As a nat­u­ral horse­man­ship clin­i­cian for more than two decades, I have learned that horses can help peo­ple be­come not only bet­ter rid­ers but bet­ter part­ners, friends and par­ents.

EQUUS - - Front Page - By Tim Hayes

Horses evolved to com­mu­ni­cate with each other pri­mar­ily through body lan­guage. The herd es­tab­lishes its peck­ing or­der ini­tially in "strong terms" such as bit­ing and kick­ing, but there­after re­lies on more sub­tle ges­tures, a va­ri­ety of small move­ments of the ears, tail, feet and body.

This abil­ity to silently com­mu­ni­cate and cre­ate a smoothly func­tion­ing group has helped horses to sur­vive by en­abling them to stay to­gether and travel in the safety of large herds. They are able to live in har­mony and get along with each other be­cause of the en­tire herd’s abil­ity to prac­tice the flaw­less so­cial skills of ac­cep­tance, tol­er­ance, kind­ness, hon­esty, pa­tience, un­der­stand­ing, for­give­ness and com­pas­sion.

The horse’s ex­tra­or­di­nary abil­ity to read equine body lan­guage trans­lates to hu­mans as well: You may think you’re act­ing “nor­mal,” but if you’re an­gry, impatient, griev­ing, stressed or wor­ried---your horse will know. You can’t hide things from a horse. He will al­ways see, feel and re­spond to your true emo­tional state. To para­phrase Ralph Waldo Emer­son: “Who you are speaks so loudly I can­not hear what you say.” Those words could have been writ­ten by a horse.

As a nat­u­ral horse­man­ship clin­i­cian for more than two decades, I have helped peo­ple cre­ate bet­ter re­la­tion­ships with their horses. At the same time, I was fas­ci­nated to see how the horses helped their own­ers be­come, not just bet­ter rid­ers, but bet­ter hu­mans, bet­ter part­ners, bet­ter friends and bet­ter par­ents.

And so I be­gan a jour­ney to ex­plore the ways horses can in­flu­ence the peo­ple who spend time with them. Af­ter years of re­search, study and ex­pe­ri­ence, I have come to be­lieve that the horse’s ca­pac­ity for “read­ing” hu­man body lan­guage may go much far­ther than sim­ple com­mu­ni­ca­tions. I be­lieve the horse’s abil­ity to demon­strate qual­i­ties like ac­cep­tance and com­pas­sion also en­ables them to help peo­ple heal from a wide va­ri­ety of phys­i­cal, psy­cho­log­i­cal and emo­tional wounds.

I have vis­ited equine ther­apy and other pro­grams where peo­ple with var­i­ous types of emo­tional and phys­i­cal prob­lems are able to work with horses. Some of the pro­grams were help­ing vet­er­ans with post-trau­matic stress dis­or­der (PTSD), chil­dren with autism and pri­son in­mates. In each case, I wit­nessed some as­ton­ish­ing trans­for­ma­tions as in­ter­act­ing, train­ing and rid­ing horses helped peo­ple with deep emo­tional wounds begin to heal. Let me share some of those sto­ries with you.


One of my first ex­pe­ri­ences in wit­ness­ing the amaz­ing dy­namic that can de­velop be­tween horses and peo­ple oc­curred at a max­i­mum-se­cu­rity pri­son in Florence, Colorado. There I learned about the Wild Horse In­mate Pro­gram (WHIP), which was cre­ated by the U.S. Bureau of Land Man­age­ment (BLM) as a way to help man­age the coun­try’s freeroam­ing wild horses.

Thou­sands of mus­tangs have been re­moved from the Amer­i­can ranges over the years, and gentling and train­ing them greatly in­creases their chances of adop­tion to good homes. How­ever, the num­ber of ex­pe­ri­enced horse­men needed to safely gen­tle so many horses makes the process pro­hib­i­tively ex­pen­sive. So the BLM came up with an in­ge­nious so­lu­tion: If pri­son in­mates could be taught to man­u­fac­ture li­cense plates, why not teach them how to gen­tle wild horses?

I had come to this pri­son to study the wild mus­tangs and learn what ef­fect, if any, work­ing with horses might have in the re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion of hard­ened in­nercity crim­i­nals. What I saw was a trans­for­ma­tion I don’t think any­one could have imag­ined. I cer­tainly hadn’t.

The in­mates who par­tic­i­pated in WHIP had com­mit­ted ev­ery crime imag­in­able, some vi­o­lent and fright­en­ing. They ar­rived at pri­son with a lot of swag­ger. Most were from gangs. In their world they were tough guys, danger­ous, bad. The only way they knew how to re­late to any­one was with anger, mis­trust and deadly force.

