How Can Equine Therapy Heal Attachment Wounds & Trauma?

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A Guest Blog Post By Mary Sue McCarthy, LCPC, NCC, EMDR-Certified

I have personally experienced the magic of the connection that comes with being in partnership with a horse. This comes from having been around horses almost my whole life. I’ve seen horses forced into relationships; kept in toxic relationships and abused in relationships. This hurt my heart, and I know instinctively that it hurts the horse’s heart, too! I imagined there must be a better way to create a partnership with a kind and loving animal. Especially ones that allow humans to ride on its back. And, place cold, hard metal bars in its mouth (the bit), to assist riders with steering.

As a trauma therapist with a background in addictions work, people come to me for help. Clients need support understanding and resolving trauma symptoms. I almost always notice that my clients bring anxiety, concern, and confusion around how to connect. Or, they attach with others in relationships that feel balanced, mutually comfortable, and supportive.

Most of my clients hold memories of very chaotic childhoods. Many remember being the family “fixer,” at an early age. Or the person who feels responsible for other people’s emotions. It’s incredibly stressful for children to exist in a space of hyperarousal. Watching and waiting for the next unpredictable violence, whether physical, verbal, or emotional. Of course, it is impossible for a child to prevent or manage an adult’s behavior. And, no child is responsible for carrying the burden of their caregivers’ emotions.

Readers of this article may be familiar with trauma responses such as:

  • Dissociation
  • Hiding
  • Separation of mind from body
  • Extreme anger
  • Fits of explosive rage

All of these trauma reactions can arise when a child lacks the basic safety we all need from our caregivers during childhood. These are normal responses to trauma. However, these reactions can make it difficult for a child to develop safe connections and attachments.

Thus, the child growing up in a chaotic, unpredictable home develops the belief that people are dangerous or unsafe and that connection to another will do nothing more than hurt and disappoint. They may also feel responsible for keeping their family members safe and overwhelmed with their own unexpressed pain.

Attachment Is A Survival Need for Humans

It is innate in humans to seek attachment, comfort, and safety from their primary caregivers. When these attachment needs are not met consistently enough, the child (and later adult) will likely struggle. This means in relationships with peers, romantic partners, parents, teachers, and other authority figures. This is reinforcing the child’s suspicion that other people are unsafe and that they are unlovable. This is what trauma therapists often refer to as “attachment rupture,” and can lead to a diagnosis of Attachment Disorder.

Fortunately, our brains have neuroplasticity. Meaning their development continues over the lifespan. They can heal from the injuries of poor-quality attachment relationships in our earliest years.

According to Louis Cozolino, author of The Neuroscience of Human Relationships,

Relationships are our natural habitats.

Louis Cozolino, Author of The Neuroscience of Human Relationships

Here’s Where the Magic of Equine Therapy Comes In

Most of the following information is from my training with Natural Lifemanship Institute, which I consider to be the premier trainer in Equine Therapy.

As prey animals, horses are most often ready to fight or flee when they perceive danger. Many organize their brain the young human child’s might, if they are living in a chaotic environment. Trauma-impacted human and equine brains organize around the need for constant vigilance and preparation to avoid threat – their nervous systems are in a state of hyperarousal.

Like Humans, Horses Seek Connection For Survival

Horses and humans both seek connection for survival as well. Most of us know that horses live in herds, and one of the most destructive things we humans can do to a horse is to separate it from its herd, which is its central place of safety.

The goal of working with horses, according to the Natural Lifemanship Institute, is “to help our clients develop relationships in which they learn to ask for what they need from others in ways that respect others’ freedoms and to respond rather than react. We teach our clients to build a connected relationship by asking for ATTACHMENT from Horse AS WELL AS DETACHMENT or distance, with the connection.”

In TF-EAP we structure our activities in the arena to help a client ask for attachment from their horse in a way that respects the horse’s ability to make any of three choices:  

  • To ignore
  • And to resist, or
  • To cooperate.

Note: Just as any good therapist might do in traditional talk therapy, we do NOT decide in advance of our session what we think the client needs for that day’s session.

Rather, we follow our client’s lead in the arena, to help them be curious, notice, and seek clarity around their internal and external reactions to others – in this case, the horse! The client has the opportunity to experience in real-time the internal and external reactions that come up within their relationships as they practice with the horse.

What Happens During A TF-EAP (Equine Therapy) Session?

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Let’s use the example I mentioned at the beginning of this article. When a child experiences inconsistent nurturing, they become an adult who understandably struggles to attune with others who are seeking attachment with her.

As a therapist practicing TF-EAP I have a human partner in the session, the Equine Professional (EP) who handles the horse therapy while we work with the client to build a relationship with the horse partner.

We Have To Take A Risk in Equine Therapy To Allow Connection

Together with the EP, I would invite the client to practice seeking a connected, consenting attachment with her horse partner. This might look like this:

  • The client sits across from the horse sharing the same space; or
  • And the client makes a request for physical connection with the horse.

As you can imagine, it can be incredibly scary to request a connection in an attuned way when one hasn’t had the experience of a safe, secure attachment. There is a saying in the trauma field that what has been broken in a relationship (i.e. trust) must be healed in a relationship. This is why the experiential work of Equine Therapy is so powerful!

It is incredibly brave of someone who has been wounded in their most vulnerable moments by the betrayal of trust, rejection, abuse, and/or trauma to take a chance on making a connection with a horse. There is such a huge risk of showing vulnerability and being hurt again; and there is an understandable fear of rejection, by being ignored or not seen when attempting to connect with the horse.

