I was a lucky little girl who got to grow up with a wonderfully wise old pony named Misty. Misty would do anything for me, and I believed we were going to do it all. Climb the highest mountain! Jump the highest rail! Misty carefully trotted over each little pole on the ground while I imagined I was flying. She taught me that horses are truly gentle beings.
Part of what we humans find fascinating about horses is that they are so powerful, yet simultaneously so responsive. They’re bigger, faster and stronger than we are, yet temperate enough to be not only a child’s best friend, but also an effective means of working with the disabled, lonely, sad, clinically depressed or otherwise challenged.
Size and temperament are not enough to explain the allure of these magnificent animals. Maybe we’re drawn to the simple sensation of warm horsey breath or the velvety touch of a muzzle, or the sense that a horse is a wild creature even when gentled.
Or maybe it’s a spiritual connection, a kind of interspecies silent communication that causes us to somehow feel accepted and understood. It could even have evolved as a part of our cell memory over millennia of horses and humans interacting and working together.
Initially hunted for food, horses were domesticated for transportation and companionship around 4,000 BCE. Ancient Mongolians reportedly spoke of the “five hearts of a horse,” and that notion is cherished by horse cultures worldwide today. Veterinarians confirm horses do have five hearts, in a manner of speaking. The idea of the four additional “hearts” refers to the action of a horse’s bare hooves expanding to accommodate blood when each hoof hits the ground, and then contracting so that the blood is pushed back up their long legs as the horse moves. It’s one of the many unusual anatomical phenomena of the Equidae family that makes them so unique.
Today’s domestic horse population is in the tens of millions. Horses are still used primarily for sport and recreation, but hippotherapy (from the Greek, “with the help of a horse”) includes equine-assisted therapy, equine-assisted coaching and psychotherapy, physical therapy, therapeutic riding programs for the mentally and physically disabled, veterans’ programs, wild-horse herd observation and experiential learning.
With equine-assisted therapy, horses are finally getting credit for something they’ve been providing to humans all along. As with dogs, cats and iguanas, they can even be certified for use in hospitals and retirement homes. Simply put, animals are an important and comforting presence for humans.
The five-hearts anecdote expresses not only an anatomical miracle that exists in horses, but a cultural appreciation of the capacity of horses to provide five times the amount of heart any other animal possibly can for their human partners. Read on to discover five different healing modalities you can experience in Southern California.
Hippotherapy as Physical Therapy
Hippotherapy, used by physical, occupational and/or speech therapists, utilizes equine movement “as part of an integrated intervention program to achieve functional outcomes,” says Leaps & Bounds Pediatric Therapy’s website (www.leapsandboundspediatrictherapy.com). Based in Norco in Riverside County, which has been dubbed “HorseTown, USA” due to its horse friendly community planning and infrastructure, Leaps & Bounds focuses on children but also serves adults, helping people with a range of physical needs.
“Horses are teachers and powerful personal development partners,” says Kate Neligan, founder of Conscious Rockstar Coaching. “They operate the way a mirror does, reflecting back everything we need to see about ourselves. Sometimes the mirror shines on our greatness and other times it exposes our shadow.” In her program at Saffyre Sanctuary in Sylmar, Neligan incorporates rescue horses for her equine coaching sessions. The rescue horses, like many of her clients, begin a new chapter of their lives, and conceivably this shared “awareness” may even facilitate greater healing on both sides.
Neligan has her own transformation story. Unfulfilled by the trappings of success in a corporate career, she found her calling partnering with horses and being of service. She has more than 20 years of experience with horses, a Master’s degree in spiritual psychology and a deep love for sharing with others what horses have to offer as healers.
“Life-transforming change comes from increased self-awareness, playful experiential learning, embodied wisdom and inspired action,” she says. “All of this is possible when you are coached by a horse and equine-assisted facilitator in a synergistic approach.”
You can experience equine-partnered coaching in groups, private sessions, corporate and entrepreneur off-sites, and even group meditation Meetups. Find out more at www.consciousrockstar.com.
Wild Horse Herd Observation & Sanctuary Educational Programs
Just north of Santa Barbara in Lompoc, the experience of seeing wild horses roam the hills in natural herd bands at Return to Freedom, American Wild Horse Sanctuary can be life changing. No matter who you are, how much or little horse experience you have, no matter your background in life or how poor or wealthy you are, learning how wild horses live, communicate, protect one another and solve problems can inspire you to be a better human being. Find out about retreats, wild horse walks, photo safaris, family friendly sanctuary tours, corporate leadership programs, volunteer weekends, campouts and more at www.returntofreedom.org.
Horses for Heroes (www.horses4herous.org) “makes horseback riding affordable for, and accessible to our service members, veterans, survivors, first responders and their immediate families, as well as to other heroes in our communities, including but not limited to, nurses, special needs teachers, and others whose service and sacrifice keep us safe and free.” One of their most popular program locations nationwide is at Dream Catcher of Los Angeles, in Long Beach. Their program, Horses for Forces, serves dozens of veterans annually. To learn more, apply or volunteer, go to www.dreamcatcherla.com.
Therapeutic Riding Programs for the Disabled or Challenged
Even if you don’t have physical or mental disabilities to qualify as a student, equine therapy programs are always looking for a variety of volunteers, from horse handlers to stall cleaners. You can get a lot out of being around horses, even if—or perhaps especially if—the focus of the program you volunteer for is on someone other than yourself. The Ride On Therapeutic Horsemanship centers In Chatsworth and Newbury Park teach adaptive horseback riding to children and adults with physical and cognitive disabilities and provide physical, occupational and speech therapy using the movement of the horse to improve specific medical conditions. They are celebrating 2016 with a grand opening of the Pat McQueeney Education & Therapy Building at the Chatsworth location June 4, hosted by special guest Harrison Ford. For event tickets, go to www.rideon.org.
Pleasure & Lessons
Dozens of stables in greater L.A. offer lessons and trail rides, and many accommodate, or even cater to, children. Five of the most popular are:
Griffith Park Horse Rentals
Will Rogers Trail Rides
Pacific Palisades 90272
Los Angeles Horseback Riding Ranch
Agoura Hills 91301
Wagon Wheel Ranch
Photos: Samantha Lovett
This article is a part of the June/July 2016 Healing Connections issue of Whole Life Times.