At 28 years old, there aren’t many jobs that Gunner, a former cow horse, is still qualified to do. 

His feet are sore, so he requires special padded shoeing to keep him comfortable. According to his caretaker, Jennifer England, he doesn’t have many teeth left, so keeping weight on him takes some effort. He has the kind of lumps, bumps, and scars that aren’t uncommon to life on a working ranch. But all these things make Gunner exceptional for the job he holds now. 

“You can look at him and go, yes, he has internal trauma, he has external trauma, but this is how he goes about living his best, present moment. Gunnar doesn’t identify himself as traumatized,” says England, program supervisor and equine therapist at the Sierra Tucson mental health treatment center in Tucson, Arizona. 

“He lives his best life—he shows up. I think he’d still go after calves if he could.”

As a therapy horse at Sierra Tucson, much of Gunner’s work is different from the kind of therapeutic riding most of us are familiar with. It often takes place on the ground, in a round pen, with no tack at all. Instead of an occupational or physical therapy component, Gunner’s Eagala-centered mental health interactions are often geared toward female and male survivors of childhood sexual abuse, rape, and those recovering from military sexual trauma. 

For these men and women, often with scars you cannot see, Gunner, himself, is a metaphor. His very ability to do this job, despite his imperfections, offers a sense of empathy and hope to the survivors who work with him, giving them a glimpse of the healing and perseverance that are possible. 

But that’s just a starting point.

“When we look at the nature of the horse/human relationship, what we do is ground-based, and we use a lot of metaphor,” England explains. “One thing that happens with sexual trauma is your power and voice are taken away. So just getting the horse to move his feet, being able to use your voice, and feel empowered [in that] safe connection is important.

“As a child, a participant may not have had the control and power to stop what happened to them. But now, as an adult, we can work on those tools, and teach them that they can have a voice. They can make a 1,000-pound horse move its feet; I might have them back the horse up, or move its hip [away]. And those things you can relate, clinically, to feeling empowered and feeling safe while setting a boundary.” 

The very size of horses, combined with their prey-animal-nature, requires a level of safety consideration that England says are unlike working with, say, therapy dogs. But that very fact can be helpful for survivors of sexual trauma, who often tend to dissociate as a coping mechanism.

“There is a risk, inherent to your safety, which puts people in the present,” England explains. “That can translate into human relationships, because if we’re not present in our communication with others in our lives, what happens? Communication falls apart.

“We want to make sure that we can help somebody stay in the present, stay regulated, and be able to really work on their trauma in that way. And so, sometimes, I’ll show participants how horses handle ‘triggers.’ I just put some energy out there, and I’ll have the horse move [away from the driving aids], and then I’ll stop and have residents pay attention to how the horse goes from flight back to regulation.” 

Then, England asks participants to simultaneously practice what happens to their own nervous systems when responding to a trigger for their trauma, attempting to mirror the horse’s behavior when regulating their own physical and emotional response. 

“The horse is sentient, and so, I always tell my groups that we don’t know what’s going to happen. But generally, the more grounded you are, and the more connected and congruent you are, the more the horse is going to feel safe.”

And horses don’t lie. “We know if a horse doesn’t feel safe, they’re not going to stay. That’s why a lot of the work we do is at liberty, whether it’s in a round pen, or the turnout, because I think that gives the person a lot more feedback,” England notes. 

Oftentimes, that process can be confusing for survivors, who may not be aware how and when their trauma is causing them to dissociate, or even to feel emotions such as anger. But the horses know immediately—something England refers to as ‘in the moment feedback.’ 

“The participant will say things like, ‘I did everything [right], why didn’t the horse follow me?’ And then, as a therapist, I’m going to ask, ‘What was going on for you? What were you feeling? What was your intent? What was your expectation?’

“It was really interesting, because three of the residents in my group today were able to get some connection with the horse, and two weren’t, and we were able to process that. The horse is going to give you information if you’re not with him, and I picked a horse that is pretty particular. You have to be with him, or he won’t have anything to do with you.

“And then, I’ll just say, ‘Take a deep breath, get grounded, and try it again. And don’t have any expectations; don’t have intent, just have a connection.’ The horses help mirror some of that.”

England’s ‘herd’ of 11 geldings is made up of two miniatures, a Welsh pony, and a variety of ‘big’ horses, including ranch and cow horses, an Arabian, Quarter Horses, and an off-the-track Thoroughbred who sustained a fracture in Santa Anita. 

“This work is very different from therapeutic riding, and it’s different from any other sport horses participate in. They need to be a fit for [it],” England explains. One of England’s horses specializes in grief, allowing residents to just be with him in the space and receive support. Others exemplify different skills. 

“I have a little paint horse and my little pony, who are great with people who are working on boundaries. When I was working with at-risk youth, some of the young women had been rescued from sex trafficking, and they just had no boundaries; they were never allowed to say ‘no.’ And so, to work with a little pony who’s constantly in your business, and for them to feel empowered to say ‘no,’ to set a physical boundary, to set a verbal boundary, can be an important piece of recovery.”

In other cases, England says, just being outside, in nature, and in the presence of a horse—with what she calls their “electromagnetic field, big hearts, and iron-rich blood”—can help unlock trauma stored in a survivor’s muscle-memory. “Sometimes, just in the act of reaching out and touching the horse, tears or something [else] will come,” England says. 

“I like to do a lot of co-regulation, so I’ll have participants put their hands on and regulate their breathing with the horse. There are folks that have had sexual trauma who have then shut out any human touch for years; they wouldn’t allow it. But with the safety of the horse, they can practice safe touch. 

“We can also help them do things with cadence and breathing,” England continues, noting that she also asks participants to lead the horse, concentrating on the one-, two-, three-, four-beats of the hooves, staying present and in the moment the whole time. 

Thanks to the horses, England says, one of the chief enjoyments of her work is the possibility for the unexpected moments that are always part of equine-assisted therapy—whether it’s a breakthrough emotional reaction from a member of the group, or a surprising behavior from one of her horses toward a participant. 

“I like to use my whole herd, and then see what happens and where the connection is; what horse is drawn to who, or [vice versa]. Sometimes, the horse will pick us,” she says. “A lot of times, I like it to just evolve, because the horses are also my co-therapists. They’re going to tell me who needs what.”

It’s always an authentic interaction, England says, and one that often surprises the therapist, herself. 

“It just happened that, today, I had my men’s group, and I thought, Wow, I’m so glad we were able to talk today, because I just haven’t had the experience with them of meeting the horses in this way and [seeing] how powerful it can be. 

“As a horsewoman, I forget sometimes how it is to have a relationship with a horse—I forget what it’s like that first time,” England adds. “I appreciate, every day, when I see somebody have that first-time connection with a horse. It’s amazing.”

If you are interested in engaging in animal-assisted therapy, search for offerings in your area. Please note: no broad credentialing or certification structures currently exist across all modalities and jurisdictions and there is a difference between animal-assisted activities and animal-assisted therapies. Many excellent programs exist backed with specific training and education tailored to specific needs and mental health concerns. Double check the provider you are considering has a specialized background in the services you are seeking. Such services should be ethical and safe for the recipient, the animal, and the provider/handler, respecting and ensuring the wellbeing and welfare of all involved. With a little due diligence you can select a program and provider that best suits your needs.

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