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Horses and healing

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How one woman’s relationship with her horse transformed her into an advocate for equine assisted therapy.

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By Anne Marlene Shelton

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In a difficult time of discombobulated circumstances a few years ago, my spirit became overwhelmed with severe depression and anxiety. I didn’t find my way out through pills or continuous sit-down therapy sessions, but from an unexpected relationship with a horse named Beau. When I reflect back on where I was then and where I am now, I can see clearly how he saved my life.

Our bond started with ground work and followed through to the saddle, with results well beyond what was expected. It was a collaborative process that started with a commitment out of respect for Beau’s well-being. Loyalty was upheld through the dedication of working together. By trusting him, he trusted me back.


Connecting and curing

One day after doing ground work with Beau, I was overcome with emotion and started sobbing. I suddenly realized that I had gained control over this 1,200-pound animal that could kill me in an instant if he wanted to. I thought, if I can take control of this horse, I can take control over all these other things in my life that had previously seemed uncontrollable. Those 1,200 pounds were a symbol of the weight in my life that was destroying me. It was metaphoric in teaching me I have the power to control the calamity and catastrophic environment I was subjected to.annehorse

Establishing a bond and ability to control my horse opened my eyes to a new view. For the first time, I was able to grasp the reins of life with greater strength, take authority in self-advocation, and disregard the deception of others that had caused inner affliction to my spirit. In training and working with Beau, a deep inner strength was found through trust, loyalty, and love that brought joy and peace back into my life.

I earned Beau’s respect, and with his free will he followed my direction and guidance, choosing me as his leader. The horse does not speak human language but uses body language to communicate instead. I witnessed a power beyond words that has changed my life. I gained confidence, sense of belonging, self-advocation, trust, loyalty, love, joy, and a new best friend.


Reciprocity

In July 2018, Beau was diagnosed with a life-threatening parasite that attacks the central nervous system and was placed on medication. When we began training again after treatment, Beau suddenly fell on all four legs during a canter. He managed to keep me safe by not rolling over as he crashed to the ground. I unmounted and went directly in front of him as his eyes glazed over. He seemed completely unaware of the neurological incident that had happened. I encouraged him to stand up over and over, but it took minutes before he was actually able to.

It was heartbreaking to see the illness affect him, and he required several more months to heal. It was a difficult process, but I was going to do everything in my power to be there for him. Not only did Beau save my life, but in return I ended up saving his.

He has made a remarkable recovery, and we are back to participating in the California Gymkhana Association competition. In March 2019, we won another buckle in High Point competition during a two-day horse show in Temecula, California. This was more than just a win, it was an emotional victory acknowledging how well he had recovered—how well we had both recovered. We closed the year winning a saddle for High Point at the San Diego County Fair.


EAT: A different take on treatment

Healing that was unexpected and unintentional through a horse changed my life, and I believe there is more reason to research equine assisted therapy (EAT) in mental health than is currently practiced. Through my relationship with Beau, I have learned to establish my own boundaries. I have regained my feelings of belonging, self-value, and no longer dwell in a pit of depression. A healing was facilitated through Beau.

Through my unexpected experience with Beau, I have a different strength and mindset today. The exposure and healing encouraged me to research further use of EAT as an alternative resolution for many other therapeutic needs; for example, the pill-popping epidemic, coping with ambiguous loss in children and adult children of divorce, and betrayal trauma in adult children of alcoholic parents.

Mental illness has skyrocketed in the U.S. over the last several decades. And with this trend, psychiatric drug prescriptions and usage in adults and children has accelerated. Psychiatric drugs help many severe symptoms of mental illnesses as well as provide maintenance for survival and functioning, but some still question how many people really need to be on psychiatric drugs. According to Peter Breggin, M.D., some psychiatric drugs may cause specific impairment in the frontal lobes—the most vulnerable parts of the brain. He also points out that psychoactive drugs work by causing a dysfunction within the natural innovation of the mind and brain.


Not a new answer

The relationship with horses has long been valued as sacred. Native American stories from the 16th century tell of horses coming to humans as relatives, a gift from the creator. Horses have been used for human therapeutic use since ancient Greece. Their unique neurologic and physical abilities have resulted in many benefits of relationships with humans.

Since the 1960s, the horse has been used in animal assisted therapy. By bringing attentiveness to the horse’s ability in assisting therapy and paring solutions, such as a program partnership with the incarcerated, research has continually shown benefits in the human and horse relationship. The many reasons for this include human and animal instincts. Understanding the horse’s natural instincts, behavior, and sensory system may be a valued requisite in helping people improve mental health and overall well-being.


About the author: Anne Marlene Shelton, M.A., RRT, RCP, is in her third year at Saybrook University in the Ph.D. Clinical Psychology program with specialization in Psychophysiology. Through inspiration and research, Shelton published her master’s thesis into a book, “The Value of a Horse in Today’s Westernized World,” which is globally distributed at vendors, including Amazon and Barnes & Noble. She shares her personal experience and powerful bond with her horse, which nourished an unexpected healing. This phenomenal journey grounded inspiration for advocating equine assisted therapy and a discovery for further implication in research. You can find her book here.


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