The Power of Equine Therapy

Alexandria and Little Man

Have you ever seen a horse gallop? Have you studied their flowing mane and their graceful stride? Have you noticed how they run with reckless abandon, leaping past obstacles and into freedom? These spirit animals have healed me in ways that not much else can. They have a sensitivity about them – they can feel your energy and emotions more than any other animal. Horses naturally live in the moment, and you learn the practice of mindfulness by being with them. They are flight animals. You must quiet your movements and let down your guard to approach these majestic creatures. Trust is key.  

When I relocated to Grand Rapids, Michigan nearly three years ago, I followed my dream to get involved with horses and became a volunteer at Roanoke Ranch for Kids, a therapeutic ranch for at-risk youth. I came to this ranch at age 21 with very low self-esteem, battered and bruised from a long battle of anxiety, depression, and scrupulosity (a religious form of OCD). My heart went out to this black and white miniature horse named Little Man. He had been rescued from an abusive situation and did not trust a soul. I would spend hours upon hours at his fence, beckoning him to come near. It was weeks, then months before he dared to come close and snatch a carrot out of my hand. I would put my forehead on his through the fence – he felt safest with this form of human contact as opposed to my hands. It was as though we were transmitting our pain to another. We were not a threat to each other. We both deeply understood pain and fear. I loved him the way he was, and he loved me for who I was.

Horses naturally live in the moment, and you learn the practice of mindfulness by being with them. They are flight animals. You must quiet your movements and let down your guard to approach these majestic creatures. Trust is key.

Scrupulosity involves pathological guilt, obsessive confessions, and, in my case, an intense fear of God as a cruel slave master. I came from a wonderful family who showed me God’s love, but OCD is ruthless when it comes to fear. Inwardly I felt like a failure in life. In school I had been the top of my class for years, but OCD had paralyzed me so severely that I had to drop out of my senior year of high school and be admitted to the hospital. I eventually finished up home schooling, but OCD prevented me from attending college, pursuing classical piano performance, or getting a job I was truly passionate about. I still struggled a lot. But Little Man saw past all that. He showed me that I COULD do something of value – I could change his life. With no horse experience, I was the only one to get to him and help him trust humans again. When Aaron saw the work I’d done with him, he was astounded and couldn’t believe what a natural gift I had with horses. Another volunteer and I have done some training with him and since then, he’s been a showcase horse for several events and is quite a favorite! Roanoke Ranch has given me the opportunity to learn to groom and care for horses, help out in farm chores, get to know these beautiful animals, and mentor kids in the summer camps, guiding them towards a healing relationship with a horse.  

In the summer of 2016, my therapist recommended I switch to Outside In Stables in Grand Haven where I began therapy with Jennifer McVoy, a psychotherapist and accomplished rider. She takes in retired racehorses and rehabilitates them, using them in her sessions and then adopting them out when they are ready. Therapy with Jen has taught me to believe in myself, see the goodness in myself, and be brave. Equine therapy can involve specific groundwork exercises related to self-confidence, problem-solving, or decision making, or the client might ride a horse bareback while the therapist leads them around as they discuss personal issues. Certain clients might also work on goals in riding, building self-confidence as they accomplish these goals and relate them to real life. I fondly remember riding Joey, a dashing thoroughbred over 17 hands tall with an energy that seemed to match my own. He challenged me to take charge and believe in my ability as we cantered through the arena.  

Horses have changed my life. I can’t express my gratitude for the amazing gift they have been to me, especially Little Man and a chestnut paint named Ozzie who has carried me through deep darkness and great joy. Learning to ride has empowered me and given me something to be proud of. To be in control of a 1500 pound animal, riding through fields of green and sunlit trails, is a thrill of its own. Since my entrance into this horse world three years ago, I’ve interned at a couple ranches out of state, galloped on beaches in Costa Rica, and have had the chance to ride more times than I can count. I’ve come to see that anything is possible, dreams can come true, and I am a person worth fighting for. My tainted view of God has shifted and I am able to see Him as a more loving and caring Father now. I’ve come to love myself and not be afraid to shine my true colors. Whenever I am with horses, it’s like I get a break from my brain. My racing thoughts stop, and I’m ushered into a world more peaceful and spacious than the one I am used to. Though horses don’t “cure” mental illness, they can infuse you with strength to fight, believe for you when you’ve lost hope, and give you moments of pure joy that make any night worth walking through.  

Find yourself a horse to love, a horse who will love you. Whether you go to equine- assisted therapy sessions with a psychotherapist or volunteer at therapeutic horse ranch, there are many options in the greater Grand Rapids area, including Outside In Stables in Grand Haven, Equine Assisted Development, Dorr to Eden, HUGS Ranch, Roanoke Ranch for Kids, Equest Center, The Barn for Equine Learning, and more. Any moments you share with horses are priceless and healing. Give yourself fully to them, and I encourage you to see what magic occurs.

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