Horses Healing Humans
By: Liz Williams

As a boy, Charlie* suffered from a crippling fear of the world around him caused by a rare condition that confused simple sensory signals in his brain, making it difficult to decipher sights, sounds, and touch. When Caroline Roy, founder and executive director of Rocky Mountain Equi-Rhythm (RMER), began treating Charlie, he stuttered and was experiencing violent outbursts that limited his interaction with other children and deeply affected his family.

Charlie was fascinated with Joe, a black and white Paint that looked like a cow. With Joe’s help, Charlie learned that even though his senses were not always accurate, he did not have to be afraid of the world. Encouraged by his love for a cow-colored horse, Charlie gained the courage to ride. When Charlie rode Joe, he spoke clearly and smoothly with no trace of a stutter. He was grounded, calm, and his violent outbursts gave way to a gentle and sweet boy. Roy and Joe helped Charlie learn skills to cope with his disorder, and he became an honors student.

Like Roy, therapists around the world are seeing significant improvement in patients thanks to their equine assistants. Horses are wonderful partners in therapy, due to their intuitive nature and ability to evoke emotion in humans. Because of horses’ recognized value as therapeutic instruments, various forms of equine therapy exist today. Equine Assisted Psychotherapy (EAP) uses primarily ground-based, non-riding experiences to address mental health issues.

EAP patients are guided through ground exercises by a licensed mental health professional. The experience is related to the emotional or behavioral challenges being addressed. A supplement to other forms of counseling, EAP is especially helpful for people coping with depression and anxiety, communication issues, and those suffering from low self-esteem.

RMER has been serving patients in Boulder, Colorado since 1999. In addition to the classic therapy cases, Roy’s herd of thirteen works with children referred by the Juvenile Justice System. Roy, a licensed clinical social worker (LCSW) and certified equine assisted psychotherapist, explains that “horses illuminate our struggles on a ‘living stage’ without judgment,” which allows therapists like herself to find points of intervention not typically available in office settings. According to Roy, horses are particularly adept at revealing “pieces of trauma that our unconscious mind hides.” Working with horses, both on the ground and in the saddle, allows a client to create a container to manage the emotions created by the trauma.

Sally Hand, a licensed clinical professional counselor (LCPC), registered art therapist (ART-BC), and certified equine assisted psychotherapist, saw additional benefit to her patients when she began learning Parelli Natural Horsemanship methods and EAP principles in 2005. Hand had recently created The Heart and Hand Center in Walla Walla, Washington (2003) when she decided to add EAP to the other therapeutic modalities she was using with her patients. Having grown up with horses and experienced the magical benefits of being with them, she was intrigued by the possibility of what interaction with horses could add to her thriving mental health practice. A colleague directed Hand to attend a Parelli Natural Horsemanship demonstration at an expo in Washington in 2006, where she first experienced Pat and Linda’s work. She was immediately hooked.

Hand began learning everything she could about natural horsemanship. Before leaving the expo, she signed up as a member of the Savvy Club and purchased her first rope halter and carrot stick. Hand’s new Thoroughbred, Joker’s Gold, was so hot when he stepped off the transport van that trainers recommended to “get rid of that horse before he kills you!” Instead, Hand immersed herself in learning Parelli techniques. Hand planned for Joker to become her therapypartner, but the 17.2 hand horse needed a bit of fine tuning – and a human who could understand him – first. Born on a racetrack, he suffered early separation from his mother and significant abuse. He was extremely fearful, lacked confidence, and was impaired by his history of trauma, losses, and separation from loved ones – much like Hand’s patients. She sensed that a gentle giant could be drawn out if she could learn how to communicate with him. “All he needed was for somebody to understand him.”

It did not take long for Hand to find the big heart she knew existed in Joker. He became the star of her therapy team when she established The Heart and Hand Center in Bozeman, Montana in 2007. Now a sweet, confident, and trusting partner, he shows little sign of the fiery horse he once was. He loves his job as therapy-partner and, like the other two horses in Hand’s herd, he seems to understand that his work is important.

When Hand began treating a four-year-old abuse victim, she introduced the little girl to Joker. The big horse became exceptionally calm, reaching his massive head all the way to the ground so the little girl could halter him. When she led Joker, he paused between steps to stay in time with her little legs. Joker knew the girl needed an experience that would make her feel strong and confident after suffering abuse, and the big Thoroughbred gave her just that.

Hand relates the lessons learned during EAP sessions to Parelli’s trainings based on love, language, and leadership, saying that while horsemen and women practicing natural horsemanship strive for these three qualities in their horse/human relationships, “the horses are natural teachers of these three qualities” in her patients. Other similarities between the concepts of natural horsemanship and EAP make the two a natural fit. Learning to set boundaries is a common goal for many of Hand’s adult female patients who have experienced domestic abuse. As they gain confidence setting boundaries with their horse therapy partners, the women learn to set boundaries elsewhere in their lives, making their families feel safer, just as a horse feels safer with boundaries.

Hand incorporated Parelli techniques into her program because they emphasize respect for both the horse and the human – something many patients are learning to establish in their lives – and because basic horsemanship skills improve safety during the experience. Using therapy horses in this way “honors the horse, promotes safety, and teaches people how to be more aware of horses and themselves,” said Hand. Hand finds Parelli’s Seven Games useful for increasing her patients’ awareness of non-verbal communication, teaching people how to politely set boundaries in relationships, increasing self-regulation skills, building confidence and increasing self-respect.

In addition to individual and family EAP sessions, The Heart and Hand Center offers therapeutic weekend retreats and week-long day camps for groups during the summer months. These therapeutic/recreational experiences are tailored to help adults and children heal from trauma and grief. Though the retreats are filled with hiking, mediation, and art therapy, “Horseland” is always the most popular activity on the schedule. Currently, The Heart and Hand Center is completing the process to become a nonprofit organization. Joker, along with a “class-clown” quarter horse named Hot Shot and a shy Arabian named Falina, is changing lives, helping heal hurts, and turning sadness into joy for patients at The Heart and Hand Center. Sir Winston Churchill may have said it best: “There’s something about the outside of a horse that’s good for the inside of a man.”

Author’s Note: *name changed to protect identity Find out more about Rocky Mountain EquiRhythm at Find out more about the Heart and Hand Center at

• Additional information about equine therapy programs can be found at: Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship, International;

• National Association for Certified Professionals of Equine Therapy;

• American Hippotherapy Association;

• Equine Assisted Growth and Learning Association;