Then they met the wild mus­tangs. Some of th­ese horses, too, were vi­o­lent and ag­gres­sive, lash­ing out at all who ap­proached. It quickly be­came ob­vi­ous that the in­mates’ old ways of re­lat­ing to the world wouldn’t work with th­ese horses.

As the men learned the ba­sics about how to gain a horse’s trust, a re­al­iza­tion be­gan to dawn on them. A young in­mate named Mor­ris told me that he saw in th­ese horses some­thing that he knew was also in­side him, some­thing he could never ad­mit to him­self or any­one else: Mor­ris had been living his whole life in fear. If th­ese pow­er­ful, tough, wild an­i­mals could be afraid, he said, then maybe he could say he had been afraid, too. Mor­ris had had an amaz­ing epiphany.

The rest of the men in the WHIP pro­gram came to sim­i­lar con­clu­sions: They saw that the mus­tangs’ vi­o­lent be­hav­ior was caused by fear. The horses were just try­ing to sur­vive. They acted ag­gres­sive, but in re­al­ity they were scared to death---just like the men. For the first time in their lives, th­ese men were shown the un­de­ni­able truth about who they were. They had in­ter­nal­ized the be­lief that be­ing tough and vi­cious was their only hope of sur­vival. But now---just like th­ese beau­ti­ful, wild and un­pre­dictable an­i­mals---the men could see that their mo­tive had also been fear. And maybe, just like the horses, they too could change. Grad­u­ally, their rock-hard at­ti­tudes crum­bled. They be­gan to feel com­pas­sion, an emo­tion they had prob­a­bly never known or felt be­fore. They felt it for the horses, they felt it for each other, and they felt it for them­selves.

The in­mates had set out to gen­tle the horse, but in the end, the horses gen­tled the in­mates, too. Put an­other way, the process of gentling wild horses to fit into hu­man so­ci­ety was si­mul­ta­ne­ously gentling “wild” hu­mans to fit back into the same so­ci­ety.

As I drove away from the pri­son, I re­al­ized I had not only watched the use of pri­son la­bor to save a great Amer­i­can icon, the wild mus­tang; I had wit­nessed the heal­ing of lost souls.

It quickly be­came ob­vi­ous that the in­mates’ old ways of re­lat­ing to the world wouldn’t work with th­ese horses.


Horses For He­roes started out as a pro­gram that used horses in phys­i­cal ther­apy for vet­er­ans who had lost the use of their limbs or the limbs them­selves. Over time, how­ever, the ther­a­pists no­ticed that the horse-hu­man con­nec­tion was also hav­ing a dra­matic im­pact in heal­ing the emo­tional wounds of many of the sol­diers. Not only was it help­ing them over­come de­pres­sion and anx­i­ety but, to ev­ery­one’s sur­prise, it had a pro­found ther­a­peu­tic ef­fect on sol­diers who suf­fered from PTSD.

Sergeant Fran Kirk­son, a vet­eran of the Iraq war who had been par­tic­i­pat­ing in the Horses For He­roes pro­gram at High Hopes Ther­a­peu­tic Rid­ing Inc. in Old Lyme, Con­necti­cut, shared her story with me: “The hard­est part of war isn’t be­ing there; it’s the com­ing home. You’re not the same per­son. When I came home, I felt like ev­ery­one wanted some­thing from me---my friends, my fam­ily. They wanted me to spend time with them; they wanted me to be happy. They wanted me to help them feel OK about me. They meant well, but they didn’t un­der­stand. I just wanted to be alone--that’s all I could han­dle.

“War kills your sense of trust. I didn’t know if some­body wanted to be with me to make me feel good or to make them­selves feel good. My horse Rain­bow didn’t know me from be­fore the war. All she knew was what she saw when we met. She didn’t want any­thing from me, didn’t ex­pect any­thing. I didn’t have to talk about my feel­ings; I could just feel them, and she was OK with it. She opened me up. When I re­al­ized she had started to trust me, it was the first time since I had come home from the war that I felt like me, like I had got­ten my old self back.”

To­day many equine pro­grams help vet­er­ans. The Wounded War­rior Project (WWP), work­ing in con­junc­tion with PATH Intl. Equine Ser­vices for He­roes, is a non­profit vet­er­ans’ ser­vice or­ga­ni­za­tion that of­fers a va­ri­ety of pro­grams, ser­vices and events for wounded vet­er­ans of all mil­i­tary ac­tions that fol­lowed Septem­ber 11, 2001. As of Au­gust 2013, WWP has helped connect more than 35,000 men and women with pro­grams to help them re­cover, and more are added ev­ery year.

