By Pat Rothchild
I left the competitive horse world in my mid-twenties, once I figured out that the more successful horses and riders became, the crazier they got. The horses I loved and worked with did the impossible for me day after day. They were utterly loyal to me. I thought that I was loyal toward them too. In my world, horses who weren’t great athletes wound up in dog food cans. There was tremendous pressure to make sure that those who passed through my hands found a niche in a performance specialty. Their lives depended on it.
The problem is that horses were not designed to live like hot-house flowers. They’re set up to move about eighteen hours a day among a small band of friends and family foraging for a variety of delicacies. Performance horses in the fifties and sixties lived in box stalls, usually about 12 X 12-feet. Their diets had little to do with what nature intended. Denied social bonding, a wholesome diet, and freedom of movement, horses get nutty. They become overly dependent on their human handlers for everything. It’s a sick relationship based on a healthy calling to bond with another species.
The people caught up in performance specialties don’t seem to fare much better than the horses. Most appear to get into it because of a profound spiritual calling to horses. It seems to take nano-seconds for highly motivated humans to turn into pathological control freaks in performance specialty realms. I became obsessed with figuring out why.
That led to a graduate program in clinical psychology. I began to learn what made people tick. It was a fruitful time. I met my soul mate, who turned out to be a dog guy. I also developed what turned into a life-long fascination with how relationships work. What makes some marriages and families function well and messes up others? How does one person’s psychopathology affect that of others in his or her life? What sorts of relationships mitigate the damaging effects of chronic mental illnesses?
Animal therapy for PTSD
Being a born critter person, I naturally explored animals as potential helpers for those who suffered from what eventually became known as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). My first informal dog trial worked beautifully, even though it came about by accident. Within a couple of months, I worked out a loose protocol employing my dogs in my clinical practice, which at the time was office-based. I quickly turned it into a home-visit practice, which just as quickly morphed into a practice primarily run out of our home. If a patient had animals at home, that’s where we worked. If not, or if the patient was too distracted at home, I worked with them in the setting my dogs were the most comfortable with.
Countless patients whose brains had been hijacked by unspeakable trauma found their way back through the delighted grins of dogs who were genuinely happy to see them. They practiced holding paws, throwing sticks and trotting down woodland trails behind wagging tails. While they did that, their brains re-wired their happy; to enthusiastic greetings, eye contact, and giving joy to another. Gradually, the humans re-established a sense of confidence in their abilities to make authentic and safe relationships. Then, they practiced these newly reintegrated skills on the people in their lives. And, they’re off…
Whoopee, I knew how to treat an untreatable disease without psychotropic pharmaceuticals. It worked. My practice was perpetually over flowing. Life was good, it seemed. I thought about horses often, but usually with a sigh of relief for having escaped the craziness of the performance world. There was a longing for them though. I dreamed of them nightly. That never went away.
Life took another sharp turn after my husband died. His death coincided with that of the last of the Goldies who had lived and worked with us for a quarter of a century. I was bereft. Then, my beautiful mountainside property began to slide. What the …?
I moved 120-miles north with my one surviving cat. A property on the Northern California coast called me. I went. Eventually, I met a woman who was seriously horse crazy. We became partners in an herbal business. She nagged me about her burning calling to be among horses. Life happened.
She dragged me out to look at a horse she thought was perfect. What I saw was a lame, traumatized three-year old Walker whose mouth was shredded, his back was tender in four areas and his feet were misshapen from ridiculous trimming. I was horrified for that poor horse and bought him for her on the spot.
We all have crazy moments. That one was a big one for me. Cut me a bit of slack though. I thought she knew about horses. She told me she did. I was in such a state of shock by beholding that poor, young horse, that in the moment, I hadn’t been quick enough to process that my partner didn’t really have a clue. Well, she was about to learn. And I have to hand it to her, she dug in and learned. She learned a lot of stuff that I didn’t know about. We quickly began to challenge one another to grow our respective equine skill sets.
