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Healing with Horses

Updated: Jun 5


portrait of Jessica Culp

Melanie Marklein, PhD Certified in the Eponaquest Approach™ to Equine-Facilitated Psychotherapy (EFP)

Licensed Clinical Psychologist, Clinical Director


“The essential joy of being with horses is that it brings you in contact with the rare elements of grace, beauty, spirit, and freedom” - Sharon Ralls Lemon

I was one of those little girls obsessed with horses. They inspired awe and wonder in me. I did not grow up with them (to my dismay), and I did not take my first riding lesson until I was about 28 years old, but there was always a deep longing in me to be near them. Horses stirred something inside of me that is hard to describe. It was a kind of empathy, and a desire to be wild and free. They also seemed to possess such quiet wisdom. I felt like we could be friends, the horses and I. We could understand each other. Like horses, I was a highly sensitive and perceptive kid and having the “wild spirit” trained/socialized out of me felt like a deep injury.

When I decided to start learning how to ride, I had this image of myself on the back of a horse galloping across wide open fields, in reckless abandon, throwing caution to the wind in exchange for that exhilarating rush of freedom. I just craved access to that power, strength, speed, and sensation of flying. I had no idea that horses were about to teach me more about human relationships, communication, trust, respect, and power, or about trauma and recovery, than any college course or psychology textbook ever did.

Horse Sense for People

I started taking riding lessons when I was a graduate student in Counseling Psychology. My instructor was not only teaching me how to ride a horse; he was teaching me the psychology of horses and how to communicate with horses in their own language. I remember how my instructor and I would compare stories and note the overlap between what I was learning as a counseling psychology student and what he was learning as a horse trainer. He often joked that he felt like he was inadvertently doing counseling with his riding students because as he explained how to have an effective partnership with a horse, they would inevitably open up to him about how the struggles they were having with the horse reflected similar challenges playing out in their personal or professional lives. We had many discussions about how the concepts and tools of natural horsemanship (a philosophy of working with horses based on the horse’s natural instincts and methods of communication) were extremely relevant to the study of human relationships, especially relationships that involve power differentials such as parent-child or employer-employee relationships.

In his book, Horse Sense for People, horse-trainer Monty Roberts writes about a technique he calls “Join-Up.” He describes Join-Up as a nonviolent method of communicating to establish a partnership with the horse. Monty Roberts was born in 1935 to parents who were in the horse business. His father was a horse trainer and riding instructor. He grew up observing traditional horse trainers, including his father, operating on the principle, “You do what I tell you or I’ll hurt you.” The traditional method of “breaking a horse” involves inflicting terror and pain on the animal. As Michael Schwartz describes it in the Foreword to Horse Sense for People, “the traditional method of breaking literally mortifies a horse until it seems to accept its own spiritual death, and in doing so survives.” Reading this description of breaking a horse’s spirit to gain its obedience immediately brings to my mind the trauma survivors who come to me for therapy. Their spirits were broken in childhood in much the same way by parents who ruled with fear and intimidation, who inflicted physical and emotional pain through violence, emotional neglect, verbal abuse, excessive control, and harsh punishment.

Monty Roberts recalls in his book that, as a child, he felt empathy for the horses when he observed them being broken because he had been treated harshly by his father as well. “I watched as they were tied down and abused in the most appalling ways. I sensed that there was something profoundly wrong in this. I believed that the horse had absolutely no idea what was expected of it. It was painful to me to see what I perceived to be confusion on the faces of these horses.” Monty refused to inflict pain of any kind upon the horses. Through close observations of how horses communicate with each other, Monty Roberts learned the language of Equus, a nonverbal language based almost entirely on body positioning, postures, and gestures. He began to experiment with training techniques based in the horse’s language, concluding that it was more effective to wait for the horse to do something right and then reward him, and to “discipline” the horse by putting him back to work, never by applying force. “I believed that horses, these wonderful flight animals with no agenda to cause harm to anyone, could teach us that violence is never the answer.”

The point of Monty’s Join-Up method is to create a relationship based on trust and confidence, a relationship by which the horse wants to be on the same team. Conventionally broken horses often form an adversarial relationship with people, agreeing to perform with reluctance. “Any environment that is based on fear and punishment will achieve performance, but not innovation. You can force people and horses to cooperate, but you cannot force optimum performance. This desire to perform can only be achieved through intrinsic motivation” (Roberts, 2000).

Fundamental to the Join-Up method is the recognition that the horse must always be allowed the freedom to choose whether or not he will cooperate. Monty asserts that pain is not a real choice because no healthy being would willingly choose pain. Inflicting pain on the horse just forces him to see obedience as the only choice. The idea of choice is a root principle of his work. “No one has the right to say, ‘You must or I will hurt you,’ to any creature, animal or human.”