Over time, the ther­a­pists no­ticed that the horse-hu­man con­nec­tion was also hav­ing a dra­matic im­pact in heal­ing the emo­tional wounds of many of the sol­diers.


Horses also demon­strate a re­mark­able abil­ity to cre­ate pro­found ther­a­peu­tic con­nec­tions to chil­dren with autism. Autism spec­trum dis­or­der (ASD) is not a sin­gle ill­ness with con­sis­tent symptoms; rather, it is a col­lec­tion of be­hav­iors that can vary widely among in­di­vid­u­als. Some of the more com­mon char­ac­ter­is­tics of ASD are dif­fi­culty com­mu­ni­cat­ing and in­ter­act­ing with oth­ers, prob­lems mak­ing eye con­tact and read­ing fa­cial ex­pres­sions, and se­vere lan­guage deficits, char­ac­ter­ized by prob­lems with the use of lan­guage for so­cial pur­poses. The causes of autism are not fully un­der­stood, and there is no cure for it.

In 2012, I spoke with Lynn Rob­bins, whose 11-year-old daugh­ter, Rachel, is autis­tic. Most of the time Rachel was sim­ply un­able to sit still. When Rachel was 7, Lynn says, she took her to three dif­fer­ent child ther­a­pists for what she called “tra­di­tional talk ther­apy.” Rachel hated it and, af­ter a while, re­fused to go. Rachel was also pe­ri­od­i­cally put on med­i­ca­tions---in­clud­ing mul­ti­ple an­tipsy­chotics and an an­ti­con­vul­sant and mood sta­bi­lizer---in the hope that one of them might im­prove some of her ev­ery­day func­tions. “The drugs didn’t help,” Lynn said. “It was like there was some­thing in­side her that kept mak­ing her move, which she couldn’t turn off.”

Then they de­cided to try equine ther­apy. The first time Rachel ar­rived at Good Hope Horse Farm in north­ern Ver­mont, her equine coun­selor Sherri led her over to a large gray horse named Al­fie. Rachel stopped about two feet in front of Al­fie and looked up at his soft, dark eyes gaz­ing down at her. Af­ter about a minute, Rachel lifted her hand to­ward Al­fie’s nose. The horse dropped his head and sniffed Rachel’s fin­gers. Rachel quickly pulled her hand away, turned and walked to­ward the gate. Al­fie fol­lowed her. When she got to the gate, she turned back and was amazed to see Al­fie stand­ing right be­hind her.

Sherri walked over, looked at Rachel and said, “Al­fie likes you.” Rachel broke into a broad smile. As Lynn told me this, she be­came emo­tional and said, “I had never seen Rachel smile like that be­fore in her whole life. She could tell that Al­fie was in­ter­ested in her and that it didn’t mat­ter to him that she was autis­tic.”

Horses do not ask, de­mand or ex­pect any­thing from us; they just want to feel safe, com­fort­able and get along. When Rachel ex­pe­ri­enced this with Al­fie, it was un­like any in­ter­ac­tion she had known with an­other per­son. Al­fie showed Rachel that she could trust him, and if she could trust him, one day she might learn to trust peo­ple. As Rachel con­tin­ued work­ing with the ther­a­pists at Good Hope, she did in­deed start in­ter­act­ing with other girls and their horses.

Horses don’t see a child with autism. They see a child. Autis­tic chil­dren know this, and it feels good to them. In or­der for any­one---autis­tic or oth­er­wise---to grow, heal and have pos­i­tive re­la­tion­ships with oth­ers, they must first have a pos­i­tive re­la­tion­ship with them­selves. Horses can make hu­mans feel good about who they are, and they have en­abled some peo­ple with ASD to be­come more con­fi­dent, more trust­ing and to feel love for them­selves and oth­ers.

Not ev­ery­one likes horses. In­ter­act­ing with th­ese large an­i­mals is not a sil­ver bul­let so­lu­tion for heal­ing ev­ery emo­tional or phys­i­cal wound a per­son has. That said, mount­ing sci­en­tific ev­i­dence sug­gests that equine ther­apy has been mak­ing a pro­found dif­fer­ence by help­ing thou­sands of men, women and chil­dren achieve life-al­ter­ing emo­tional break­throughs. Re­mark­ably, all of th­ese peo­ple are re­cov­er­ing from deeply

Horses Horses do do not not ask, ask, de­mand de­mand or or ex­pect ex­pect any­thing any­thing from from us; us; they they just just want want to to feel feel safe, safe, com­fort­able com­fort­able and and get get along. along.

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