It was once said “There is no secret so close as that between a horse and his rider.” Horses are old friends to humans – we owe our lives and prosperity to them. Throughout history, horses carried us to new discoveries, pulled our weighty iron plows and charged with us in battle, dying at our sides. The bond we share is deep and sacred. The horse and rider sense together, react together, and assimilate a unique awareness. This connection between the horse and rider is especially unique when the rider is a patient.
Horses have been recognized for their therapeutic gifts in both the physical and emotional realms. Therapeutic riding has been highly successful for facilitating healing in neurological injuries and disorders, sensory integration disorders, developmental and learning disabilities, speech-language disorders, and musculoskeletal diseases. Horses have played a healing role in both family therapy and individual psychological therapy for all ages.
What exactly makes horses so healing for us? In Chinese Medicine, the horse is the symbol for the heart. Almost universally, the heart is the symbol for love. In 1877, Anna Sewell wrote the novel Black Beauty, which elucidated the suffering, slavery, abuse, and torment endured by horses. Ultimately, by telling their story, Sewell translated the poetry inside the horse’s heart – that of forgiveness, strength, sympathy, respect, and kindness. This is the capacity within a horse’s heart and this is what people who seek horses as therapy experience.
Horses evoke self-belief, trust and freedom. When an impaired individual rides a horse, a shift occurs. Lack of confidence, low self-esteem, and limitations often weigh heavily on these patients. Horses are dangerous, frightful, and massive. When a patient climbs on the back of this animal and summons their inner strength, they have climbed to the top of the world. They achieve something that their friends or parents know is inherently scary. They can say to everyone, “I ride horses.” This newfound courage transcends to advances in their therapies and development. Within the most fearful of all is the bravest of hearts.
If there were ever an animal that has suffered with humans, it is the horse. A horse’s heart is filled with both pain and love and it is the capacity for forgiveness and sympathy that is appealing for emotional healing. Renowned horse trainer and author Buck Brannaman states, “Horses are incredibly forgiving. They fill in places we're not capable of filling ourselves.” Peaceful and uplifting, riding sooths and centers the human soul. Other animals may spread an inner joy and love as well but with horses, it is the sensation of being carried that lightens our burdens and evokes the bond between horse and rider. They help us realize that our troubles are finite and bearable.
When training horses, you must be as approachable as a flower, still, strong and patient as an oak, and as inevitable as the tide. It has been my own work with horses that taught me most about how to treat people. Often in the worlds of the abused, other people have been the largest sources of disappointment and pain. Horses live in the moment, and they help us learn how to do this as well. In the moment, we release the past and never-mind the future. With their endless unconditional love, animals become the therapists, teachers, and friends. Throughout history horses have evolved to know humans unlike any other animal. Their wisdom and capacity for healing touches us. It makes sense that horses, the symbol for heart, help us to heal ours.