Horses have a unique ability to help humans heal, relax, and cope with ailments. Organizations like Pegasus Therapeutic Riding in Palm Desert, Coachella Valley Horse Rescue in Indio, and War Horse Creek at Living Free Animal Sanctuary in Mountain Center, California, enlist horses to help people with physical disabilities, mental illness, PTSD, autism, anxiety, sensory issues, and even complications associated with stroke, multiple sclerosis, and cerebral palsy. Establishing a relationship with a horse can help heal and restore the lives of people who are struggling, from children with special needs to soldiers making the transition from military to civilian life.
Pegasus Therapeutic Riding’s Executive Director Robin Montgomery says clients can reap benefits from both mounted and unmounted therapeutic programs. “Our autistic clients make significant progress learning to become accustomed to new sights, sounds, textures, physical contact and wearing a safety helmet,” she reports. “The benefits vary from client to client: for some, learning to wear a riding helmet is an achievement, and then there are those who have never spoken a word, who suddenly talk to their horse.” Clients with mental or emotional disabilities experience “a sense of accomplishment and selfesteem when they follow directions and learn to steer a large animal,” says Montgomery. The positive effect can last for months.
And there are benefits to riding horses that can help those with physical disabilities. This unique form of exercise strengthens muscles, loosens joints and promotes circulation. Pegasus has clients with cerebral palsy who see improved flexibility in their joints and muscles that can last one or two days, giving them much needed relief.
Montgomery explains that the legs and lower torso are exercised when the body of the horse moves against the muscles in the rider. “The horse’s movements are three-dimensional: up and down, side to side, and back and forth. These movements are synchronized in a precise, repetitive pattern, the same as the human gait,” explains Montgomery. “The client responds to the motions with improved body symmetry, improved muscle tone, increased head and neck control, improved balance and muscle strength. In the program, the movements of the horse and exercise of the rider’s lower torso muscles are supplemented with specific arm, upper body and speech exercises called out by the therapy leader.“ And according to Chase Berke, COO at Pegasus, all programs are free of charge.
Matching Veterans With Mustangs
Living Free Animal Sanctuary sponsors a veteran program, War Horse Creek, which matches former military personnel with rescued wild mustangs. Randall Harris of Living Free agrees with the theory of horses mirroring their riders. “In equine-assisted psychotherapy (EAP), which requires no riding, the horses are, in effect, 1,000-lb biofeedback mechanisms, sensing and mirroring back conflicts and issues the veterans may not even realize they have,” confirms Harris. “The therapeutic modality is well suited to the warfighter mentality, as it is challenging, active, somatic and self-directed, unlike traditional ‘talk’ therapies. Imagine handing General George S. Patton a box of Kleenex and asking him to emote about his feelings. He’d probably whack you with his pearl-handled revolver. But place him in an arena with a hyper-vigilant mustang, and breakthroughs and insights can happen organically, on the veteran’s terms.”
Harris explains that the wild mustangs that survived in the wilderness were the toughest, strongest, most intelligent, most independent and most hyper-vigilant. This hyper-vigilance is a characteristic shared with many veterans and can be the first step toward mutual understanding and bonding with the horse. This increased sensitivity and reactivity is more apparent in mustangs, making them ideal for EAP. “Historically, there is also a bond. Many mustangs descend from horses bred as military remounts generations ago, that were turned out when they were no longer needed. We believe it’s fitting that the defendants of warhorses that carried our forefathers into battle will now help our warfighters return home,” Harris says.
EAP helps veterans understand and deal with the underlying issues that can lead to alienation, isolation, addiction, homelessness, joblessness, depression, divorce, and suicidal ideation. While individual details vary, this downward spiral pattern is fairly common among veterans. By improving the ability of these veterans to manage stress tolerance—essentially, the ability to manage a negative emotional state—symptoms across the spectrum should be relieved.
“Our sights are set on post-traumatic growth, allowing veterans the time, tools and training to reframe their military experiences to positive effect in the civilian world,” says Harris. “The immersive program is comprehensive and includes life skills and conflict-resolution training. Veterans will be able to process their experiences among their peers to prepare for the transition to civilian life. So there’s a lot more to it than the mustangs, but mustangs are at the heart of it.”
Who Uses Horse Therapy?
PTSD Sufferers: Veterans, first responders, and domestic abuse survivors are among those who say they’ve found relief for PTSD symptoms through therapeutic riding.
Movement Disorders: The steady action of riding has benefited people with movement disorders like cerebral palsy.
Autism: Riding can be a getaway away from overwhelming everyday life, which can benefit those dealing with sensory overload.
Mood Disorders: Horse therapy clinics often specialize in improving mood and facilitate relaxation, which can help those living with depression, anxiety, anger management, and grief.
At-Risk Youth: Programs for at-risk youth and substance use recovery have also been offered by horse clinics.
People Who Don’t Like Talk Therapy: For people who are non-verbal or don’t like chatty counselors, speech isn’t necessary to get along with a four-legged therapist.
Unlike smaller therapy animals, like dogs and cats, these gentle giants have a calming effect that’s magnified by their size and empathy. Horses are herd animals known for attuning themselves to human emotion, often reflecting the behaviors of those around them. For people building confidence, learning to lead around animals that loom over them can help improve self-esteem, encourage taking control, and address fears they feel are bigger than them.
Unmounted Training With Rescue Horses
Annette Garcia is the rescue director, horse trainer, camp leader and riding instructor at the Coachella Valley Horse Rescue, home of the Horsanalities Boot Camp. The program began in November as a fourweek program to host veterans, introducing them to the rescue horses on site and putting them through a series of challenges to encourage a humanhorse connection. “It all starts with four pieces of wood, arranged in a square,” Garcia related. “The veteran is asked to lead the horse into the square, and then to stroke, scratch or brush the horse—whatever he needs to do to keep him in the square—for 10 minutes.”
After that, the veteran leads the horse in a walk. The challenges progress each week: leading the horse over a hurdle, down a winding road and through a door made from soft foam pool noodles, where the veteran must get the horse to move toward a bright light. There are other challenges, including walking the horse through a tarp-covered tunnel and dunking a basketball while holding the horse.
All of these challenges create a bond of trust between the veteran and the horse. And all are symbolic of challenges the veterans face in their own lives—each time they accomplish a challenge with their horse, they reflect on a challenge in their personal lives. Through their successes conquering challenges with their horses, they gain the strength and confidence in themselves they need to face the daily challenges of transitioning from the military to civilian life.
Horses mirror and respond to human behavior, Garcia says. “They can even match the heartbeat of their riders.”