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Equine Therapy in the Treatment of Eating Disorders

Through equine-assisted therapy, clients learn that trust is a two-way street. Horses respond to energy and intention. Both horse and client develop a bond through mutual respect.

photo of woman hugging a horse during equine therapy "A horse doesn't care how much you know until he knows how much you care. Put your hand on your horse and your heart in your hand."
— Pat Parelli

My First Experience with Equine Therapy

Mirasol Clinical Director Maeve Shaughnessy, recounts her surprising first experience with equine therapy during a camping trip in Arizona's Chiricahua National Monument.

By Maeve Shaughnessy

I have always loved camping and hiking, so when I was asked to go along for work, I jumped at the opportunity. My job as a "CA" at the time was to provide support to our clients, so as I drove the van to our campsite in the Chiricahua Mountains, I was focused on being present for them and helping them through any emotions that might arise during the weekend.

I knew that part of the weekend included equine therapy using horses belonging to Dr. Diane, Mirasol's acupuncturist. But honestly, until that moment, I had never given it much thought. We soon gathered around the horses and reviewed the safety precautions and procedures. I found myself at the back of the group suddenly feeling a little nervous. Since I have no experience with horses, I didn't understand why I would feel anxious.

However, as I watched each client approach the horse, I noticed that the horse was highly perceptive, acting as a mirror for the client's emotions. Some clients felt calm and confident approaching the horse, and the horse reflected these feelings by allowing the client to brush him, clean his hooves and hug him.

I was encouraged to participate, but the horse immediately reflected my anxiety as I timidly walked toward him. I held out my hand, waiting for him to come closer, but he demurred. Tears welled in my eyes and my stomach was tied in knots. I was told this was enough for now, and I felt very relieved as I walked away.

The next 24 hours were filled with team-building activities, journaling, delicious food, and relaxing around an evening campfire. But I continued to ponder my emotional response to the horse. The following day, Dr. Diane suggested I try again with the horse. This time, the goal was to lead the horse around in a circle. Just imagining this simple activity filled me with fear. After 45 minutes of timid commands, aimless direction, tears, anger, and frustration, I began to understand the power of my self-defeating thoughts. I had no confidence in my ability to lead the horse, and the horse fed right into those beliefs. The moment I began visualizing my actions and believing I had control, I found the confidence to complete the goal.

Equine therapy is one of many experiential therapies that Mirasol uses to help its clients achieve emotional growth and healing. My personal experience with equine therapy was very empowering. The direct interaction with the horse helped me understand how I behave in the world and what emotional responses and behaviors I use as coping mechanisms. Horses are sensitive creatures, and their innate ability to pick up on emotions and intentions resulted in a unique and insightful "counseling session".

FREE Eating Disorder Support Group!

FREE weekly eating disorder support group for adults struggling with food issues, staffed by therapists from Mirasol Eating Disorder Recovery Centers. Thursdays from 5:30-6:45 pm at 3116 N Swan in Tucson. For more information, call 888-520-1700.

"Mirasol is light years ahead of any other program in the country."