published Thursday, March 14th, 2013

Upton: Horses make great counselors

A few years ago I took a personal retreat for the weekend to rest and write. I spent it in a cabin near a lake where horses were grazing.

I sat on the porch one afternoon to sing. I got carried away and closed my eyes for a while. When I opened them, several horses were gathered in a semicircle around me in rapt attention. I was completely caught off guard. I felt we'd somehow traversed an unspoken animal-human barrier and that, if they had begun asking me intelligible questions at that moment, it would not have been as shocking then as it may have been in a different setting.

Feeling strangely self-conscious, I thanked them for coming and politely excused myself, shuffling back inside the cabin. From a window I watched as the horses slowly returned to grazing as if nothing had happened. The magic faded.

Linda Kohanov, an equine trainer, rider, lecturer and writer, believes that horses have complex abilities to sense and mirror emotion and help assist humans in better understanding their own. For example, trainers like her and Ariana Strozzi both write amazing stories of situations where horses who have worked with individuals with multiple personality disorder quickly shifted their behavior as each persona in a woman manifested.

In another leadership session using horses, one woman had trouble taking control of her life because she believed all leaders were angry and abusive. When she began working with horses, she herself became angry and mean, revealing the same tendency within herself she had fought hard to sublimate.

Recently, I joined a group of local therapists at Rock Bluff Stables atop Lookout Mountain to participate in an equine therapy session. Led by Georgianna Pollock and Erin Rayburn, this form of equine therapy is used all over the world for emotional growth and learning. Both these women are passionate about horses and have worked with them since childhood. They believe horses are amazing creatures.

"They are incredibly intuitive and aware of their surroundings," Rayburn states. "Often they mirror the dynamic of a group of humans or an individual. You can't lie to a horse. They meet you exactly where you are in that moment."

According to Rayburn, equine therapy "is an experiential process ... participants learn about themselves and others by participating in activities with horses. [Afterward] they discuss their thoughts, beliefs, behaviors, and patterns. It's effective because of the dynamic interplay between horses and humans that requires developing life skills such as nonverbal communication, assertiveness, creative thinking, problem-solving, leadership, responsibility, teamwork and attitude. This often then leads individuals, families, and groups to more confidence in the ability to apply these life skills to their lives and relationships."

Our group first spent time meeting the horses in the field. We were then invited into the barn to try to move a horse around the corral without touching it. In our discussion that followed, I wondered if I was bothering the horses during this exercise.

The short exercise shed unexpected light on one of my tendencies that sometimes makes me feel a little uncertain in my social interactions with people. The awareness that animals can help us grow as humans is a concept that has many benefits. Perhaps the next time I find myself surrounded by curious four-hoofed creatures, I'll stick around a little longer.

Tabi Upton is a therapist at CBI Counseling Center and freelance writer. Contact her at tabiupton@bellsouth.net.

about Tabi Upton...

Tabi Upton, MA-LPC is a therapist at New Beginnings Counseling Center.

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