Psychotherapists Introduced to Equine-Assisted Growth and Learning

Learn with Horses  Demonstration, Naval Academy Dairy Farm, Gambrills, Maryland

Learn with Horses Demonstration, Naval Academy Dairy Farm, Gambrills, Maryland

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Psychotherapists from Maryland and Virginia who had requested an equine-assisted therapy and learning demonstration visited the farm recently to experience up-close what it's like to be a therapy or learning client working with horses. Betsy Hickok is an EAGALA-certified equine-assisted therapy provider, and she led the group through various exercises to show them what happens in a real growth and learning session.

If you would like a free equine-assisted growth and learning demonstration session for your group, contact us, and we will set it up.

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Betsy Hickok, Learn with Horses Director, and Kristy Alvarez, Equine Specialist

Betsy Hickok, Learn with Horses Director, and Kristy Alvarez, Equine Specialist

Betsy with Magic

Betsy with Magic

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Why Equine-Assisted Growth and Learning Does Not Include Horseback Riding

You don’t have to know anything about horses to participate in professionally facilitated equine assisted activities because all the work is done on the ground, and there is no horseback riding involved.

Horseback riding can be exhilarating and fun, but when you are riding a horse, the relationship is based on your dominating and controlling that horse. When you take riding lessons to learn to be a better rider, the learning is based on an unequal instructor/student relationship. Both relationships are based on the hierarchy of a more powerful or knowing person being in control of the activity.

The beauty of doing ground-based horse work is that you get to be you and the horse gets to be a horse, and you are free to interact with and respond to each other in the moment! This natural and uninhibited experience allows you to be more who you authentically are, and to have whoever that is be mirrored by unfettered horse’s responses to you. You form a relationship with the horse that is respectful and cooperative. 

That interaction can be an eye-opening experience. 

When we do our equine work within a healing or learning framework, the horse is a team member, and the coach assists the participant in discovering their own innate wisdom and strength, as it is reflected and illuminated by the horse’s responses to them.

I remember one day my husband and I, who enjoy a generally peaceful relationship, had experienced some tensions in the morning before going to the horse farm to work.

Although we were not visibly upset with each other when we got there, our normally mellow and friendly horses were all over the map. They wouldn’t settle down because they were mirroring our inner distress, and it was valuable for us to see that. They huffed and chuffed and nipped at each other, and wouldn’t cooperate or stand still for us, and isn’t that just what human arguments are like?

It isn’t just negative reacting that they do, though.

Horses will sense when a person is ill, tired or emotionally distressed, and it isn’t unusual that one of the horses will follow and stay close to someone for an entire session who is not feeling good. Sometimes the horse will lean into them, nuzzle them, comfort them in some way.

A horse once walked up to a session participant and rested his nose gently on her chest, right over her heart. Just stood there that way. The woman’s face crumpled, tears came, and she wailed, “How did he know that I am grieving my father’s death today? How did he know that my heart hurts?”

Troubled teenagers who are used to controlling their families or their classrooms with bad behavior settle right down when a half-ton of great big horse walks up close, sniffs them up and down from inches away, and just stands there, eye-to-eye, not giving an inch. Your move, Tough Guy.

Horses who participate with people in exercises allow themselves to be led, pushed, pulled, patted, groomed, smooched, leaned upon, and hugged. They are mostly very cooperative and attentive through all of that, but they have a lighter side, too.

A client drove up to the arena one day and got out of her car. She entered the ring where the horse she would work with that day awaited. The horse took one look at her and jumped over the fence out of the ring, then jumped right back in and stood there watching her. Whenever she moved, he would repeat this behavior, until she (and all of us) were in stitches. BOING! BOING-BOING!! And yes, our client was having a problem with some inner ambivalence that was a lot easier for her to discuss and strategize after all the horse-jumping and mood-shifting.

When horses are free to be themselves with you, they bring great gifts of clarity and love, truth and connection. It is a clean relationship, and we humans often don’t have many of those, so it is restorative and invigorating.

The wisdom of the horse meets the wisdom in you, and you both get to come out and play.



Horses Can Read Human Facial Expressions

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A new article in the Atlantic Monthly has some new and fascinating research about just how good horses are at figuring out humans. It turns out they can accurately read our facial expressions.

Now, those of us who have been around horses a lot don't find much surprise in this statement, but to have it scientifically verified in a study is a big deal. It means that equine learning and growth practices and organizations that use them will get more credibility and professional support. It also means that the people we serve—our equine clients— can feel more confident that the benefits they are getting in their work with our horses is science-based, not just a feel-good love-fest. You can read the full article here. The feel-good love-fest has many other real benefits that are very worthwhile, but you can know now that when you scowl or laugh at a horse, they pick up cues from your facial expression about what it means,  and are thus influenced by it.

This research is another welcome validator of a picture that is emerging of the complex intelligence, sensitivity and emotional capacity of horses. Horse people have known about these attributes, but now, thanks to research like this, It's getting harder for other people out there in the world to think of horses as simple animal creatures made to serve man, and that is a good thing.

- Betsy Hickok


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What We Can Learn from A Horse

Horses are strong, majestic, powerful and highly intuitive. Because they are animals of prey, they are keenly aware of their surroundings at all times. Horses’ survival depends on their legs and fleeing from danger. They are highly attuned to their environment and everything in it.


Horses are also animals of the herd, which makes them very socially aware as well. There is a definite ‘pecking order’ in a horse herd. When some of the horses lie down on the ground to rest, for example, there are sentinel horses that stand watch for any predators that might attack the vulnerable sleeping horses. The sentinel will signal any potential danger to the others.

These strong intuitive and sensing abilities also allow horses to ‘read’ people and respond to whatever they perceive through their behavior toward the person. This behavioral feedback information is the powerful tool that fuels awareness, growth and change for humans who interact with horses.

Why can’t we do this with our dogs and cats, you might ask?

Because domestic house pets are motivated to please a person, and often have an agenda to satisfy themselves, thus skewing the relationship toward their own interests. 

Horses are neutral, nonjudgmental and have no biases about social status, physical appearance or skin color. They do not see human social trappings. Instead, they respond to the real you, whom they can so deeply sense. That experience is refreshing and revealing for the human involved.

Here is an example of how it works.

Recently I had an equine-assisted personal coaching session with a woman who was very sad but did not know why. The horse approached her and put its forehead on her chest, just standing there quietly with her. After awhile she began to sob, asking, “How did he know I had a broken heart?” Once the horse’s actions made her aware of her broken heart, she came to realize that she had never mourned the loss of her father when she was a little girl, and that realization allowed her to feel the loss and let it go.

The horse’s intuitive knowing helped her to find her own answer, and her own inner peace.

- Betsy Hickok

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