On Michelle Sayre’s farm in Harford County, her three horses are more than just companions. They’re therapists.
“When you have a 1,000 pound animal beside you, you have to be in the moment,” she said.
“It provides a lot of opportunity for metaphor for clients to really discover their own meaning and find their own best answers,” Sayre said.
The clients don’t ride, groom or feed the horses. They spend their time doing one-on-one interactions with the horses, using the horses for role play or creating obstacle courses to represent their journey through addiction and recovery. They'll also lead the horses through the course.
Sayre recalls one client who tried to lead a horse through her obstacle course, and the horse refused to go. The client realized the horse was acting the way she was about not wanting to take the first step in her recovery process.
“It’s very holistic and grounding at the same time,” Sayre said.
Sayre said when clients are doing individual sessions with human therapists, their defenses are up and they’re guarded. But when they come around the horses, they let those walls come down.
“They’re in the moment, they’re not in their heads thinking about the next thing they’re going to say or not say, and that’s what makes it so powerful,” she said.
Equine experts agree what makes a horse such a great therapist, as opposed to another herd animal, is its ability to read emotions. When a client walks into the pen, the horse acts as a mirror to what that person is thinking or feeling.
“They know when we’re lying, they know when we’re not being authentic,” said Emma Rogers, director of Argo Counseling. “So part of working with horses is we learn how do I authentically express my emotions not only to others but how do I figure out what I’m feeling and be aware of that.”
Rogers is certified in Equine Gestalt Coaching, which focuses on being in the moment, being comfortable in one’s own skin and being aware of emotions. She uses her two horses, Emmy and Saoirse, to work with clients who are dealing with a variety of issues, including drug addiction.
Rogers said horses will pick up on a person’s emotions and feelings right away and react to them quickly. She said she has seen horses who gets too close to a client and invade their personal space. She said the horse is sensing boundary issues and is forcing the client to acknowledge it.
ABC2 News digs deeper into the heroin crisis gripping our region at 7 p.m. on Thursday, Dec. 22.
“I say what would it look like if you set some physical boundaries with her? They’ll set those boundaries and the horse will stop and the horse will respect the boundaries and that’s a huge semantic moment for that person,” Rogers said.
Some of the clients Rogers works with are from Tranquility Woods in Pasadena, which is a residential treatment facility for people dealing with drug or alcohol addictions.
“I’ve done some of the equine therapy with (the clients),” said Luke DeBoy, the director of addiction at Tranquility Woods. “The bond and the rapport that I can build with the client and the horse together with the equine therapist only helps me when I’m doing individual sessions four to five times a week with them.”
“It was almost as if the horse could understand me on a spiritual level and locate my internal struggle,” wrote Chad, a former client at Tranquility Woods. “I left there feeling more complete in my recovery that day and loved myself a little bit more.”
“Through the work we did during our EGT (Equine Gestalt Therapy) session, I was able to more closely connect with others and walked away with a renewed appreciation for my own interpersonal relationships,” said Christie, another former client of Tranquility Woods.
Both Rogers and Sayre know some might see equine therapy as a bit hokey when dealing with drug addicts. They stand by the transformations they see in their clients and hope equine therapy becomes more standard in recovery and rehab centers around Maryland and the country.
“This is the most effective form of therapy I’ve ever done,” Sayre said.
“No therapist is 100 percent present all the time,” Rogers said. “Horses are always 100 percent.”