My partner taught me to be far less compulsive about “training” and far more attentive to mood. I came up in a world in which performance was the gold standard by which all horses’ value was measured. We quickly wound up with three profoundly compromised young horses. My job became figuring out how to give them viable lives in a world that still valued horses primarily for their athleticism.
None of these horses was ever going to become blue ribbon athletes. I felt frantic while my business partner, Tana, was amassing wounded horses. She found them, but I kept being the one who had to pay for their upkeep. It strained our relationship mightily, but also pushed me to discover the wild world of equine-guided, -assisted and -facilitated learning and psychotherapy. It dovetailed beautifully with what I had been doing with dogs. The holistic approach through horses worked even better and faster than that with dogs.
Bliss and mindfulness
It turned out that during my years of treating people with dogs, there was a whole movement of people doing similar work with horses. I was ecstatic. I had finally made my way back home, through an extremely problematic partnership. Life is weird.
I hadn’t looked in the literature for information on treating mental health issues with horses until I accidentally shared a moment with a boarder at the ranch where we kept our little band. It was a lovely summer evening. I was on my way to visit with our two mares who were enjoying the balmy weather in a back pasture. As I passed the darkened and perpetually dank indoor arena, I heard an odd chirping coming from the back. I paused and peered into the darkness. Now highly pitched words were mixed among the chirps.
First, I thought that it was a migrating bird I hadn’t yet encountered. When words arrived in the same timbre, I was intrigued. This was a curiosity that I couldn’t pass up. By that time in life I had worked in a variety of mental health treatment settings. Weird vocalizations often accompany a mental health breakdown. I leaned into the front gate of the arena. There was movement back there, but I still couldn’t see much.
“Are you okay?” My query was met with more chirping. I entered the arena, awash in curiosity. What I found still makes me chuckle.
In the far back corner of the arena was one patient, elderly horse standing about twelve feet away from one morbidly obese middle-aged man with a grin from ear-to-ear and a huge western saddle laying catty-whompus in the sand footing between them. I asked the man how it was going. He said, “It’s fantastic! I’ve never been better in my life.”
I looked quizzically at him, the horse and the saddle. “How so?”
The man flung his hands above his head and did a little dance. Of course, the horse backed itself into the far back corner when he did that. He didn’t seem to notice. He was carried away by bliss.
I asked him what he was trying to do. He said, “When I came today, I thought that I was going to try out this new saddle.” He looked at the forlorn hunk of leather and fittings sprawled across the sand. Then he waved toward the horse. “He doesn’t like it.”
I looked over at the horse. He was a beautifully conformed quarter horse that looked to be about eighteen years old. “Is he yours?”, I asked.
“He sure is!” The look of pride and satisfaction on the man’s face could have lit the Vatican.
“He’s beautiful. How long have you had him?”
“Three days!” the man said. Every word that came out of his mouth had an exclamation mark attached. I’ve rarely encountered humans that can hold onto a sense of excitement that long. It was contagious. I was excited for him and a bit scared for his lovely, old horse.
“He’s a really nice horse. He’ll make you a great friend, if you figure out how to be with him. He’s trying to figure out you, as much as you’re trying to figure out him. You might want to work with him from the ground for a while before you try to ride him. Horses are like women. You can’t rush them.”
The man’s face flushed. “Really? I thought he was getting bored and I had to ride him to keep him fit.”
“That’s not been my experience with horses. The slow way around gets you home safe and sound. What is it that you like about being with your horse?”
He sighed and then his out-sized grin flashed across his face. “When we’re together, that’s where my head is. It’s right here right now. That never happens to me. I’m always thinking, worrying about work and home. You know, life. Here, hours go by and they feel like seconds. I’m totally engaged here.”
It was in that moment that I got what it was that the dogs had done for my earlier patients, the horses did it too, only faster and smoother. The “it” was mindfulness training. Being in the presence of someone from a different species requires us to be more present and engaged. When that being outweighs us by ten times, the imperative becomes even more compelling.
