Arriving at a prestigious mansion overlooking the picturesque Pacific Coast Highway, the Clinical Director quickly ushered me into her office, as I attempted to disguise my disbelief that this, of all places, housed some of humanity’s most psychologically challenged individuals.
“So,” she began slowly, “we have already purchased three horses for our equine therapy program.” She pointed out her sliding glass door at a small barn and white fenced pasture extending down the hill toward the house. “They have all suffered extreme trauma,” she paused again and turned toward me. “We thought that the clients would be able to connect with traumatized horses better.”
I looked out toward the three horses grazing on the hill, a buckskin gelding, gray gelding, and dark bay mare, and wondered if it is true that traumatized horses do make good candidates for equine facilitated psychotherapy programs.
To answer this question, let’s first consider what trauma is. In either horse or human, trauma involves the temporary overwhelm of both the psychological and the physiological systems. Whatever the stimulus is, be it witnessing another death or near death, or experiencing it firsthand, the psychological and physiological systems are not equipped to handle what is presented. In fact, during extreme trauma, being fully psychologically and physiologically present would exacerbate the trauma. This gives reason for the most common defense in the face of trauma, which is dissociation. During dissociation, the person, or horse, temporarily detaches from the situation psychologically so as to avoid the terrifying sensations that are being experienced. But it is also important to note that physiological detachment also occurs, which results in the freeze response, whereby the individual is unable to move. This is also the typical “deer in the headlights” syndrome.
While the short term effects of trauma involve dissociation and detachment, the long term affects can be hypervigilance, increased startle response, avoidance of any stimulus related to the original trauma, and re-experiencing of the traumatic event. This might present as an individual who appears tense, nervous, and yes, detached. This individual might also have restricted patterns, such as avoiding social settings, crowds, and public places. In the case of a horse, this may also mean a horse who is somewhat avoidant of people, skittish, and prone to nervous explosions, or running off. More than anything, however, this horse is not able to respond fully to stimulus from people, as he is too bound by his own emotions. Much in the same way that a traumatized person is emotionally blocked, so is a traumatized horse.
How this may play out in an equine therapy session is through inaccurate responses on the part of the horse. For example, let’s say that the horse’s trauma was being hit on the head. Now the patient reaches up toward the horse’s head to secure the halter, and the horse backs up wildly. The un-educated therapist may interpret this response as a reflection of the patient, such as the patient’s tendency to approach people too intensely, scaring them off. Or even worse, the therapist may attempt to decipher the horse’s shying away as mirror for the client’s own behavior — suggesting that perhaps he shies away frequently. Clearly, neither of these explanations is true. Instead, the horse was responding to his own trauma. In this way, one could say that the horse was not able to respond to the person openly and freely. As the art of equine therapy depends on the honest and unmarked response from the horse, it is obvious then that this would be compromised in the case of traumatized horses.
Just as therapists who have not overcome their own psychological issues struggle in therapy sessions, and do not make the best therapists, horses, who have not been fully rehabilitated from trauma may also not be the best equine therapy candidates.