Getting to the Heart of Healing: Part II

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Getting to the Heart of Healing: How equine therapy heals trauma and addiction


By Gail Hromadko, MFT


This is a two-part article reviewing the crossover symptoms of trauma and chemical dependency. For some of you it will be a simple reminder about the significance of treating both syndromes in order to have positive outcomes. For all of you, I hope it will awaken an interest in and beginning understanding of the special place of Equine Facilitated Psychotherapy (EFP), also known as Equine Assisted Psychotherapy (EAP).


Part II

In Part I of this article, we talked about the research linking trauma and chemical dependency and started to explore the unique offering of equine therapy. In Part II we will continue exploring the gifts of equine work, particularly as it heals the traumatized brain.


Stuck In the Limbic Brain

Play mobilizes the fight/flight/freeze system where trauma survivors may be stuck and then uses social engagement to moderate it (Porges, NICABM 2011). EFP/EAP offers a unique opportunity for play. We set up obstacle courses, play dress-up with the horses, and move with them. We return to the caring faces of our witnesses who ask, “How was that for you?” and really want to know. The process of having fight/flight/freeze stimulated and then moderated by social engagement is the essence of play as a healing experience.


Sometimes play experiences recreate the physiological state that resulted from the trauma — a person becomes triggered. These states can be reflected in the here and now. The client can process that experience with the help of their witnesses and then try something new. The celebration of doing this without chemicals becomes a source of pride. Finally, the state of arousal can be experienced from a new perspective — the physical state that saved the client\'s life.


Instinct and Feeling Out of Control

In his book Waking the Tiger (1997), Peter Levine suggests that trauma recovery is a rebalancing of instinct, feeling, and cognition. Instinct is a right-brain activity (Hamilton, 2011). Feeling comes from the midbrain, an area also strongly implicated in addiction. Cognition occurs in the neocortex. When trauma occurs, it creates a buildup of unresolved energy in the form of feelings, thoughts, and bodily sensations. Levine (1997) suggests that animals in the wild instinctively discharge the compressed energy resulting from trauma, so they seldom have adverse symptoms. Horses assist us in this healing process.


Horses have a smaller cortex — the planning, strategizing, and language part of the brain. What they have sacrificed in the left-brain activities, they have regained in instinct, a right-brain function (Hamilton, 2011). People will often report feeling different after simply observing or petting a horse. In making contact with a horse, a client\'s breathing and heart rate often become synchronized with it. Levine (NICABM, 2011) suggests that one day the prohibition against appropriate therapeutic touch will be lifted in trauma therapies because touch can be reassuring and can allow one to synchronize to a rhythm other than a trauma rhythm. Horses invite this touch without violating the psychotherapeutic boundary. As clients continue to interact with horses in more complex ways, they discover that they have more connection when they let go of cognition and move into instinct, the first language of horses. Their communication becomes more authentic, which is also a significant process for ongoing sobriety.


Siegel (2001) reports that nonverbal emotional sharing involves output of the right hemisphere of each person in the interacting pair. He says this sharing is neurologically mapped so that the mind of each is mapped in the other. In this way the capacity for understanding of the other is expanded. Because in equine therapy the horse is not in trauma, the non-traumatized intuitive and instinctive presence is mapped in the neurological workings of the client. At the same time, the trauma reaction is mapped in the horse\'s brain. Because horses operate in the natural world, they know how to “shake off” traumatic experience. They are often observed shaking, flicking their tails, and exhaling strongly after an interaction with a traumatized client, releasing the trauma and returning to a state of wellbeing. Siegel (2001) further suggests that in a developing infant, self regulation is learned by interacting with another. We use the body/mind of the parent to regulate our own state until we develop the neural ability ourselves. Chemically dependent clients often have a history of early abuse or neglect, sometimes at the hands of alcoholic or addicted parents. Horses provide the opportunity to relearn self regulation.


The isolation of the addict or survivor can be diminished in connection with the horses, peers, and the therapist...probably in that order. Additionally, an observing ego is born. We become aware of ourselves while we are observed. “Attuned emotional communication within secure attachments leads to self regulation and the seed of compassion” (Siegal, 2001). This is a shift from the survivalist experience of fight/flight/freeze and from the self-centeredness of the addict.


