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Learning from a horse

“There is something about the outside of a horse that is good for the inside of a man.” -Winston ChurchillThis widely used quote doesn’t come as a surprise to a horse person. People who spend time around horses know that they have a way of calming us, helping us forget the worries of our day-to-day lives, keeping us focused in the present. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve driven to the barn weighted down with worries, spent some time grooming and riding and left feeling completely calm and content.More frequently, mental health professionals, educators and trainers have been calling on this power to help their clients. Including a horse as part of a therapeutic or learning team is commonly called equine-facilitated mental health (EFMH), equine-assisted psychotherapy (EAP) or equine-assisted learning (EAL).My interest in EFMH started innocently enough. For the first two years I owned my horse, I put up with him dragging me around. If he saw a grain bucket or a nice grassy spot, he would just head for it, and I was no match for his strength. I started carrying a whip when I led him, but I felt bad smacking him every time he headed off in his own direction.Then I started riding with a trainer who immediately noticed this behavior. “You know,” she said, “Dr. Phil says you teach people how to treat you. I think you’ve been very effective at teaching your horse how to push you around. Do you let people do that to you?” From that moment on, I started seeing all kinds of parallels in my riding life and my relationship with my horse to my life outside the barn and my relationships with people.Why are horses so good at showing us what’s really going on inside us? I visited recently with Sharon Schuh, a psychotherapist in Monument who has used horses in her practice for many years. For three years, Schuh worked with a dietician, Peggy Norton, treating women suffering from anorexia and bulimia. Schuh is convinced that working in a team that includes a horse is an effective and rewarding way to make real progress in a therapeutic setting.”These women are so out of touch with their bodies, and they operate a lot from the head up, so they’ve denied their bodies,” Schuh said. “But when you’re around a horse, you have to be present in your body.”Schuh uses grooming, groundwork and riding to help her clients become aware of patterns of behavior. “It just seems that with the horse’s presence, they’re willing to risk a little more,” Schuh said. “The horse becomes a buffer or safety, especially when they’re grooming. The minute they get on the other side of the horse, so the horse is between them and me, it’s like the horse is this wonderful security blanket. They can tell their story behind the horse, and that’s where they usually start. There’s something about the presence of the horse that opens them up.”Schuh often has the client engage in an exercise where the client tries to get the horse to go around her in a circle. “What happens is the horse starts crowding her, and since they’re still going in a circle, the client feels like she’s doing it OK, but she just keeps backing up,” Schuh said.Schuh relates the experience to human relationships. “You think everything’s OK, but you’re compromising, you’re yielding little bits at a time, and then you think how did this relationship get way over there when we started over here?,” she said.”We work a lot with body language.” Almost invariably, once the client realizes how her body can influence the horse, she starts accessing her emotions more easily. “Often there’s a kind of cellular release in their bodies when they’re here – they feel safe, accepted,” Schuh said.What started as a simple activity with the horse can, with the guidance of an experienced professional, lead to insights and analogies to our larger life and our way of functioning in the world.

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