What do you do with a kid who’s angry, depressed, disconnected, or all of the above? Lorna Shepardson knows a magical gift horses possess that can help bring young people from the depths of darkness to a glimmer of self-confidence. This is Lorna’s story.
By Lorna Shepardson
“Rusty, I promise to keep you safe and I need you to keep me safe, and if I make a mistake I want you to forgive me, and if you make a mistake I will forgive you.”
If you overheard this conversation, you might think that Rusty and this person have a trusting relationship. They do. Yet, there’s something you should know about why this connection’s so special.
Rusty is a horse.
Equine-assisted therapy as it’s formally known today has been around for 20 years. As with any counseling mode it isn’t helpful for all people, but it has given many people a real, honest insight about themselves that might not have been revealed otherwise.
Animals as Natural Therapy (ANT) operates at Windy Acres, a former dairy farm, nestled beside the Queen and King mountains in Bellingham, Washington. Upon arrival, you’re greeted by a menagerie of sights and sounds. Horses nudge each other vying for the first mouthful of hay. Juan, the banty rooster, crows with his squeaky little voice. The contagious giggle of an 8 year old spills into the arena as Patriot softly tickles her cheek with his long whiskers.
People who come to ANT think they are coming to learn about horses; this is often their only goal. But ultimately they learn about themselves.
As prey animals that have roamed and survived this planet for thousands of years, horses have a finely tuned intuition that can reflect a person’s emotional state at any given moment. This gift allows us two-legged humans to become aware of our own emotions that we might not have noticed. Too often our culture has taught us not to feel or emote so we don’t upset anyone. The horses—by mirroring emotions—remind us that emotions aren’t good or bad. They just are.
A large percentage of ANT’s visitors—adults, veterans, teenagers, children—have anger issues. Many youth have turned to drugs or self-harm to push emotions further away, suspending any feelings. Remarkably, I don’t witness much anger at the farm. What I often witness is frustration.
The other day I was working with a teen and Moonshadow. Moonshadow wasn’t interested in leaving her herd, much less her pile of hay. And you can’t move a horse that is unwilling to move. Moonshadow planted all 4 feet and 1200lbs in resistance. I asked Mike (name changed) if he is like this with his mom. He said, “Yes, and by now I would be angry.” We promised Moonshadow a hay bag while we brushed her, and she began to move with us. I asked Mike, “What will it take for your Mom to get you peacefully out of bed tomorrow?” He wasn’t sure, but a seed was planted.
We have seen our horses reach a place in the human heart that more traditional therapies may not have touched. Patriot puts his muzzle on a young person’s chest, and she starts to open up about her pain, letting healing into her darkness. People of all ages can be seen walking beside their horse partner in the arena, telling their story, sometimes spilling their guts without interruption—or judgment.
My role is to be an observer and ask questions from a non-judgmental place. I also interpret the horse’s body language, noticing and drawing attention to the horse’s response to an individual’s actions or reactions.
Often times we hold our breath when our anxiety rises. A horse knows that just before a predator pounces they hold their breath. I have personally concluded this is why I have heard of people who get hurt during their first riding experience—the horse felt a “cougar” on its back. When a client feels anxious, I suggest singing or humming a familiar song, and to check in on his anxiety level using a scale of 1 to 10—“1” is totally relaxed after a peaceful night’s sleep and “10” is watching a really scary movie. By simply acknowledging the anxiety, a person becomes less anxious. Horse and human begin to relax, and trust builds.
So, how might this translate to students in our schools? Equine therapy can help struggling students by giving them the confidence to be seen and heard without hiding behind a facade. Learning how to walk in partnership with a 1000 lb horse gives people the self-confidence to see themselves as leaders. Oftentimes a horse will pull a youth to a patch of grass, and I’ll ask, “Do you want to be a strong leader and set a boundary, or are you going to let that horse take you for a walk?”
I also cannot say enough about the power of meaningful relationships. Counselor to young person. Teacher to student. Parent to child. We all have an inherent desire to be seen and heard by someone—even the most shut down, angry individual has this need. And we all need to feel we have something valuable to contribute.
My dream job at ANT allows me to work with kids and horses—two of my favorite things in the world. Horses add an element of surprise and inquisitiveness that I couldn’t possibly create on my own. I see youth feeling empowered— or at least asking questions of themselves—tuning into the glimmer of insight they now have into their true authentic self.
At the end of each day, preteens thru adults leave ANT with a fresh outlook and a less heavy heart. The younger ones leave with good dose of joy and a new sense of confidence. All leave with a greater feeling of hope. Including me.
Lorna Shepardson wrote this article for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas with practical actions. Lorna is the resident Equine Assisted Mental Health Counselor at Animals as Natural Therapy in Bellingham WA, and has worked for over 20 years in social services, with children, at-risk youth, individuals, and families. When she’s not in the riding arena, Lorna has a private counseling practice called Therapynmotion. She also spends time with her husband Paul, children Athena (9) and Orion (7) playing with their menagerie of horses, dogs, cats, rabbits, fish, and a parrot.
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