Northbound and Equine Therapy

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When I was in graduate school we were taken to a pasture to experience EGALA equine therapy. At the time, I thought it was interesting but I also thought it was less about real therapy and more about the healing power of animals. Flash forward four years. I was attending Onsite (one of the benefits of working at Northbound is an ongoing ability to do personal work) and was told that we would have one day of equine therapy. “Oh great”, I thought to myself, “another touchy-feely therapy trick.” On the day we were scheduled to be with the horses it was raining. I thought it was my lucky day. Boy, was I wrong!

Our equine therapist, Dee Dee, was something out of a movie. She came into the room in her overalls and “shit kickers” as she called them. She was all of 5’2″ but you could tell she was all business. Dee Dee informed us that although we would not be out in the pasture with the horses we would still be participating in equine therapy. To say I was confused was an understatement. The exercise started off with us throwing balls back and forth with her. I was ok with it- Onsite is exhausting and this was a welcome break. But then something weird happened. Dee Dee started acting like a horse. Suddenly I found myself power struggling with this horse-woman and it was bringing up a lot of frustration for me! Once the demonstration was over, I was the “lucky” participant. I found myself doing equine therapy with this person in front of my group. It was mortifying. I was anxious and uncomfortable and found myself beginning to feel tears welling up in my eyes. Somehow, it was bringing up my fears of being vulnerable and having people not accept me for showing my emotions. Before I knew it, I was processing things in my childhood and how they connected to this pattern of mine. Horse magic without the horses!

After my experience at Onsite, I was convinced of the therapeutic value of equine therapy. I began to do research and learned that the therapeutic value of horses was first recognized in Europe in 1875. At the end of World War I, soldiers who had been hurt in the war were engaging in therapy with horses at Oxford Hospital. By 1969, there was increased clinical interest in the healing nature of working with horses in America. Equine therapy has been found to be an effective clinical intervention with a multitude of clients. It is used in the treatment of eating disorders, substance abuse issues, depression, anxiety, disassociative disorders, personality disorders, and in the treatment of PTSD and other trauma-related symptoms. For clients who struggle with expressing their emotions, equine therapy is invaluable. There are limits to what can be explored and understood through talk therapy. Often we are dealing with clients whose emotional expression is limited to the point of being almost non-existent. Equine therapy provides experiential, or “real-life” opportunities for clients and clinicians to see how they react to situations they cannot control or talk through. There’s no bossing around a 2,000 pound horse. Horses are emotionally attuned to humans through non-verbal cues and actions.

Bringing equine therapy to the client experience at Northbound is something I have been passionate about. Through one of our therapists, I was introduced to Journey PTSD Centers of Orange County. According to their website:

  • We believe that depression, anger, anxiety, relationship distress, fears of abandonment and rejection, substance abuse, and addictions have, at their core, the residuals of unresolved trauma and PTSD.
  • We aim to relieve, reduce, and resolve the distressing symptoms of trauma and PTSD by addressing all areas of mind, body, and soul, where trauma is stored.  Specifically, we target the images, thoughts, beliefs, emotions, and body memories that were involved in the original trauma event or events.

Dr. Renee Miller and Gabrielle Applebury, MFTI are both EGALA trained therapists who used equine assisted therapy in their work. They introduced our clients to their five horses and explained the back story of how the horses ended up at Journey. Like many of our clients, they faced great adversity, abandonment, and trauma before getting to a place of healing and an ability to help others in their journeys.

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The group began with the women “introducing” themselves to the horses. From the beginning, they began to point out behaviors of the clients that we had been seeing throughout their clinical processes. The women approached the horses in many of the ways in which they approached their peers. It was interesting to see the themes of authenticity, isolation, and adapting their behaviors to the situation appeared with the horses. One of the women had an experience where she attempted to approach the horse forcefully and the horse spooked. She was afraid to approach the horse after that. Dr. Miller and Gabrielle helped the client to work through it and gain trust again with the horse. The client was able to draw a comparison to how she tried to make friends by being loud and boisterous and, when people don’t react well, she shies away from them. She was able to experience how adjusting her approach helps her to gain trust with others. The horse would not leave her side after that.

This is just one powerful example of the work that was done in our 90 minute group with Journey. This is something we hope to incorporate into our Women’s and Trauma programs on a regular basis. I am so grateful and excited for the opportunity to do this work.

-Written by Kelsey Huberty

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