The healing power of equine therapy”

Ican pinpoint the precise moment I realised that horses, given the chance, want to connect with us beyond our normal, everyday riding and horse-care lives. Living in regional NSW, I’ve hosted numerous volunteer helpers over the years, most of them drawn to my place because of their love of horses. This particular young woman, Michelle, asked if she could have a riding lesson on my big, old, grey horse, Beau. She was a bit stiff in the saddle, and I was explaining to her how to relax her pelvis, to shift her weight and turn her body, when I got the feeling that she needed to be on the ground with Beau, not on top of him.

As she got off, I could almost see the relief emanating not just from her, but from Beau as well.

“Come on,” I told her. “We’ll have a bit of a play date.”

We untacked Beau, put a halter on him, and I showed her something I’ve learnt over the years: that if you put your hands near a horse’s body and close your eyes, you can feel a golden thread of energy travelling from your hands to their body, and from their body to your hands.

Michelle was nervous at first, but she did as I asked, closed her eyes, breathed in deeply through her nose and out through her mouth, and held her hands close to Beau’s body. We stood there in complete silence for several minutes, and gradually Michelle began to smile, as her hands seemed almost to find a life of their own, moving in towards, and away from, Beau’s body. Beau lowered his head, his eyes soft and half-closed, and rested one back leg, while Michelle continued to hold her hands out towards him.

“You can move back,” I told her. “You won’t lose the connection.”

And she did, back and back, until she was about three metres away from him, still with her hands out, and by now she was positively beaming with joy. After about five minutes, Beau began to shift his body, to yawn, and to shake his head. At the same moment, Michelle opened her eyes.

“Oh my goodness,” she said, “that was amazing.”

But it wasn’t quite finished yet. Just as I asked if she would like to give Beau a cuddle to thank him, she ran towards him, throwing her arms around his neck, and almost immediately burst into tears, burying her face in his mane, and blow me down if that beautiful big old horse didn’t turn his head around towards her and give her what I can only describe as a horse cuddle.

“Beau has just healed something inside me that got broken years ago when my relationship ended, and I didn’t even know it was still there.”

They stayed wrapped up in each other for a good five minutes, then Beau straightened up, yawned again and looked straight at me, as if to say, “Well, that’s all done then.” Michelle stretched her arms high up above her head and looked at me, too.

“Wow,” she said. “Beau has just healed something inside me that got broken years ago when my relationship ended, and I didn’t even know it was still there.”

Although I had for many years been witnessing wonderful moments – and some tragedies – with horses, that day made me stop and think about the healing connection between horses and humans. It’s led me on some circuitous journeys, and deep into the centre of myself as I’ve unwrapped the kernel of the horses that have come into my life, often rescue animals that have then turned around and offered me such gifts of trust and openness that I’ve realised I’ve been rescued right back.

Becoming an Equine Facilitated Learning (EFL) practitioner some years ago put an umbrella qualification around the healing work I do with horses and humans, but in essence what I’ve discovered is that, unlike humans, horses have no closed belief systems. Even a horse carrying deep trauma or abuse doesn’t question whether energy work, hands-on healing, acupuncture, reiki, essential oils or animal communication “works”; they “accept” healing without a human analytical construct, and because of this they can also offer healing with an open heart.


The thing about trauma – of any kind – is that it occurs when someone feels powerless in the face of a serious threat. Being in nature, in the presence of horses, seems to help children, teenagers and adults to begin the work of reconnecting to the self, and to their environment.

My small herd of horses contains two special healers: a stockhorse/Arabian cross, my silver-coloured Sapphire, or Sapphy, who came to me a flighty mess of nerves and anxiety, and my beautiful golden palomino quarter horse, Jewel, whom I bought when she was only six months old. When Jewel was six I’d made the hard decision to sell her to a family in Victoria because of her ongoing suffering from a skin condition, known as Queensland Itch, that only occurs in horses living in hot, humid climates. Six years later the family decided to sell Jewel, and I knew that even if I had to manage her condition forever, I needed her back in my life.

So, what is it that these two horses actually do? Well, Sapphy excels at connecting with people energetically. She will drop easily into what I think of as a state of limbic resonance. Limbic resonance is the idea that the capacity for sharing deep emotional states arises from the limbic system of the brain and can include heightened feelings of empathic harmony. (It can also work the opposite way, when we over-empathise with someone in trauma and drop into the same physical and emotional state – not as desirable.)

Watching Sapphy at “work” with a client is to witness a sentient being dropping into an almost hypnotised state, her eyes almost closed, her breath soft, her head low while she and her human exchange – what? I can’t even really define it, but something that makes people’s hearts open to an infinite sense of peace.

Jewel has the safe, solid qualities of a good and gentle motherly mare. She’s submissive in the herd, but out of the paddock she’s a lead mare, forward and brave. She’s safe and kind for people of all ages to sit on, she’ll simply stand still if required, or pony-ride on or off the lead, and she does it with a gentle kindness that always reminds me of how I started her under saddle when she was two – which was with absolutely no fuss and bother at all. In fact, when I first sat on her, she simply looked around as if to say, “Oh, there’s your foot”, and that was that.

Of course, my healing horses are not unique. There are numerous organisations these days creating therapeutic relationships between horses and humans, ranging from the Equine Psychotherapy Institute, which offers a postgraduate training in equine psychotherapy, to EFL, Horses Helping Humans and Equine Assisted Therapy. There are also many individual practices all committed to creating safe spaces for people of all ages to explore ways of how they can – through interaction with horses – expand their emotional awareness and aid their mental health.


My teacher for EFL was Elaine Russell, the founder of Australian Equine Facilitated Learning, who arrived in Australia from the UK in 2009 along with her children, dogs, cat and her beloved horse, Chad. In the UK, Russell was a thoroughbred retrainer – preparing ex-racehorses for their post-racing life – with an interest in teaching children to ride who were, in her words, “outside the square”.

“My interest in EFL started when I went to one of Franklin Levinson’s EFL clinics,” Russell says, referring to the internationally renowned horseman and one of the founders of Equine Facilitated Learning, “and he did a demonstration with horses and a variety of kids with various challenges, in front of an audience of mental health professionals, and I knew it was what I wanted to do.”

But despite Russell’s decades of teaching, and lifetime of horse experience, it wasn’t until her own horse died that she really understood the emotional connection that can exist between a horse and a human.

“I was grief-stricken,” she says. “It was a profound experience, and I grew from that to understand that often children, teenagers and adults with problems are only able to get that emotional connection with horses. I don’t know how it works. I don’t need to, I just let it be. It’s magic and everyone should experience the magic of horses at least once in their lives.”

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