The Healing Power of Horsing Around

Therapeutic horseback riding on the Medical fa...

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Last week, Diane Sawyer interviewed Jaycee Dugard, the California woman who was kidnapped at 11 and held captive for 18 years, to hear her moving story and find out how she and her family are moving through the healing process.  Since she was freed in 2009, Jaycee and her family, which includes two daughters she gave birth to while in captivity, have used equine therapy as part of their overall recovery program.  The captivating details of her story have given a national stage to a therapy that, while mainstream, is still outside the experience of many Americans.

Locally, there are several farms within the Arizona agriculture community that offer equine or horse assisted therapy as it is also called.  The use of horses as a partner in treating trauma and mental health problems grew out programs started in the 1960’s that used horseback riding as a therapy for those with physical handicaps.  The success of using horses to help the physically disabled lead the pioneers of equine therapy to take that knowledge and expand the use of horses into other types of therapy including helping those working to overcome addictions and people dealing with the aftermath of traumatic events.  The first large-scale addiction recovery center to use equine therapy as part of their treatment program, called Sierra Tucson, is located here in Arizona.

When told about equine therapy, many people wonder, why horses, what is it about horses that can help people like Jaycee overcome years of abuse and captivity.  Anyone who works with horses can likely answer that question, even if they have never seen the therapeutic process at work.  There are several reasons why equine therapy is proving to be an effective treatment but they all start with the horse itself.

If you have ever gone horseback riding on an Arizona ranch, you know that, just like people, horses have their own personalities.  Horses are intuitive and will pick up the emotions of the humans they are interacting with and mirror those emotions back to them.  For someone who is working to overcome extraordinary trust issues, like an abuse survivor, this can provide a very powerful platform to reconnect to their own emotions and experience metaphorical learning opportunities in a real way where trust is not an issue.  Because a horse is just a horse, it has no ulterior motive and its instinctual responses to emotions and interactions can’t be faked.  Horses cannot lie to the person that is working with them which creates a safe space for survivors and those in recovery to re-learn how to trust others and themselves.

The sheer size of a horse can be intimidating and scary for many people and learning to work with the horse, control the horse, and interact successfully with the horse can be a powerful self-confidence building exercise.  Children and adults who have difficulties relating to or forming connections with other people can often bond easier with a horse which opens them to opportunities to heal.  Horses are very responsive to body language and can help those struggling with non-verbal communication to understand the signals and messages they are sending in order to facilitate better communication across families.  Other skills like assertiveness, leadership, responsibility, and teamwork are also benefits participants get from equine assisted learning.

There are many places across Arizona that offer equine assisted therapy for physical disabilities and mental health challenges.  If you are interested in learning more about equine assisted therapy, you can contact the Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship International (PATH Intl. formerly named the North American Riding for the Handicapped Association – NAHRA). (

There are several great equine therapy providers in Arizona, visit their websites for information on the specific programs they offer.

Horses with H.E.A.R.T – Chino Valley (

Horses Help – Phoenix  (

C.A.N.T.E.RSierra Vista  (

Therapeutic Riding of Tucson and TROT Therapy Services – Tucson (

Healing Reigns – Goodyear (

Connections Equine Therapy Program – Cornville (

Hunkapi Programs – Scottsdale  (


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