Getting to the Heart of Healing:

How equine therapy heals trauma and addiction

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


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 


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, 


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. 


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.

Low-Fee Equine Facilitated Psychotherapy

For Trauma including Post Traumatic Stress Disorder


Five Hearts Healing Arts


The Mind and Heart of Healing, a six-session pilot program for healing trauma is focused on a bottom-up approach for releasing trauma at the deep brain and body level. Participants will receive a cognitive understanding of what is happening at the neural level that is causing trauma symptoms. Then with the help of horses, will participate in focused exercises to release trauma without being re-traumatized. The fee for each session is $25. A six-week commitment is required. Participants will be asked to complete pre- and post-tests to measure the effectiveness of the therapy. All sessions take place at Five Hearts Healing Arts in Morongo Valley, Calif., just 35 minutes north of Palm Springs, Calif. For more information and to set up a telephone interview please call Gail Hromadko, MFT (MFT 31927) at 760-323-2424. Feel free to view the website at for additional information.

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