How equine therapy works

Jane Davis with Snickers the horse and Baci the dog. (Photo by Daniel Quat)

“The horse is a mirror to your soul,” said Jane Davis, whose horse, Snickers, is her partner in equine-assisted healing practice, based at a farm between Woodstock and Saugerties. “Everything you learn with a horse can be taken into your relationships.”

This type of work is commonly called “equine therapy,” but Davis prefers the word “healing.” She has a Masters in social work and certification from the Equine Assisted Growth and Learning Association (EAGALA) in Gestalt Equine Psychotherapy. She’s also certified in Laughter Yoga and has studied with a Lakota mentor at Standing Rock, where she walks in the hills with the Nokota horses descended from Sitting Bull’s herd.

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Originally from Woodstock, Davis grew up riding at Southlands in Rhinebeck but moved to New Mexico, where she practiced healing with horses under the name “Riders of the Sage,” which came to her in a dream. Actually clients do not ride but work exclusively on the ground in their relationship with the horse. Now that Davis has returned to Woodstock, she’s brought Snickers along and is again open for business.

As prey animals, Davis explained, horses are highly social, since their survival depends on the herd. They are adept at perceiving the emotions of both companions and potential predators. By observing the horse’s response to a client, the therapist/facilitator gains clues to the client’s emotional state and patterns. Unlike horses, people have a tendency to hide or deny their feelings. Horses react with agitation when confronted with a person who is not behaving in a way congruent with their emotions.

Davis explained, “I watch the horse and reflect to the client what I notice, without interpretation. The client can go with it, elaborate, or not respond at all.”

In The Horse Leads the Way: Honoring the True Role of the Horse in Equine Facilitated Practice (YouCaxton Publications 2017), Angela Dunning states, “Partnering with highly intuitive non-predatory animals gives us an enormous potential in our work to access pathways to healing that can take years to reach by just talking through issues.”

The facilitator may not even delve into the client’s problems, the way a talk therapist would, as I learned when I had a session with Davis and Snickers. The horse, a 19-year-old tobiano paint mare, stood at the fence of a 50-foot round pen, watching as I interviewed Davis in the shade of the barn. “She’s curious about you,” said Davis. “She wants to be included.”

Untethered in the pen, the horse is free to respond to the client naturally, and vice versa. When we went inside the gate, I held my hand out for Snickers to sniff, and we looked at each other. After a few minutes, Davis suggested I walk around to see if Snickers would follow me, but she didn’t. I was disappointed, fearing she didn’t like me, but I figured we needed more time to bond.

Davis brought in the grooming kit, and I brushed Snickers. As usual, I found grooming to be a soothing way to connect with a horse. Davis put a halter on Snickers and had me lead her around the pen, talking to the horse about my battles with anxiety. Davis stood off to the side where she wouldn’t be able to hear. When she asked me how it went, I said, “Snickers is a good listener.”

At one point, Snickers was standing some distance away from us, and Davis asked what impression I had of the horse. “Patient,” I said, and Davis said I could use that image in situations in my life. I walked around with Snickers some more, talking about a relationship I’ve been struggling with, and I had the new insight that the way I feel with that person echoes my socially clueless childhood.

It wasn’t until the next day that I recalled a moment when I was standing between the horse and the wall of the pen, and Davis, ever alert to safety issues, suggested I avoid that situation. As I have a bit of experience with horses, I already knew this rule, but I hadn’t want to push Snickers away, as I would’ve done with another horse, fearing I might seem rude in this case. I thought of how this pattern is reflected in the relationship I have been working on. 

In Dunning’s book, she observes that horses, with their fine-tuned herd negotiations, draw out our boundary issues on an experiential level and teach us to assert ourselves. Since my session with Snickers, when I’ve had anxiety about asking for my needs to be met, I’ve been encouraged by the memory of that moment by the fence.

Of course, not all horses have the proper temperament and experience for healing work, and facilitators choose their partners carefully. Snickers was previously owned by a family who treated her gently. “I fell in love when I rode her under New Mexico’s great sky,” Davis recalled. 

Her work with Snickers is ideally suited to people who are making changes in their lives or who want to improve relationships with spouses, children, or others. Davis also helps riders bond with their horses through work on the ground.

“Horses are land dolphins,” she said. “Like sonar, they read us from the inside out.”

For more information on equine-assisted healing, visit https://www.ridersofthesage-nm.com or contact Jane Davis at jane@ridersofthesage.com or 505-670-1844.

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