Goals of Equine Assisted Psychotherapy Sessions

Together with the client, we might co-create goals to work through internalized fears of rejection and how those fears show up in the body; to build confidence and belief that it is possible to create a connection with another being; to develop the capacity to tolerate the horse making its own choice whether or not to connect.

The trauma therapist is aware that asking for a healthy connection with others, including horses, does not always result in the outcome we seek. Although we may want to attach, internal states may create energy sensed by the horse which causes them to be uncomfortable connecting with us.

There are times in the arena when our equine partners will not connect and are distracted, frightened, or concerned by their felt sense of what is radiating from our bodies, even if we don’t feel it. These moments present opportunities for mindful observation of our relational patterns as well as the horse’s relational patterns.

Here is What You Can Expect in Equine Therapy

In a TF-EAP session, the psychotherapist may simply invite a client to begin a relationship with a horse in any way that feels appropriate. The trauma therapist and EP are a team who is responsible for providing a safe space in the arena or out in the field. You do this so the client can begin to create a relationship with the horse in the way that feels most comfortable for them. We gain valuable information from the client when they are unable to create a relationship with the horse. This can be helpful to the client and therapist to understand where the healing needs to happen. This may mirror their experiences trying to connect with humans in their life as well. The client may decide they would like to process emotions about this, reflect on the barriers to connection, and set goals from there.

Understanding Detachment With Connection in Equine Therapy

Part of attaching in a healthy way is being able to detach while remaining connected. For those of us whose relational styles require continuous reassurance and demands for proof of connection, including unrealistic expectations of physical proximity, it can be helpful to work on detachment with connection in TF-EAP sessions.

These sessions are slightly different. Detachment with connection involves an approach with a horse asking for physical distance while still in connection. If we have experienced emotional or physical abandonment in childhood, detachment can be a serious challenge for clients, due to internally surfacing memories and symptoms (like somatic expressions) which interfere.

What Do Trauma Therapists Need To Know About Equine Assisted Psychotherapy?

The sessions my EP partner and I offer are about 60 minutes long. Most equine work is private pay, but therapists can explore billing the session as “off-premise therapy.” To do this work you need certain key elements:

  • Proper training and comfort around horses;
  • A license to practice equine therapy;
  • Horses who are comfortable around people and receptive to connection.
  • Equally as important is a farm or barn owner willing to offer their facility, horses
  • Are the facilities comfortable with the liability involved in therapy work with horses.
  • A trained equine professional who can hold a safe space for the work for both the horse and the client;
  • Obviously, several important liability releases are necessary with each property owner. I have my own release of liability as does the farm where I do this work.

Do Therapists Need to Have A Background in Horses?

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Trauma therapists have asked me if they need to have a background in horses. This makes the process much easier to learn. It is not necessary as long as the therapist is working with a skilled equine professional. The therapist and EP work together seamlessly to provide a safe learning space.

Ideally, the therapist and their partner support each other. They discuss differences of approach or opinion out of the view of the client. Together, each is flexible and willing to listen to the other. That said, if the EP deems the environment unsafe, the session should be stopped.

Interestingly, this offers an excellent opportunity for processing how the client might react to feeling unsafe. Additionally, you can address the closing down or loss of their reach for connection.

What is Important for Trauma Therapists to Know?

I would say that important capacity for both the therapist and EP are patience, trust, and confidence in the process. Additionally, the ability to contain countertransference and to observe. It is critical that the therapist allow and hold space for the client’s patterns to unfold organically in a nuanced way. This requires astute observation, without judgment.

Equine Assisted Psychotherapy is not talking therapy in that the client is encouraged to move, and experience their process somatically. The client is using the space with the horse in a way feels authentic. Most likely at the end of the session or beginning of the following session, the observations are shared. This allows for meaning-making exploration.

The Magic of TF-EAP is Rooted in Neuroscience

Equine therapy is a refreshing and creative alternative or supplement to in-office sessions. Just being outdoors with the space for somatic expression evokes a client’s five-sense capacity. As we have learned through the lens of Somatic Experiencing and Sensorimotor Psychotherapy, the human-equine relationship promotes body/mind integration, neuroplasticity, and cross-brain activity, embedding new cognitive and behavioral patterns.

Horses give us the chance to feel into, rather than just think about the changes we have been striving to make. According to trauma researcher Bessel van de Kolk, author of The Body Keeps The Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma, “trauma memory is stored in our bodies and healing occurs when we befriend what is going on in our bodies”. Horses, hard-wired as we are for survival through connection, are exemplary partners as we walk the way of emotional regulation, wise choices, and a confirmed sense of self and others.

For more information on Trauma-Focused Equine Assisted Therapy ( TF-EAP) visit: www.naturallifemanship.com

Mary Sue McCarthy, LCPC, NCC, is a second-level Natural Lifemanship practitioner working toward her final certification. In private practice in Hunt Valley, Maryland, Mary Sue welcomes clients 25 years and older for support with recovery from trauma and related symptoms. Including addictions, depression, social isolation, and “feeling stuck.” She is a Maryland Registered and Board Approved Clinical Supervisor. And, is available for consultation with therapists seeking to start their own TF-EAP practices.  She can be reached at [email protected] or 410-979-7744. Her website is www.marysuemccarthy.com.

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Publish Date

January 10, 2022

About the Author

Laura Reagan, LCSW-C

Laura Reagan, LCSW-C is an integrative trauma therapist and owner of a group practice, the Baltimore Annapolis Center for Integrative Healing. She is also the host of Therapy Chat and Trauma Chat podcasts and the founder of the Trauma Therapist Network, a website for learning information about trauma and finding resources and help for trauma.

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Attachment Theory

Childhood Trauma