A dark horse stood on a grassy patch of a 10-acre farm, sturdy and unflinching. As Peggy Ann Harris stroked its mane, she told a group of women standing nearby the troubles — illness, drug addiction, loss of work — that have saddled her life.
Through a growing alternative therapy known as equine-guided coaching, participants like Harris are trying to gain a fresh perspective on life with the support of a hefty, gentle animal.
“What has been so amazing about this is that the horses have been teaching me about how powerful the mind-body connection is,” Harris said. “Because they’re connected to their surroundings, they connect with you and your energy. They will show you things going on with you.”
Like yoga or art therapy, equine-guided coaching is considered “complementary” to more traditional forms of therapy. In it, participants talk about personal challenges — illness, fear, grief or past failures — and use the presence of a horse to guide and reassure them.
As part of a group exercise on a balmy afternoon, Harris and eight other participants were asked recently to collect three objects that symbolized stages of their journey: struggle, ease and the bridge in-between. They combed the Inver Grove Heights pasture and its musty stable, selecting items. Then, as they discussed their choices, leaders Lynn Baskfield and Beth Peterson prompted them to delve deeper and respond to the animal’s reactions.
As Harris described the illnesses that debilitated her body and made her housebound, the horse, Victor, stomped his hooves. Harris reeled with a fleeting sob. She planted her hand on Victor, who gave a sigh, then rested her head on his neck.
“Before I became mobile again, I was completely isolated” she said. “I no longer had friends or family in the area. I was isolated in this apartment all by myself.”
After her session with Victor, Harris said she felt comforted. “When I had my hand on him, the feeling of not being alone is so powerful.”
Sensing the authentic
Horses are intuitive animals, agenda-free and sensitive to “when we’re being authentic,” Baskfield said. Because they’re nonpredatory, they can detect the slightest kernel of fear, resentment or repression.
A stomp of the hoof might signal a plea for more depth. A surly yawn or jaw movement might demand, “Give me the real deal.” A chomp of grass might prompt one of the group leaders to ask: “How does this feed you?”
Baskfield and Peterson, both cancer survivors, have harnessed the holistic healing power of horses for clients who range from corporate executives to teens whose parents are divorcing. For their current partnership with local nonprofit Pathways, the duo, who have 25 combined years of horse-related therapy, designed weekly healing activities for people coping with or caretaking for people with life-threatening illnesses.
“Their senses are so attuned to what’s going on with the environment that they are naturally attuned to us, as well — whether we’re thinking and feeling in a congruent manner,” Baskfield said of the animals, which aren’t specially trained for this program. The participants don’t ride the horses, either.
The program is an adaptation of the signature program at Pathways, Renewing Life With Horses, during which participants spend 2½ hours a week confronting challenges.
Various research exists on the emerging field of equine-guided coaching, though it’s difficult to quantify. But some people swear by the practice, and have cultivated communities through horse-training programs and literature. There is an international nonprofit, Equine Assisted Growth and Learning Association, which has developed model therapy programs and established networking groups across the United States. Another organization, Eponaquest Worldwide, has its own trained instructors in five continents. Its founder has written several books, including “Way of the Horse: Equine Archetypes for Self-Discovery.”
A typical Renewing Life session opens with meditation. Then, participants engage in activities to learn about themselves and perform a specific task, often verbal and reflective, beside one of the horses.
The leaders act as “journeymasters,” Peterson said, as the horse’s responses guide the participants to be more honest with themselves and the group.
“We really trust people to know what’s within them in ways you couldn’t list on a piece of paper,” Baskfield said. “Sometimes, we disconnect from our bodies when we feel pain.”
Another exercise, for instance, asked the participants to walk beside the horse between an area that they envisioned as their grief and another that they envisioned as their restoration. While it may have looked like they were just walking back and forth, Peterson said the exercise allowed the participants to relive their most harrowing moments.
“I stepped into my grief,” said Harris. “The horse will be present with you. The horse feels what I am feeling.”
Florence Francis is using equine-guided coaching to help her face a diagnosis of ovarian cancer. The exercises have helped lead her to write about her life’s experiences. And to accept life on its own terms.
“We’re all terminal,” she said with a smile as she stroked Victor, “and that’s OK.”