Last month, I learned about the healing power of horses through an equine therapy activity at Miraval Austin called Common Ground. My sister and I were scheduled for the resort steeplechase, but with the rain forecast, we decided to try something unique and a little cooler. As I examined the options, the equine activities caught my eye. Having had only one experience in my life with horses, an almost traumatic one with a particularly fighting horse, my interest was piqued when I read that this experience would be unmounted. The description read:
Experience the powerful dynamics of non-verbal communication and how this influences your ability to lead yourself and others. In this no-ride activity, you will move with a horse around the corral, engaging tools of communication, collaboration, and creativity without speaking or touching. The knowledge and skills you discover can be applied equally to personal and professional relationships.
I turned to my sister and said, “We can always do another steeplechase, but how many times will we get a chance to get involved with horses in this capacity?” We were both sold, but neither of us expected how emotional and beautiful the experience would be.
We moved to the farm in front of the property, where our therapist and guide Paula Basden, Miraval Austin Equine Specialist, brought our group of five together to discuss the experience to come. He explained what our time in the arena would be like: 20 minutes connecting with the horse and making it move in various ways, all through non-verbal communication.
Equine therapy consists of showing your horse what you want him to do, without saying a word. Horses pick up on energy and instincts, and if you’re not honest or intentional about what you want, they tune out.
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I was nervous. Communicating non-verbally with an 800 pound horse in a confined space made me feel very small, but it turns out that horses are often more fearful. As I was walking towards the sand, my horse Pepper immediately fell to the ground and began to roll. Paula turned to me with a smile, “Well this is just lovely. She feels safe with you. Falling to the ground is extremely vulnerable, as it requires great effort to get up and escape danger. She feels safe. “
From there, I was overcome with emotion. When my eyes filled with tears, Pepper came directly to hug me. I’d never been this close to an unmounted horse, and I realized that Pepper could see that she was in a vulnerable spot. When I was being honest, Pepper came over and hugged me. When he wasn’t sure, he kept his distance.
One of these times, Paula asked what he was thinking. I said, “I’m thinking about Pepper, how is she? I am a stranger in your space. She is scared? Is she nervous? What should I be doing with my body, my hands? “
Paula commented: “You are the host of many people’s emotions in the spaces, aren’t you? Always wondering and worried about how others are doing. “
In fact, she was completely on point. Paula encouraged me to think about how I. Sense in the moment – to consider my own needs. What made Needed? After a moment, I realized that no one had asked me that before; I come from a long list of “fixers” versus “questioners” so it was nice to hear.
“I would love to connect with the horse, a hug.”
Paula told me to close my eyes and think about that. I kept them closed for about 20-30 seconds and when I looked up, Pepper was standing next to me waiting for a hug. I didn’t even hear her approach, but I could feel her.
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My time with Paula and Pepper was really special. And I realized: almost everyone learns something when they are in the sand. But it’s what you do with that learning off the sand that will impact your life the most.
If you are interested in trying equine therapy, our guide Paula shared a little about her experience with the healing power of horses.
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How did you get to Equine Therapy?
After a long career as a delivery nurse, I realized how new moms struggled to thrive. They were simply surviving by addressing their physical and emotional health, but had little to no knowledge of how to address their emotional, mental, and spiritual health. When I helped them pay attention to and address needs in these areas, their overall health improved, but more importantly, their ability to thrive and live fully increased dramatically. I have been a horse enthusiast my entire life (read: horse nut) and therefore finding a career in which I could help people live more fully using a relationship with a horse, I was hooked. Then I went through the certification and training process.
Who is the best candidate for equine therapy?
There are no prerequisites, but I would say that the best candidate is simply a person who is curious about how they show up in their relationships, both with themselves and with other people. I have worked with clients who are petrified of horses with absolutely no horse experience and clients who have ridden their entire lives and clients anywhere in between.
Equine therapy is for anyone who is willing to be open to changing their perspective on how they look in life.
