Sarah enrolled in an equine-assisted therapy program, to deal with traumatic events in her life and she admits to feeling unsure about the whole thing, but soon realized that having Chips the horse by her side, she was able to put her pain in the past.
Sarah was born into adoption at a private hospital in Orange County and was molested by her pre-school teacher at the age of three. Eighteen years of psychological and sexual abuse followed Sarah into adulthood, where the lingering devastation of her childhood spiralled into uncontrollable drug addiction and mental illness.
Sarah eventually surrendered to the streets, becoming homeless aged 19. She was living out of friends’ cars and public bathrooms until Pathways to Independence found her and gave her food, healthcare, education and a place to live. She is now five years sober, and is close to graduating from her sociology program at Cal-State Long Beach with a 4.0. Two years ago she was diagnosed with throat cancer, and after a determined battle against the disease, she is now in full remission.
Sarah makes contact with a horse. Photograph: Joshua Thaisen
To work through ongoing problems attached to her self-esteem, confidence and trust in other people, Sarah enrolled in an equine-assisted therapy program.
Horses make great companions for psychotherapy because they can mirror and respond to human behavior. Being herding animals, they rely on an acute stream of sensory data to sense safety or danger; they can also hear the human heartbeat within four feet, and research on heart-rate variability indicates that horses have a profound ability to synchronize their own heartbeat with that of human beings. When people are introduced to the herd environment for therapy, horses respond within the same spectrum of physical and emotional responses that govern their own behavior, allowing therapists an insight into the inner psychology of the client.
As herd animals, horses respond to a person’s emotional state. Photograph: Joshua Thaisen
Sarah’s gaze searched the eyes of each horse. She established an immediate connection with Madonna, a 20-year-old mare trained by champion cowgirl Carol Rose in Texas. Caddes guided Sarah into a sensory exercise that stretched her comfort zone by feeling her way around Madonna’s body with her eyes closed.
It is common for people to feel intimidated by the sheer size and power of horses –weighing up to 2,000lb, horses can become metaphors for dealing with intimidating life circumstances. As Sarah developed more confidence, she assumed more control within the herd by leading Madonna from behind without the use of ropes or a whip – an instinctual method used by horses to push and lead each other.
“I was a little skeptical at first and I found the horses to be very intimidating. I didn’t know what was going to happen. I had no expectations … I made eye contact with Madonna and I felt immediately connected to her. The sensory exercise was really cool, it was scary, but it bridged the gap between me and the horse,” Sarah explained.
Therapy is administered out of the saddle, and the horses are at liberty to respond as they wish. Caddes believes that “you get more of an authentic response by giving the horse more freedom. It’s magnificent to be on the back of a horse, but it’s also magnificent to companion-walk with them when they choose to be with you.”
“I was in disbelief – I didn’t think I could have an emotional connection with a horse. I felt like I made a friend, there was a bond. It allowed for me to really get in touch with how I feel. If you’ve been hurt, sometimes it’s harder to be around other human beings – but there’s no judgment with a horse.”
She explained that “walking through her childhood” with the horses forced her to put her pain in the past, and helped her identify the person she hopes to become. Sarah also noted a considerable improvement in her communication skills and confidence as a direct result of this program.
Reflecting on the experience, Sarah is in awe of the horses, unable to articulate how healing the program was. “Words are so limiting sometimes,” she said with a smile.
Photograph: Joshua Thaisen
Full story can be found at The Guardian