Mental Health

Borrowed Benefits

by Cathy Steiner

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Many horses offer healing and comfort, often in surprising ways. As equine-assisted coaches, Paula Karen and I partner with horses to help people heal and grow. We host a monthly group for caregivers who take care of others, whether on a personal or professional level. In the group, called Self-care According to Horses, we explore lessons based on the ways horses look after themselves and relieve stress. Our co-coaching horses also help participants process their experiences in caregiving. Not only does the person working directly with the horse benefit from the experience, the participants watching the work derive “borrowed benefits” or their own growth through observing.

Even when they appear to be completely distracted, the horses manage to give us guidance. A perfect example was a group session with Max, a large warmblood. He is generally very sweet and interactive, and always has something to say. It was a beautiful day in June following a few stormy days of rain and wind. Tree branches had been knocked down all over the property, including in the round pen where we do our work. The leaves were still fresh, offering tasty snacks for the horses.

We brought Max into the round pen to work with one of the participants. While we talked with the woman, Max remained focused on the leaves and branches on the ground, seeming oblivious to what the humans were doing. As we reached a heart-felt aspect of the participant’s caregiving story, Max stopped eating and came over to check in before returning to his leaves. He did this several times at key moments, only to go straight back to munching near the fence. His “fly-by” interactions, as Paula calls them, were always at poignant moments and always brief. He was aware and interested in connecting when there were emotions involved. This interaction was very helpful and validating for the participant as she worked through her feelings.

We completed that particular piece of work and asked the group what their takeaways were from observing the session. One woman noted that seeing Max enjoy eating leaves showed the positive that can come, along with the negative, from a storm. With tears in her eyes, she said that Max’s interactions were particularly meaningful for her because they reminded her of her son who is wheelchair-bound. Although it may appear to those who do not know him that he is living in his own world because he is nonverbal, her son is very aware of everything going on around him all the time. Like Max, he is able to momentarily connect with her in purposeful ways. Seeing this behavior in the horse reminded her that, despite the storms in her son’s life, he is still aware of his surroundings and wants to love and be loved. She then told us her son’s name is also Max.

Riverbend Coaching

The Gift of Horses in Our Midst

by Linda M. Bendorf


In my dreams, I see you -- The Gift of Horses in Our Midst.
Buckskin, silver dapple, chestnut, black.
Lakota first called you Sunkakan, holy dog or mystery dog;
Others called you red dog, big dog, elk dog.
Then Seabiscuit, Stormy, Silver Blaze, Flicka.
In song they call you Dust in the Wind,
The Strawberry Roan, The Chestnut Mare. A Horse With No Name.
But here, Medicine you have been named.
I see you Silverwood, Frankie, Nitro, Susy,

I place my hand on your strong shoulder.
Ally, Teacher, Guide. Friend.
On the grayest day, you dress the landscape
with patience, power, strength and knowing.
You see through masks, through closely guarded secrets,
and sharing the space of your sphere, you take me as I am.
Your strong hooves and my feet -- rooted on the same patch of earth.
In silence we breath stillness, peace
and the deep, fluttering breath of calm.
We breathe energy and healing.
Together we overcome obstacles
in the arena or on the trail of life.

I ride the rhythm of your trot; your hooves as smooth as river stone.
The graceful twists and turns spiraling like aerial silks or a gentle breeze.
In the sun, your tail glistens like gossamer threads
and the wildness of your mane invites my heart to dance
Sweat drenched, you carry me through wind swept air.

You neigh and nicker, whinny and sigh, prick up your ears and swivel them toward my face -- reminding me to use my voice.
With gentle wisdom in your eyes and a few sweet nibbles
You see me, too, and you take me as I am.
Help me to remember harmony within the herd, and all the gifts of horses in our midst.

© 2018 by Linda M. Bendorf, Director, Blue Sage Writing

MHP Reflection

By Stephanie McBride


Victor, Lassaro, and Commander are in the back arena. Lassaro and Commander are playing “halter tag” attempting to bite each other’s halter. They are precise in their movementsthey do not make contact with each other’s skin, using their teeth to grab only the leather strap that runs down their cheeks. “It reminds me of siblings playing,” says one of the observers. The horses, all three in the game, take turns rearing up on their hind legs, their heads close together. The energy is higher now and the horses are nipping each other’s necks and shoulders with increasing pressure. “Ow!” says another observer and Lassaro nips Victor with more force. Victor quickly swings his butt around towards Lassaro ears pinned back. “That was too much; they were all playing but that was too hard.” Lassaro takes a step back and doesn’t nip at Victor anymore. “It worked! Victor asked him to back off and he actually did!” Some energy shifts and now all the horses are running, close together, step for step, round and round the arena.

