The Impact of Horses on Human Health and the Benefits of Equine-Assisted Therapy
By Lauren Sorel | Date 8/8/2018
Equine Specialist at Fraser Valley Treatment Center
Horses have likely had a far greater involvement and impact in human health care than most people would suspect. In the beginning, it was the philosophizing physician Hippocrates of ancient Greece, who came to recognize the healing prowess of the horse’s rollicking gait. He came prescribe horsemanship for the various ailments of mind and body — professed this to all in his profession — and hence, the concept of equine healing was first documented in Europe, and came to span the centuries. In the late 1800’s even, a physician is documented as claiming, “… a spirited horse should be recognized as a treatment for depression.”
In modernity, in the aftermath of the World Wars, it was often the horse who was tasked with the post-combat rehab of veterans; a few decades later, physio and life enrichment programs were introduced for those grappling with physical handicaps, thanks to paraplegic Olympian rider, Lis Hartel, the innovation eventually spreading to America in 1969. Today, thousands of equine-assisted practices exist world-wide with a remarkable range of target population, method, and goals for helping us along on the path to healing.
Should we be humble enough to admit it, the enormous feats of human cultural evolution also are thanks to the strength, talent, and work ethic of the horse, as much as our own complex intelligence: they carried us across wilderness to discover new territory, settled the land as farmers alongside us, built the original infrastructure and monuments of our original cities, and last but certainly not least, waged war to protect these many human investments.
This truth was not lost on the late American journalist, John Trotwood Moore, who once told his audience: “Wherever man has left his footprint in the ascent from barbarism to civilization, we find the hoof-print of a horse beside it.”Only when cars and tractors were invented, did we begin to lose our connection with the creature that once blessed us with so much, but whose many historical contributions are now taken for granted by most.
Unfortunately, even for those whose connection to this cultural pastime has not yet faded into oblivion, the steady increase in cost and decrease in accessibility of horse keeping and sport only further estrange us in the age of technology. That being said, online sharing sites like Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest are often overrun with the loud voice of the enamoured equestrian, as they profess deep sentiment for the profundity of the horse-human relationship — wisdom now quaintly converted into memes, our chosen form of contemporary communion, it seems.
Any horse-owner knows that the rumours are true: a horse is not only our best friend, but our therapist, too.
But are these just rumours?
Do horses really have some kind of magic at their hoof-tips?
Is there really any PROOF?
Lucky for us, a couple of relevant research studies do exist that support the idea that working with horses can indeed have a positive effect on the mental and social well-being of humans. Research shows that at-risk youth who participate in equestrian-related programs gain transferable skills, with decreases noted in maladaptive behavioural issues, drug-use, and criminal activity; an increase in self-esteem, empathy, trust, social development and successful relationships are also exhibited. In essence, such participation can act as a protective factor during the vulnerable transition into adulthood. There is also exciting empirical evidence to support the efficacy of horse-human interaction specifically in the addiction rehabilitation process: an increase in rate of completion of treatment, and later retention of newfound skill upon departure, has been noted by studies done in both Canada and Norway. This success is attributed to the perception of being in a “safe space” — a non-threatening psycho-social setting with indirect therapeutic pressure — just as much as the relationship occurring with the animal itself.
While the world has seen the benefit of a globalized culture, it has also suffered its shadow. Our burgeoning population now too often values radical capitalism and individualism over all else, and seeks to over-implement a competitive and, ironically, conformist Left-Hemisphere existence — as witnessed in our education systems, governing establishments, marketing media, and lifestyles of oppression and obsession. Hence, the Right-Hemisphere of the many, have come to stagnate, as we grow up stifling the image of our body, the magic of imagination, and our innate penchant for compassion and social reciprocity, in a failed attempt to “survive” in a world where those who encompass such beautiful traits don’t seem fit in or flourish. In fact, sometimes never becomes fully proficient in the first place, due to the experience of social adversity or seclusion in the formative years, or stunted by traumatic experience later on. Don’t be fooled; those who can embrace their Right-Brain talents DO flourish. You don’t have to be an impressive artist, athlete, or activist to succeed in health and happiness, but you do have to let go of the misconception that you aren’t any of these things either — take a chance to find out, while finding yourself again, with the horses!
Horses are masters of right-brain consciousness and communication — they can help you get there, too. They live in the moment — grounded in body consciousness; their survival instinct is to quietly observe and “listen”; when they do communicate, they use their “energy” — body dynamics, emotion, and vibration — and utilize an acute level of visual-spatial awareness; a highly cooperative species, horses are deeply in tune with other sentient beings, and seek to create harmony amongst themselves. Evolution granted them with social finesse and subtlety (something we as humans have lost) to avoid detection by predators, greatly increasing their chances of survival by living in the natural shelter of group intelligence. Take notes, humanity!
The avid practice of horsemanship can well be considered a form of active meditation: the reciprocal relationship we have with our partner, the horse, and the range of tasks that he or she presents us with daily, requires focus on the here and now, and to act with intention and insight. Quite naturally, this will create a casual but effective arena for the exercise of non-judgement, self-awareness, emotional regulation, boundaries, and to practice both compassion and confidence.
Animals inherently provide a heart connection that humans dearly crave — the emotional “safe space” we seek with other sentient beings. Furthermore, to engage outside with our Mother Nature inevitably comes with the beneficial properties of her sunshine and clean air. With the relaxed, refreshing environment, often those stubborn “walls” can finally come down, and resistance to treatment or health professionals may be alleviated; the fruition of successful healing can now occur — thanks to our dear friend, the horse.
Horses, and our reverence of them, is inevitably embedded into the collective consciousness of humanity, even if for most people now it resides in the sub-terrain of their psyche.
Originally, here on North America’s vast landscape we now inhabit, the various indigenous populations would often consider horses to be their spiritual guide, come to bestow wisdom upon humanity whenever life challenged them. Later, when the continent was discovered by the imperialist nations, the frontier was born; these bands of wild mustangs were soon transformed into the unforgettable icon of the lawless Wild West. The image of a galloping horse still — and probably always will — represent FREEDOM to human everywhere. While their contemporary, stabled lives are mundane, horses inevitably manage to retain the nobility of their soul, and remain connected with the concerted heart beat of the universe we live in together.
This isn’t often so for man.
We have become disconnected from nature.
From our nature.
Winston Churchill once famously proclaimed, “The outside of a horse is good for the inside of a man.” The celebrated British wartime Prime Minister, once a seasoned cavalry soldier himself, before he came to command his country, attributed the horse not only with his survival of war, but also his general quality of life. He lamented the invention of the combustible engine, seeing the loss of the horse in everyday life as a genuine set-back for humanity. He professed the horse to be more valuable than money — keenly observed that boys would be better off growing up with the former and not the latter.
There are endless proverbs to be found about the divinity of equus caballus — the great and wise horse — across the foundations of nearly all our nations. Seen as spirit incarnated, even the modern usage of the English adjective “spirited” is not better suited for anything or anyone, than the horse itself. Horses symbolize the powerful sense of perfection that can be found at the intersection of strength and beauty. They exemplify the vital balance we as humans should seek to emulate within ourselves. Horses and equine specialists help retrieve lost souls with loving rehabilitation, foster their re-connection with spirit, and lead the way to freedom from suffering, for you or your loved ones. They are just one amazing part of an incredible team of inspiring humans waiting to bring you home, as we welcome you into ours!