It had been years since the last time that I was on a horse. The last time I was on a horse was also the first time–and I wasn’t very good at riding horses back then. Being several years older and several pounds heavier did not make me any better at dealing with a horse. The knobby-kneed brown stallion that I was trying my darnedest to climb onto sensed my diminishing confidence. Each time that I failed to get my leg over his back, the horse became shyer and shyer. But, lucky for me, I was not alone. The Oxbow Academy Equine Team was there to help me.
Equine Directors Brita and Tony North helped both the horse and me to calm down. They did not let me give up when I decided that I was just too old and too fat to try Equine Therapy. One member of the Equine Team clasped his hands together and let me use his hands as stirrup so that I could climb onto the horse’s back.
With the help of three very patient people, I finally made it onto the horse. Then the real adventure began.
Getting Back on the Horse
While I was trying to inch my way into the saddle, I could not help but think of how effortless the teenage boy had made this look while he was demonstrating the therapy technique. He had stood poised and explained how he used what he experienced in Equine Therapy to help ground him in the present moment.
The teen was part of the Equine Therapy group. He had participated in activities like this one for months. His skill showed in the way he carried himself and spoke in a clear, concise way while he explained this particular Equine Therapy activity.
For people who have had traumatic experiences in their past or experience anxiety about their future, just being able to focus on the present moment can mean the difference between being functional or being paralyzed by their own fears. As I came to see for myself, that is why Equine Therapy matters.
Once I made it into the saddle, Richard, one of the therapists, called out to me and asked what I was feeling.
“Fat! Ashamed! So very embarrassed!” I shouted back.
“You can use that,” Richard responded encouragingly.
Tony, a big man with a gentle presence, stood nearby. He held the reins of the tame but skittish horse. I could tell that having Tony close by made the horse feel calmer. It made me feel calmer too.
Feeling Afloat, Then Finding Peace
When the horse and I were both more settled, Tony began to lead us around the pen. As the teenage demonstrator had done before me, I was supposed to close my eyes and say left or right whenever the horse moved his front legs. This was a lot harder to do than it should have been. On the horse with my eyes closed, I felt completely afloat in space. The slow, sloping trot of the horse made me feel like I was being tossed on an ocean wave. I was too high up. The experience was too strange. Then I started to panic.
But Tony and Brita were right there. They were with the horse and me, and they were not about to let either of us give up. Eventually, I started to calm down. The horse did too. As a herd animal, horses are keenly aware of the emotions of others. Horses reflect people’s feelings back at them, which is part of what makes horses so useful as therapeutic animals.
Once everything was calm, Richard asked me to talk about my Place of Peace. A Place of Peace is different for each person. It is anywhere that they feel calm. In my case, my Place of Peace is a beach. Not a bright, sunny beach. An overcast beach with craggy rocks where I can listen to the rocks break against the shore.
Richard encouraged me to remember the feeling of calm that I had at that moment. He reminded me that it was possible to stay calm in spite of all the anxiety that came before this moment. It seemed like a good message for the future.
Experiencing a Transformation
Luckily, getting off the horse was a lot easier than getting on. Thank you, gravity. When I climbed off the horse, the people who had been watching me described how my whole demeanor had changed. I was smiling broadly. My body was loose and relaxed. I asked Tony to give me a hug, and the big-hearted, gentle, man agreed. I thanked the Equine Therapy team one-by-one and the boys in the group who had let me participate.
This one experience with Equine Therapy left me feeling changed. I can only imagine how it feels for the young men who are fortunate enough to take part in it each week.
Equine therapy is an experiential therapy used at Oxbow Academy for the boys to experience what they are learning in therapy cognitively and apply it directly. It is a powerful tool for each of the boys to face difficult things as they progress through the treatment process, as I myself experience first hand through this brief encounter with the therapy practice. Oxbow provides various experiential therapies such as equine therapy to help the boys gain deeper insight into themselves and continue to heal.