My Horse, My Shrink


Just A Girl and Her Horse

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I step out of my red Jeep liberty and the gravel crunches beneath my boot. As the breeze picks up, the scents of fresh hay and shavings are carried through the air. My horse begins to lift her head as I move towards her, crooning her name; and everything melts away. I am entirely in the present. As the day dissolves, along with every feeling I had been carrying from it, a smile begins to break across my face. When I finally reach the gate, Honey gives me a baritone nicker and searches my pockets until she finds the one with the peppermint treats.

Honey is a 21-year old warmblood chestnut mare who found me almost six years ago. Since that time, she has become my best friend, and the only psychiatrist I’ve ever needed. By now, she knows that I love her; at least she knows I always have food for her. She is gentle in her gaze, with eyes that immediately soften your soul. With slight nudges of her head or pawing at the ground, she speaks her mind quite profoundly. Under-saddle is when the real therapy begins. She won’t allow my mind to be anywhere but on her. If I’m not clear in what I’m asking to either her or myself, she knows, and she won’t acquiesce. Even at her age, she will protest the extra work of a lateral movement or find a fire within her as we approach a fence. The outside world dissolves away because it must, she demands it. My mind and body are fully hers and in turn, Honey helps me find my center once again.

The Science Behind It

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In an article written by Dr. Dana Casciotti and Dr. Diana Zuckerman for the National Center for Health Research, research discoveries are presented that prove the connection between pet ownership and increased health benefits.

“Over 71 million American households (62%) have a pet, and most people think of their pets as members of the family. Some research studies have found that people who have a pet have healthier hearts, stay home sick less often, make fewer visits to the doctor, get more exercise, and are less depressed. Pets may also have a significant impact on allergies, asthma, social support, and social interactions with other people.” (Source: Center 4 Research)

Other studies have also found that owning, or being around animals on a regular basis can lead to:

  • Lower risk of heart disease
  • Lower stress levels, even in stressful situations
  • Lower blood pressure + cholesterol (through physical contact)
  • Provides social support benefits like friends/family but without the stress that comes with interpersonal relationships

While many of the above studies have mainly looked at house pets instead of large animals, I decided to delve deeper into the proven health benefits of horses. In doing so, I found a growing number of individuals practicing and seeking equine-assisted therapy, which takes traditional therapy to the barn and pairs it with learning to work with a horse on the ground.

“. . .horses are prey animals, she [Alexa Smith-Osborne] says. Because of this, horses are more highly attuned to environmental activity and sensitive to people’s emotional states than dogs and other animals typically used in assisted therapies.” (Source: Everyday HealthBy Joseph Bennington-Castro, Medically Reviewed by Michael Cutler, DO, PhD

Horses are large animals, a significant reason why many people fear them. When we meet a new horse, we must earn their trust, learn their personality, and create the foundation for a continued relationship. Unlike a pair of ice skates, a dirt bike, or a car, horses have their own mind and we must respect that. The horse doesn’t judge us for what we hold in our heart and mind; the horse doesn’t care about our personal baggage; the horse only cares about the here-and-now and what you’re going to do with it.

In another article published in September of 2016 by US News, equine-assisted psychotherapist, Holly Hansen, really drove the point home for equine-assisted therapy’s ability to treat the day-to-day stresses and aggravation as well as emotional trauma and addiction.

“Horses, while they’re very large animals, are very vulnerable,” Hansen says. As prey animals, horses are hypervigilant, constantly scanning their environment for potential danger. “People who’ve experienced trauma can really relate to that,” she says. (Source: US News)

The above article soon goes into the benefits of having veterans work with horses once they’ve returned home. The possibilities seem endless for the benefits of our horse-human relationships. Whether you use equine-assisted therapy, or simply feel the relief of stepping out of the car once you’ve arrived at the barn, you know the feeling behind the science. 

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Sources for Further Reading:

Casciotti, Dana, Dr, and Diana Zuckerman, Dr. “The Benefits of Pets for Human Health – National Center for Health Research .” National Center For Health Research. N.p., 09 Aug. 2016. Web. 09 Jan. 2017. Link.

Bennington-Castro, Joseph, and Michael Cutler, DO, PhD. “How Horses Help With Mental Health Issues.” EverydayHealth.com. Everyday Health, 18 Dec. 2014. Web. 09 Jan. 2017. Link.

Esposito, Lisa. “Equine Therapy: How Horses Help Humans Heal.” Health.usnews.com. U.S. News, 2 Sept. 2016. Web. 9 Jan. 2017. Link.

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