We were at “Hanging with the Horses,” an Equine Assisted Psychotherapy (EAP) sample day with volunteers and curious community members. We were observing the herd to see what the horses’ relationships had to teach us. Alison and I have run that group several times before, but it is always different. The people are usually new to the group, the horses show up in different ways, and the environment is always changing. I have been at Medicine Horse since January 2017, starting first as a practicum student, then since May as an intern. I have learned so much during that time, and yet I still struggle to articulate what I actually do. A big piece of that is that EAP looks different for every person, group, and horse, and it changes from moment to moment.

The horses begin to settle and still, sniffing at cottonwood branches or at a pile of poop. Lassaro looks like he is about to roll, his nose dragging the sand, looking for the perfect spot but he cannot seem to find one. “It takes a lot of trust for a horse to roll, to be belly up and so vulnerable.” Suddenly Commander is alert staring off to the west, his body is tense, head high. Almost instantly Victor and Lassaro mirror Commander. “What do they see?” We are observing outside the fence of the arena, but our attention is also mirroring the horses, all straining to pick out what they are reacting to. A red-tailed hawk flies towards us. The horses are still watching but exhale. A second hawk chases the first and they land on the closest branch to the arena. In a moment a third hawk joins, all on one branch, all watching the horses watching them. The three horses are all in a line watching the three birds. The hawks alternate watching and picking at one another and so do the horses. “They are mirroring one another! How does that even happen?!”

I am in my final year of the Transpersonal Wilderness Therapy master’s program at Naropa. Part of this program and also my personal belief, is that we as humans are not separate from nature but part of it. Interconnected, we affect and are affected by the world around us. By closely observing our environment, we begin to observe ourselves; by being in relationship to the natural world, we enter into relationship with ourselves. So I ask myself (and often clients) what part of myself do I see in the horse that may not trust enough to be vulnerable, what part of myself is alert to danger? How are the relationships in this group like three hawks and three horses playing and watching?

Commander is alert again. We can see the white of his eyes, his head is high, he quietly snorts, just a quick forceful exhale. Slower this time, Lassaro and Victor become mirrors of Commander, standing close together, looking past the hawks into the field, they see a threat. Then I see it too. “There’s a Coyote!” Larger than most dogs, the thin sleek coyote is standing in the field 200 yards away, tongue hanging out panting watching three horses. Or watching us. “The horses are sticking together for protection. They need each other when there’s danger. It is how they survive.” Eventually the coyote leaves, Victor shakes it off like a dog after a bath, Commander starts eating grass through the fence, and Lassaro takes a “horsey breath,” nostrils vibrating as he exhales. We all exhale too, a few of our lips vibrating to copy Lassaro. The horses stay closer together since the coyote appeared.

This work can feel like magic. Of course my rational brain can justify what happens, how horses communicate, can sense our nervous systems, how they relate to one another. Horses can influence our heart rates, can act as 1200lbs living, breathing bio-feedback machines, can attune to our emotions and congruence often more quickly than we can ourselves. As herd animals, horses are exceptionally relational. As prey animals they are exceptionally sensitive. Their hearts are as big as our brains, they have four hooves very connected to the earth, and constantly remind us to connect with our bodies. The magical part is that I cannot make any of it happen. It has to be real, in the moment responses and relationships. I cannot make Lassaro respect Victor’s boundaries, or make the coyote show up, or make the horses to rely on each other. What shows up during EAP is almost always what is supposed to happen. What we bring in with us inherently shapes the relationship with the horses and with our environment. EAP is based in experience, and the only way to truly know what may happen is to experience it.



Healing Through Horses

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Gillian accepts services from Imagine!’s Out & About department, and last year, joined the Horsin’ Around class for the first time. Held at Medicine Horse in Boulder, participants learn how to build relationships with the horses, care for them, and ride them.

“I like hanging out with them. Getting to know each of their personalities is really rewarding to me,” said Gillian.

