June 2, 2015 Marion MacDonald

"Horse Sense"

Lessons from Equine Therapy*

Equine therapy has been part of Mirasol's menu of alternative therapies for the treatment of eating disorders since its founding in 1999. But clients, their families and even some newer staff members may be surprised to learn that equine therapy doesn't involve riding horses.

"It's about connection, trust and clear communication," says Mirasol therapist Carol Watters, who has coordinated Mirasol's equine therapy program since 2008. "You cannot lie to a horse. They read your energy, regardless of what you're saying."

An equine therapy session begins with grooming but, as Watters explains, "the purpose of grooming isn't to clean the horse, it's just a gentle way for the horse and for the client to become comfortable with one another and to join in the therapeutic process."

Mirasol's equine therapy sessions are hosted by Rancho Bosque, an equestrian center in a lush mesquite-shaded meadow on the outskirts of Tucson. Co-owner and psychologist Jane Hamilton guides the clients through the grooming the back, mane and tail, as both species relax and learn to trust one another.

"It gives us lots of metaphors about life, a lot of things to think about," says Hamilton, "that we can ask for help if we need it, that if we try things slowly and gently we can figure out the best way to proceed."

Once the two have bonded, the client will attempt to lead the horse and direct its movements. The exercises can be challenging for eating disorder clients, who often struggle with anxiety and low self-esteem.

"There is no room for gray areas when you are communicating with a horse," says Watters. "You have to be very clear about what you're asking the horse to do. The horse needs to trust you as a leader, and if you're indecisive, anxious or fearful, the horse will pick up on that, and will be reluctant to follow you."

"A lot of the approaches to getting the horse to do what you want it to do reflect directly back to how you communicate and request things of others." Through equine therapy, "clients practice being assertive rather than aggressive, and learn how to manage their "people pleasing' behaviors." These are techniques they can apply in their relationships with other people when they return to life after treatment at Mirasol.

Music: "The Pawnbroker's Stepdaughter", by Josh Woodward, from the The Free Music Archive

*Mirasol is currently in the process of securing a new provider for its equine therapy program.