Retreat to Equine Solace: A Session in Equine-Assisted Therapy
By Jenna Smith
A man has left the hospital and is headed to the river. Despite officers calling to him, he backs further into the freezing water. I drop my gear and wade in. Shocked by the cold, my legs quickly go numb. Before I can reach him, he slips below the surface. I grab a stick and frantically poke around, but he is gone. After getting into dry clothes, I head straight to the stable and sit in the hay beside Valentine as she quietly chews her dinner. She looks up occasionally, as if checking on me. I feel her with me, and my heart slows. I gradually return to my body. No words have been exchanged. There is no need.
I experienced firsthand the power of working with horses before deciding to become a Mental Health Professional in Equine Assisted Therapy. After 23 years in policing, I had my share of traumatic events to work through. My head was on a swivel, always looking for a potential threat. I retired early and set up my Equine-Assisted Therapy practice in rural Nova Scotia. I did not grow up with horses but felt drawn to them in a way I could not explain. Their wildness, their connection to each other, the sense of calm I felt being with them or just watching them across a fence. They could kill me with one kick, but they choose not to. They are peaceful, despite all the atrocities humans have inflicted upon them.
My herd of horses somehow came together Two were rescued from slaughter as Canada sells horse meat to Europe. Another had been used for Hormone Replacement Therapy, a practice of inseminating female mares and collecting their urine. Terrified of people, she expected to be hit if I came near her. Another refused to leave his home when we bought our farm, so we happily adopted him. Not every horse can do Equine-Assisted Therapy. With love and consistency these amazing animals began to trust me. The herd healed each other over time. They have an open barn without stalls for shelter, 10 acres of rolling hills to graze and clients coming to spend time with them as they live their lives together.
It’s a beautiful fall day. Perfect weather for horses: sunshine, wind to move along what bugs are left this time of year and a crispness to the air. We head into the pasture to look for the herd. They are gathered just inside the trees, enjoying the shade and each other’s company. Sometimes my client will sit and observe the horses, writing down whatever comes to mind without filter. Today we decide to just go to them directly. We get closer, making a game of sneaking up on the horses. They heard us long ago. Without moving their heads their ears have turned toward us, taking in our energy as we approach. My client walks toward his favourite horse, Swagger, extending his hand so that Swagger can sniff and gently tease him. Swagger is great for testing boundaries. If you don’t have any, he is happy to step into your space. Horses love to test boundaries, something they naturally do within the herd to determine who is going to lead should they need to run. Swagger accepts my client’s offer to scratch him, encouraging my client to rub the bug bites. Swagger responds with goofy mouth gestures. You can almost hear him say,” Right there. That’s the spot.”
My client says hello to the other horses. As they move out into the pasture to graze, we follow. My client asks if we can get the horses excited and playing. I tell my client to get his energy up, but to be safe. Safety is always on my mind and the priority when working with the horses. Val understands what we are asking and squeals in delight. She tosses her head and runs toward Swagger, her playmate. She won’t take no for an answer, and he engages with her as we watch from a safe distance. After both surviving the slaughter truck, they are each other’s best friend. My client delights in watching the horses chase each other around as they encourage the other horses to come play.
Nitchi and Holly, 25 and 26 respectively, focus on grazing and leave the young ones to play. They are aware of us and happy to be groomed. My client scratches their bellies and brushes their hair that has begun to thicken as we approach winter. I encourage my client to place both hands on the horses while grooming them. The horses can feel the energy going back and forth.
Looking towards the valley we take in the view, talking softly about feelings. After being with the horses, clients often feel more calm, peaceful, and grounded. It is then that they are better able to access their emotions without their head interfering and to reset their nervous systems.
Trauma stays in the body. Often during the session clients will draw whatever is in their hearts or on their minds. Putting colour to paper is a powerful way to access trauma and work through images and experiences. Being in the presence of horses helps clients access this trauma in a safe environment. During the winter months the horses sometimes gather inside to eat. Clients are surprised at how much joy this brings them, to be included in the herd as they eat together, to feel a sense of belonging and enjoy the sweet smell of hay. Time slows down in Equine-Assisted Therapy where our office is a pasture or barn with four horses. If this feels like something that would benefit you on your healing journey, please reach out to me at email@example.com or equinesolace.ca