Mona Loner - Horse power for healing
Relationships with horses have long proved effective in guiding displaced, troubled, anorexic and sadly delinquent girls back to a path of emotional and physical health. Because our ancient connection with horses is still alive and we, too, are easily stirred by their transformative beauty and power, our hearts melt at these types of stories.
Twelve years ago, family therapist JeriLee Merkle and I began using horses to help troubled families. With a barn full of gentle, specially trained horses and ponies, we have succeeded in enabling hundreds of people to experience learning from horses, learning that seems magical.
There are numerous national equine therapy associations, and hundreds of programs throughout the country. Studies showing therapeutic benefits of riding horses date back to the 19th century.
What makes horses such effective teachers for helping people solve problems and ease stress in their lives? They are social, lovable, touchable beings that allow us to join them in experiencing cooperation, playfulness, empowerment and serenity. These attributes enabled horses to survive for millions of years, and these certainly are qualities we wish to attain, too.
Here are a few examples:
Eight-year-old Ann, (not her real name) had a detailed list of what she described as monstrous fears. We watched her cry each time her pony didn’t do exactly as she wanted, when she wanted.
But when we paired her with 11-year-old “Katie,” whose extremely competitive nature limited her social skills, both girls learned to work as a team. With the horses as catalysts, Ann overcame some of her fears, and Katie discovered she could feel good about helping someone else win. Both girls developed deeper beliefs in themselves and increased self-confidence.
But equine therapy isn’t just for children. A woman in her 40s, very depressed and uncoordinated, halted her horse during her first ride. She lost her balance and slid forward onto the horse’s neck and then to the ground, embarrassed and full of self-blame. Her subsequent rides were much more successful.
Now you would hardly recognize the smiling, confident woman she is becoming. She’s elevated her mood and discovered grace and playfulness.
Specialized exercises involve tasks on the ground as well as on horseback. For example, one exercise requires a family to designate a leader, then work together to catch and halter a horse running loose in the indoor arena.
In one family, when it was the 7-year-old girl’s turn to be the leader, her grandmother took over and haltered the horse for her. When the girl was asked why she didn’t do it, her grandmother interrupted, “She’s too little. I thought I’d help.”
JeriLee helps family members understand how their actions and styles of communication help or hinder the outcome of exercises. Since these interaction styles are used at home with similar results, suggestions for change are offered after the exercise.
My role is to interpret the horse’s body language and behaviors for the family. As herd and prey animals, horses are singularly helpful as giant active mirrors for us.
Our anger makes them run away or refuse to cooperate. Our fears keep them in startle-and-flee modes. Our confusion, or refusal to participate, also stresses horses into staying out of reach of their would-be captors.
Some clients may choose to actually ride their way to peace of mind. Riding bareback or using an English saddle enables maximum physical contact between human and horse. Numerous studies confirm this type of physical contact stimulates emotional and physical healing.
The gentle swaying movement provided by riding can reduce symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome, attention-deficit disorder and autism, to name just a few. Horseback riders don’t have to be involved in a therapy program to recognize the peace they sense when melding their bodies into the warm rhythm of a horse’s walk.
Perhaps it is the age-old bond between humans and horses that is renewed when we get out of our office chairs and onto a horse. Whatever it is, the experience of horses and humans choosing to unite creates an atmosphere of fun, love and new understanding.
Maybe all the magic simply springs from hugging a horse’s silken neck in the summer, or settling down on the strong back of a furry pony in the winter.
Guest writer Mona Loner, who has been teaching people about horses for 30 years, partners with JeriLee Merkle doing equine assisted training and therapy. Innovative Horizons of Texas certified them in 2005 for this type of work. In addition to taking care of her 12-member horse family, Loner’s interests include her children and grandchildren, writing short stories, singing, swing dancing and hiking with her boyfriend, Larry.