside us, no matter how long we’ve neglected them.
There are children as young as 2 who participate in equine therapy, and there is no age limit where its value ceases. Recently, more information has been published in regards to people with dementia showing reduced symptoms from even a one-time visit with the horses. Teens in the juvenile justice system, women recovering from drug addiction, sex trafficking, and prostitution, kids in therapeutic day-treatment schools, and all types of people involved in local systems of care programs and agencies visit Courage throughout the year.
Each of them is on a journey of healing. However, those journeys look vastly different, just like the people and horses that are involved in the program. Some of them are navigated in groups, while other journeys are more independent, allowing horse and human to work intimately and at their own pace. The details of an EAAT (Equine Assisted Activities and Therapies) session always looks a little different from person to person. What stays consistent between the different routes of self-improvement is always the horse’s ability to be true. It never shifts away from honesty.
Effective and quality sessions for individuals and groups require a unique set of human talents behind the scenes. From mental health professionals, teachers, equine specialists, volunteers, and many more pieces to the puzzle, collaborators and facilitators are trained under many different umbrellas. Some of the facilitators are certified PATH Intl instructors or EAGALA members. These are worldwide organizations that focus on governing practices and standards in Equine Assisted Therapies. Licensed counselors, social workers, psychiatric nurse practitioners, yoga instructors, educators, physical therapists, speech therapists, and psychiatrists are some of the few professionals who help to facilitate these sessions along with an equine specialist.
I don’t know if you’ve ever felt the ground shake under your feet or the wind from an animal 10 times your size moving around you at high speeds, but if you’re in a place where you’ve not been able to control your thoughts, muster willpower, or maintain presence of mind, it makes for great practice. It’s difficult to be angry in the midst of this power and beauty. It’s difficult to feel sadness here, too. Even if just for a moment, the mind is guided to be with the horse’s every step and movement.
If that’s not your style, perhaps a quiet space with slow movement and soft, big breaths, feeling the inhales with your hands placed on the big barrel of a horse belly, smelling the dirt, hearing birds, engaging in gentle touches with such a large presence . . . some slow, rhythmic riding, or meditation . . . maybe that’s more your style.
Perhaps what you need to do is check in with every part of your body, making sure that each portion is doing what your brain wants it to. Reinforcing and connecting pathways that make mind over matter become an obtainable mantra for you. Monitoring the tenseness of your shoulders, the grip of the rope in your hands, or a lack of balance. Fixing each muscle as it needs to be adjusted to create meaning for the horse. Strengthening old and building new neurological networks while directing one’s thoughts with intention along with another sentient being promotes processing on an entirely different level.
One of the most amazing qualities of the horse is its ability to remember experiences, and still forgive. Not without work, though. People make mistakes often. We’re sometimes clumsy, timid, careless, boisterous, unaware, and occasionally downright awful, unintentionally. With time and consistency, the resiliency horses can put forth in trusting again is admirable beyond words. The amount of patience and understanding horses have shown for humans who are not as capable as others has been profoundly obvious throughout my time facilitating these experiences. First words, steps, goals, positive affirmations, and confidence begin to blossom in a successful equine-human relationship.
My favorite quote came from a 10 year old boy with autism one day as he rode at a trot through an open space with helpers at his side. He said, bouncing and laughing,
“This makes me feel like the BEST kind of crazy!”
In that moment, he loved how he felt. Perhaps for the first time in a long time. He loved how he felt as he sat on his warm, golden horse trotting in the soft dirt under the sunset surrounded by nature and people who wanted him to succeed. Regardless of his screeching laughter, his mare continued to steadily trot, ears erect and forward, as if she knew exactly what she meant to him. I remembered that feeling too, and it changed my life. I will continue to facilitate and explore this industry as it grows, providing therapeutic equine experiences for whomever may be in need.