Being willing to see what we are not willing to feel and how that is affecting our relationships takes a lot of courage. Horses help us find that value in a less threatening way than many other therapies. Horses have no judgment, so it is a safe place to feel vulnerable. Working with horses implies a relationship and emotions arise in relationships. What we do with those emotions is generally based on the patterns we learned to survive, patterns that kept us from being hurt emotionally or physically. Unfortunately, those patterns that originally kept us safe often become barriers to creating the connected relationships we desire in our adult lives.
Horses help us to see that the stories we tell ourselves do not have to define our lives.
What does an equine therapy session entail? How often do people usually do this?
Equine therapy can be a one-time experience or a set of continuous sessions, depending on the client’s intention and the work they are trying to do. It can be done 1: 1 with a facilitator and a horse or it can be done in a group, each having its own benefit. Even a single session can open up a space that clients have kept closed for years, or simply allow them to recognize that what they think has been hidden is actually the world they live in. Group sessions can be helpful in seeing how others are challenged to know what they really think and feel in their relationships and give us permission to just be human.
Working with a trained therapist / facilitator for several sessions, usually once a week for several weeks, allows clients to delve into their inner world. Equine therapy can be a great complement for those who work in traditional therapy. Often times, one or two sessions with a horse can be the same as several in regular talk therapy because horses help us feel our way out instead of thinking about our way out.
How does equine therapy help?
Equine therapy is simply a way to become more self-aware. Undefined and unexplored emotion and cognition drive every decision you make. As an adult, you learn to understand yourself better or redouble any behavior you have encountered to help you not feel. When you do that, when you improve by not feeling, you cause more pain and suffering not only to yourself but to those around you.
Working with a horse can help you see that looking at how you respond actually gives you more agency over your life, which always leads to better mental health.
We call it self-regulation – the ability to manage our emotions when they arise rather than being controlled by them. Responding to life with our thinking brain instead of our survival brain allows us to show ourselves making healthier choices and functioning better in relationships. It can help with any type of addiction, depression, anxiety, inability to create healthy boundaries, challenges in relationships with family, friends, and coworkers. The most difficult parts of our life do not have to become the landscape in which we live. We can elevate the darkness in our lives (we all have it) as a catalyst to become the hero of our own story.
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Are there specific conditions that respond especially well to equine therapy?
Equine therapy can be used for a variety of mental health conditions. There are programs that specifically address drug and alcohol addiction, eating disorders, post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, and depression. When I say mental health I don’t mean just those with a specific diagnosis. Anyone who has problems with symptoms that cannot seem to be resolved can be helped by working with horses.
Covid has shown us that there is a part of everyone that needs care that goes beyond what we can see with our eyes or measure with our blood pressure cuffs. We need connection, I think we are hungry for it, even before covid. Connection is where we find meaning and purpose. Why? Because those mental health challenges can generally be attributed to how we feel and think, and we as humans have earned our Ph.D. in not knowing what we are feeling and thinking.
How about team building?
Equine work is great for team building and leadership within the context of our work lives. I believe that the search for leadership and optimal functioning within a team requires the search to finally grow … and we must be willing to work with what comes up in that search.
Leadership requires authentic immersion in the chaos of our lives. This work goes beyond the why of what you do and often goes directly to who you are, which is valuable information when you are leading a team or part of one.
How much does equine therapy cost?
Outside of Miraval, equine therapy ranges from $ 150 to $ 200 per session (may be higher). Cost has been a challenge in the past, but that challenge is diminishing as it is now an accepted treatment modality that insurance has recognized. In some locations, clients can now get one or two or more sessions covered. Some centers may have grants or ways to fund sessions to make them more accessible to groups that cannot afford them. When I have worked in treatment centers, it is included in the treatment. Additionally, nonprofit centers that deal with people who need but cannot afford mental health treatment are adding equine therapy to their treatment modalities.
The Common Ground: Self-Leadership for Effective Communication The equine therapy session costs $ 105 and is available in all three Miraval Resort locations.