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
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
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.
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Research & Health, Vol. 31, No. 3, Scripps Research Institute.
3. Hamilton, A. MD (2011). Zen Mind, Zen Horse, Storey Publishing, North Adams,
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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.
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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. www.nexuspub.com/articles_2006/
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
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 www.5Hearts.org for additional information.