A few weeks before Gillian attended the class, she found out that her cousin had died. “I was out of sorts,” said Gillian. “I remember thinking ‘I need to find something to help me cope.’” After spending time in the stalls grooming and feeding the horses, Gillian realized how therapeutic this was for her, “Just being outside, grooming them, and being around them helped me cope.”

With over ten horses on the ranch, Gillian created a bond with one in particular: a white, starling blue-eyed, gypsy pony named Frankie. “It felt like he knew I lost somebody. Animals sense what’s wrong, and it seemed like he was there for me as much as I was there for him.” Gillian recalls a favorite memory in one of the arenas with Frankie. “He rolled around on the ground and got really dirty. I laughed so hard.”

After a few classes of learning how to groom and lead the horses, participants saddled up and furthered those relationships with riding. “My cousin used to ride horses, so every time I rode Frankie, I could feel my cousin’s spirit,” said Gillian. “I felt the spirit say ‘it’s okay, I’m fine.’ It helped lift me out of a fog.”

“I’m still coming to grips with being okay (about cousin),” said Gillian. “I was glad to take the Horsin’ Around class again this year as it’s helped me get more closure.”

Gillian has found that this class also helps with work she does on the side. “I take care of my neighbor’s dog down the street. I’ve always had a love for animals,” said Gillian. “Horsin’ Around has taught me to be more patient and careful around all animals.” Gillian has worked with three different dogs over the past few years, deepening her passion and care for her four-legged friends. :)

Sharing the Present Moment with Lassaro

By Mischa Panek

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The late autumn sun is slowly sinking its way toward the horizon. Surrounded by open fields of browning grass and towering trees still adorned with the season’s last few leaves, which rustle in the chilly breeze, we gather in Medicine Horse’s back arena. This is the final meeting of the year for the Writing and Riding group, who have spent the last few months’ worth of Sunday afternoons befriending and learning to connect authentically with the Medicine Horses, and journaling about their experiences, all as a means of self-discovery.

One of the goals for the day is for the participants to build trust and connect with the horses through rubbing their ears and their faces. It’s common for horses not to like having their ears and muzzle touched, but if trust can be built and the horse will allow it, then it’s possible to do this in a way which is very enjoyable to the horse. The exercise has a practical purpose too. The program horses here at Medicine Horse interact with a variety of people every day, and need to be comfortable with having their ears and muzzles touched. This is also an important skill for the horses to have for their routine veterinary check-ups, for tolerating the placement and removal of halters, etc.

Though my usual involvement with the Writing and Riding group is as a horse handler, today we have extra handlers on hand. Because this exercise involves no leading or riding, I’m given a chance to participate. Thrilled at the opportunity, I head toward the barn, wondering along the way about which horse I would like to work with. As I enter the barn, I pause and take a breath, looking up and down the stalls. Without much conscious thought I find myself walking, and seconds later I arrive at the stall of Lassaro (or Laz, as he is affectionately known).

Laz is standing and watching me with his usual calm demeanor. Tall, regal and strong, Laz maintains his place at the top of the herd when among the other horses, but with humans he is ever patient and polite. He is one of the first horses I connected with when I began horse handling here a few months ago. Having struggled with anxiety in my personal life, I found that I naturally gravitated to the stability that Laz embodies.

After entering his stall and putting on his halter, I lead Laz to the arena. He has already clicked into “work mode,” ready to do whatever task may be asked of him, but instead we find a quiet spot away from the participants and their horses. Today, I simply stand with him and take a few moments to breathe and enjoy his company. Then I pet his neck, which he seems to enjoy. When I reach for his left ear, he resists by lifting his head up and away from me briefly before turning his attention back to me. I try again, but get the same result. It’s then that I realize that I’ve gotten nervous. I pause for a few slow breaths to clear this mild anxiety, and wait for Laz to mirror the new-found relaxation back to me.

This time when I reach for his ear, we are both calm. As I begin to rub his ear, Laz chooses not to pull away; instead, he lowers his head and closes his eyes a bit. I pet his neck again, then move to his forehead. He allows me to clean away some bits of dirt near his eye, then turns to touch his forehead to mine. Helped along by Laz, standing there still and quiet, my awareness settles into the present moment. I feel the soft sand underneath my feet, and the sun’s rays on my face. I hear the lively whinny of a horse in a nearby barn. I inhale the fresh Colorado mountain air. I notice myself breathing more slowly and deeply, relaxing a bit more with each breath.