To develop and maintain effective boundaries with someone that much bigger than us requires us to pay attention differently than we do in our human-constructed worlds. That focuses our attention fully in the now by shutting down the internal dialogue that most of us spend most of our lives engaged in. There is nothing more freeing for the human psyche. When our internal dialogues quiet down, even if it’s just for a few minutes a day, our brains become more agile. New and more complex pathways appear in our nervous systems. These build resilience into our neuronal nets. And, it feels great to be focused on the now. It’s intrinsically reinforcing, which means that we want more of it.
It’s also what calms horses and all the critters that I’ve tried it on so far. When our nervous systems focus on now by dropping that internal dialogue, it seems like they link with us. Most domesticated animals zoom into the link the second it manifests. Their bodies show us, once we get hip to what it looks like. Usually it’s heralded by a release of tension. That may look like a yawn, or a shake and roll, or even just a tiny quiver. That release happens in the human too. Sometimes it’s subtle. Other times, it’s more intense. It looks like both systems are recalibrating when they hit the link. Once it’s secure, the channel seems to open a river of information flowing between the human and critter. The critter may relax, knowing that they’ve discovered a safe spot. It can go other ways though. We have to be ready for anything.
Canine versus equine therapy buddies
I feel the primary difference between horses and dogs, from a therapeutic perspective is size and familiarity. There well may be more going on though. Where I see it showing up is how much more acutely people pay attention to horses. I think this stems, at least in part with the baseline survival issues that come up around a critter that out weighs us by 10 times.
When survival issues arise, they go straight to the head of the line. Our internal dialogue shuts down. We become instantly acutely mindful. This is a skill that’s essential to develop, but is rarely well reinforced culturally. Developing it opens access to a range of skills and strength. This state-of-mind generates the growth of new neurons. This increases our resilience significantly. It also equips us to create neurological workarounds for brain damage arising from stress.
This is a HUGE deal! Unsuccessfully treated PTSD leads to character disordered thinking, which in turn leads to self-involvement so profound that there’s often a complete loss of connection with the reality of others. This leads to all manner of social, physical and spiritual problems. Reclaiming these connections not only gives people so afflicted their lives back, it also frees countless others from the damage they often unwittingly dish out.
Both canines and horses are highly emotionally reactive. That’s great in a therapeutic context, as it invites the patient or client to open up that sector too. There is nothing on this magnificent planet that’s more contagious than feelings.
Horses are, in my opinion, better at setting boundaries with people and taking care of themselves over all, if their human(s) are skilled at giving them room to move out should they want to. Not only do people become instantly mindful in their presence, they do it from a position of being the less-than beast. This is often a first for horse naive person. It’s great for humans to put themselves in positions in which we’re not the strongest, fastest, smartest being around. It teaches us humility. When we get good at being humble, we’ve got a shot at grace. Those carrying around stress-induced brain damage, which is everyone I have met so far, need all the grace we can muster to rebalance our neuronal nets. So do those with mental illnesses. There are few states of mind healthier for the carrier, and everyone who comes into connection with her or him, than Grace.
Dogs are great therapy facilitators too. The human co-facilitator needs more skill to get the same work done with dogs. Most humans don’t automatically go into mindfulness with dogs. In fact, many people get into their Dominion Delusion when a dog shows up. Once you get people past that glitch, dogs and horses do pretty much the same thing. The process moves a lot faster with horses. It’s also far smoother. The great news about dogs is that they’re way easier to keep and less expensive for the client.
Those lucky enough to have horses in their lives now have options to develop that aspect of their horsemanship. When I was a youngster, there were few trainers around who got that. I was lucky enough to have spent several years with a classical dressage trainer early on. He had a life-long mindfulness practice, which he certainly did not think of as such. It informed his life though. And, that was enough for me to get the importance of how I used my attention. There are few greater gifts.
Special stories and experiences from fellow horse listeners