Compassion implies connection to a broader state of being — that of I and Thou. This experience is broadened in the arena to a state of spiritual connection or spiritual experience. Levine (NICABM, 2011) explains that clients may connect with the collective unconscious when deeper healing is occurring. Clients in an equine arena often talk about feeling connected to a larger process. They may experience an altered sense of themselves as did one woman who donned a blanket and stick and went walking with her equine companion only to reflect later that she felt like the wise old sage on a long journey with her spiritual companion. She reflected that the experience transported her to a deeper place of belonging within the universe. Her healing journey took on a deeper meaning as it connected her to a greater whole. This could be called a spiritual experience.


Unintegration of Brain and Body

The integration of brain and body requires keeping the prefrontal cortex “online”, while having midbrain experiences (limbic brain) that encompass sensation (the body). In trauma survivors and the chemically dependent, these aspects are unintegrated. The sensory experiences of an equine process are many. Being outdoors with a large and beautiful mammal stimulates vision. People often refer to the smell of horses, particularly as it relates to positive memories. They experience safe and soothing tactile processes in touching the animal, which stimulates the somatic cortex, the part of the brain that sends messages to the neural circuitry and muscles. This can aid the release of traumatic muscle memories.


Being outdoors offers a different range of sounds than might be experienced in daily life — from birds chirping to the nicker of the horse — that are in a frequency that evokes safety and a sense of peace. In an interview regarding his research on the polyvagal system (Shoemaker, 2006) Porges describes the vagus nerve, a major nerve of the parasympatheic nervous system that calms and stabilizes. This nerve provides the ability to respond with facial expression, which then allows us to discern sound. People who have undergone trauma have become highly attuned to predatory frequencies and lack attunement to the human voice. Social engagement, a critical component for healing, is diminished. If we can access the neural circuits that promote social engagement, healing is possible. Porges says “...[S]trategies to create that sense of safety, like retreating to a quiet environment, playing musical instruments, singing, talking softly, or even listening to music” are helpful in creating a sense of safety (Shoemaker, 2006). Additionally, equine hearing is acute. We see their ears dancing as they gather information from the environment. Clients are directed to equine ears and asked “What are they hearing?” This invites connection to a deeper layer of sound and recruits the neural circuits that may have been offline due to trauma.


Equine therapies create an environment that helps clients befriend sensation, emotion, and intuition and reorient to the here and now. In the presence of an equine companion and witnesses, deeper healing can begin. While equine work is actually brain therapy, it brings survivors to the heart of healing.





1.      Brady, K., Back, S. & Coffey, S. (2004). \"Substance Abuse and Posttraumatic Stress Disorder,\" American Psychological Society, Vol. 13, No. 5.

2.      Gilpin, N. & Koob, G. (2008). \"Neurobiology of Alcohol Dependence,\" Alcohol Research & Health, Vol. 31, No. 3, Scripps Research Institute.

3.      Hamilton, A. MD (2011). Zen Mind, Zen Horse, Storey Publishing, North Adams, MA.

4.      Levine, P. (2011). \"How to learn from the unspoken voice of trauma.\" NICABM Treating Trauma series, 2011, Mansfield Center, CT.

5.      Levine, P. (1997). Waking the Tiger: healing trauma. North Atlantic Books, CA.

6.      Morgan, O. (2009). \"Thoughts on the Interaction of Trauma, Addiction & Spirituality,\". Journal of Addictions & Offender Counseling, October 2009, Vol. 30.

7.      Padykula, N., Conklin, P. (2010). \"The Self Regulation Model of Attachment Trauma and Addiction,\" Clinical Social Work Journal, Vol. 38: 351-360, Springer Science & Business Media.

8.      Porges, S. (2011). \"Polyvagal Theory for Treating Trauma,\" NICABM Treating Trauma series, 2011, Mansfield Center, CT.

9.      Shoemaker, R. (2006). \"How your nervous system sabotages your ability to relate,\" an interview with Stephen Porges.

10.  Siegel, D. (2001). \"Toward an Interpersonal neurobiology of the developing mind: attachment relationships, \"mind sight,\" and neural integration. Infant Mental Health Journal, Vol, 22(1-2), 67-94, Michigan Association for Infant Mental Health.

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