In Laz’s relaxed and calm state, it’s as though an invisible sphere of peace and calm have enveloped us. With my senses heightened, Laz and I seem to be communicating through energy, which is so much more powerful and primal than verbal communication. I feel honored to be here in this moment with this beautiful horse. The typical narration that occurs in the back of my mind – recalling past events, analyzing the present moment, looking ahead to the future – is blissfully absent. My state has shifted from doing to being. Right now, I am truly and utterly here, and only here.

This type of present-centered experience is mysterious and wonderful to me. It is why I began several years ago to meditate and practice mindfulness. It is also ultimately what brought me to Medicine Horse, because it is here that I am completing a practicum as part of my Master’s degree program in psychotherapy. All of our important realizations about life, and all of our healing, take place in the present moment. This is where horses live all the time. They don’t live in the past or anticipate the future. The horses always help me to be present, but today is particularly potent.

One of the group participants walks over to join Laz and me, and as she arrives it’s as though she’s stepped into the peaceful bubble. We comment about how relaxed Laz is, then silently attune to him, rubbing his ears or petting his neck or forehead. For these few minutes, the cares of our usual lives seem to fall away. Our personalities and our stories have no importance. What is left is the gratitude for Laz and the hope that he – somehow, in his own horse way – knows how much we appreciate him. I am struck by a beautiful irony: though my intention while carrying out this exercise is to give him love and care, and to show my gratitude for all that he does, even in those moments it is Laz who is still teaching me. By simply standing there and sharing this moment with me, he continues to help me to relax, to be present, and to heal.

Managing depression: how horses help and heal

Originally posted on Elephant Journal

Author: Nikki Hodgson

It’s been five years since I boarded a bus with a duffle bag in one hand and my passport in the other, looking over my shoulder as the West Bank, Israel, and Gaza faded from sight and Egypt came into view.

I spent three days in Dahab, sitting at the edge of the Red Sea, trying to piece myself back together before I realized I needed help. Depression has been a longstanding struggle, but my work in conflict zones had put an added strain on an already fractured heart. I collected stories of human rights violations and folded them into my notebook, one splintered life at a time, and the weight of it all snapped my heart in two.

Sitting in the middle of the Sinai, I wanted the mountains I had grown up with and now, five years later, I am still here, watching the Flatirons and the red-winged blackbird. I have carved out a place in the corner of an equine-assisted psychotherapy facility, but the old memories stick to my ribs, wedged into my throat, they press against my chest. And so I am still here, exploring old dirt roads and the contents of my heart on the back of my favorite horse.

I chose a different life than the one I had imagined. I thought I would always be living out of a suitcase, but I was only trying to stay one step ahead of the depression I couldn’t shake. I needed to learn to stay and manage it. But I miss the sound of my Converse against the worn stones of ancient cities. I miss the hard blue sky and all that soft beige stone.

I haven’t forgotten the sound of a tank crushing stones and discarded cans in the street. I haven’t forgotten the hang of a rifle or the spiraling arc of a tear gas canister. When I close my eyes, I see the snake of traffic slithering across bare hills and the looping curl of barbed wire adorning every checkpoint. I haven’t forgotten the way a sheet drapes over a body and the way the blood gathers between those ancient stones.

When I came to Colorado, I forced myself to stay. For a few years, I said, just for a few years until I can understand the things I have seen and the way my heart has crumbled. But it’s been almost five years and I am still here; I have put my roots so deep that when the winds of my restlessness rage, I remain.

My life is tied to this place and the thirty horses who inhabit it, to dawn feedings and mucking stalls, to the dust that curls into the air and settles into the creases of saddles and boots and dilapidated wheelbarrows. It is reflected in the green eyes of the barn cat who slips in and out of shadows. It is connected to the people and horses who arrive here, limping through their old wounds and trying so hard to be brave. I watch them come and go, learning to take deep breaths, to accept help, to trust, to manage the darker emotions that keep us running from ourselves.

But my eyes are always searching the horizon. Horses symbolize travel and freedom and connection and all of the things my heart craves, but learning what these horses have to teach has required me to tie myself to a place I cannot leave. It has required a patience and vulnerability beyond anything I have ever known. It has required a willingness to wait, the humility to know when to step back and the confidence to know when to push forward.

I have loved horses from the age of three. I have always sought their company, but the practice of sitting comfortably with vulnerability is still one I have yet to master. When I arrived in Colorado, I was on the losing side of a constant battle with depression and anxiety. I didn’t want to stay still. I wanted to outrun my pain and the memories that cause it, but I forced myself to stay and I reached out to the only thing I knew had the power to make me stay: horses.

So now I am here, working at an equine-assisted psychotherapy facility. I have acquired a stubborn horse and a rambunctious heeler puppy. I am trying as hard as I can to stay still, to take deep breaths and lean into my anxiety. There are still days when I wonder if I chose wrong, if I should still be shifting quietly in the desert sand, all of my possessions in a duffle bag and my heart breaking, but free to roam. Restlessness is always wondering what if and there are no satisfactory answers to the questions we pose about the chances we never took and we cannot take them all. I thought I could run forever and that I would find relief in that, but I didn’t. Now my entire world is tied to one place and as restless as I get, I know I cannot leave.

Depression is a daily struggle. Some days I can hardly get out of bed, but the horses must be fed and the dog needs a walk. These animals are carefully leading me through the landscape of my own broken heart, helping me to pick my way through memories of soldiers and sadness, of civilians caught in the crossfire of political ambition and a radical ideology.

Horses are herd animals, hypersensitive to their environment and to the emotional state and body language of those around them. Horses respond to how we feel rather than what we say. I spent so long pushing down my emotions, trying hard to forget. They force me to remember. They force me to face what I fear and what I fear is that one day, my depression will win. 

It backs me into a corner every time. It makes me feel alone. It makes me wish I felt nothing because it is better than feeling everything. It cancels out hope. But horses have always patiently carried us where we asked to be taken and I asked to be taken to a place where I could find healing.

Over the past three years, my horse has carried me through every anxiety attack, standing quietly while I grab fistfuls of mane and cling to him until I can breathe again; he has pushed me harder than I thought possible. He has shown me that love can take hard knocks and old memories, that when my pain brings me to my knees, there will always be someone willing to sit with me until I am ready to make it back to my feet. He has taught me that vulnerability is terrifying, but it is necessary for connection and connection is key to managing depression. He has forced me to tell him the things that I needed to tell myself. The things we don’t tell ourselves or one another often enough. “You can do this. We will work through this. It’s okay to be afraid. I will protect you. I will take care of you. Mistakes are allowed. Imperfection is okay. I forgive you. I admire your bravery, your strength, and your willingness to try.”

Our hearts know what they need and mine has always told me horses, even before I broke it into a thousand pieces with a sadness I could not name. I am restless. My anxiety burns when I stand still and there is temporary relief in running away. But I have seen this same anxiety in my horse and I have always asked him to stand his ground and he has always listened, pawing the ground nervously, but in place with his ears attuned to what he trusts. In training my horse to face his fears, I have had to come to terms with my own. In teaching him to counter his instinct to run away, I have had to learn to sit with my own instinct to run away.

This is not easy. It has taken a commitment to a different kind of travel, walking the same paths between these old barns over and over and over again, trying to take new hopeful things from old painful memories.

I spent three years circling the perimeter of the Medicine Horse community, keeping my head down and my thoughts to myself, mucking stalls and sweeping mats, before I found the courage to look up and reach out. But I am learning to trust that my peace of mind is here, somewhere between all of this dirt and the outstretched wings of a soaring hawk, somewhere between the sound of hooves striking farm roads and the yipping of the coyotes and rusted walls of an old dairy barn.

It has been five years since I stood in the desert, with a keffiyeh in one hand and a notebook in the other. It’s been five years since I gathered the pieces of my broken heart and fractured mind and pointed my feet to a place where they could learn to stand their ground. It’s been five years since I stood at a crossroads near an old Egyptian border crossing and watched an over-worked horse walking slowly down the road and my heart said, “follow that.”

And I did. One careful, unsteady footstep at a time. Until I got to a place where I fell to my knees and a community of horses and people helped me back to my feet. I know now that as restless as I get when my anxiety burns a hole in my heart, I chose wisely. I chose horses. I chose my mental health. I chose connection. I chose vulnerability.

I chose me.


Originally posted on Elephant Journal