Communication with horses in Join-Up is largely based on the fact that they are flight animals. They will flee from whatever they perceive as danger. Respecting that natural pattern and using the horse’s language, he proceeds one step at a time until the horse willingly decides to join up with him.

In the first step, Monty brings the horse into the round pen and introduces himself in the center of the circle. This step is akin to the initial greeting and handshake between humans. It is a chance to make a first impression and to communicate that no harm is intended. After briefly getting acquainted, Monty offers the horse the opportunity to leave. Here is that element of choice coming into play. Horses are the quintessential flight animals; they will almost always choose to run away rather than fight when any pressure is applied to the relationship. Monty sends the horse away by squaring up to the horse and locking his eyes on the horse’s eyes. This is a predatory gesture to a horse and usually sends the horse running around the perimeter of the round pen. Monty will continue tracking the horse with his eyes, keeping his shoulders squared up to the horse as he moves around the pen, which tells the horse to “go away.” In human interactions, this is essentially the same as allowing people to consider their options and recognize their mutual needs.

When horses are fleeing from a predator, they will run for approximately one-quarter to three-eighths of a mile. After that, they feel compelled to negotiate with their predator instead of continuing to run and risk running out of energy. So as the horse moves around the perimeter, Monty watches closely for “gestures of negotiation.” The first sign that a horse is requesting a truce is when he points one ear toward you. This says, “I respect you and will attempt a negotiation.” Turning his nearest ear toward you shows that the horse is paying close attention to what you are saying and it communicates a request for cooperation. The second gesture that Monty looks for is the horse coming away from the wall and moving a little closer to where he is standing in the middle of the circle. This gesture is the equivalent of a person watching you closely during a conversation, keenly aware of what you are saying. The next gesture a horse usually makes is to begin licking and chewing, which conveys that the horse does not fear you and believes you will not hurt him. Monty Roberts compares this to the significance in human communication of sharing a meal together. Communicating over a shared meal metaphorically “shows your soft underside and builds an environment of trust.” Horses are vulnerable while eating and will only do so in the presence of those they trust.

The fourth and last gesture of negotiation Monty observes will be the horse dropping his head down low to the ground. According to Monty, this is the horse’s way of saying, “If we could have a meeting to renegotiate, I would let you be the chairman.” When the horse drops his head and trots along bouncing it near the soil, he is asking you to take the lead role and set the agenda for the meeting.

Once Monty has observed this sequence of gestures, he takes his eyes away from the horse, turns slightly away from him and sets his shoulders on a 45-degree angle to the horse’s body. In horse language, this is an invitation for the horse to come up alongside you. Horses will often choose to come up close to you at this point rather than go away. Standing still, Monty waits until the horse approaches and nudges him a little with his nose, an indication that the horse has accepted him. Monty rewards the horse by slowly and gently rubbing him between the eyes for a few seconds. Then he walks away, and the horse follows. Walking away from the horse after briefly rubbing his forehead conveys the message that you are not a predator (after all, predators do not ordinarily walk away from prey animals) and brings more confidence to the horse about your intentions. Horses will often follow the human at this point, but only if the horse has a true desire to be with you. If the horse is reticent about it, this should not be viewed as resistance but as a request for more time to think it over. “At no time should the trainer use force to establish leadership to achieve his or her aims.” Another important message that Monty Roberts asserts in his book is that violence is always for the violator and never for the victim.

Why We Need Join-Up

Humans need to learn and experience Join-Up because predatory and violent behavior is rampant everywhere in our world. It can be found in homes, schools, workplaces, and any organization in which some people have power over others. We need Join-Up because violence is traumatizing and leaves long-lasting damage to our ability to trust ourselves and others, impairing our ability to form effective relationships built on mutual respect. In his book, Monty shares many stories that were told to him by spectators after watching one of his demonstrations. “Men and women, young and old, would line up for hours after a public demonstration to reveal to me how what they had seen reflected their own personal lives, or how they had learned, through my book, The Man Who Listens to Horses, to confront and deal with abuse or violence in their lives.”

Monty Roberts also tells the stories of many horses that were brought to him for remediation. “All the remedial horses that are brought to me are carrying the baggage of physical and emotional abuse, real or perceived. Even after I have worked with them and restored them to a more normal state, the baggage they carry always remains just under the surface for the rest of their lives.” He includes emotional abuse because horses can suffer severe damage from confused messages given to them by trainers who simply did not understand what they were doing. Horses can become confused and anxious from mixed signals that destroy their confidence. Monty describes how he starts his work with a “damaged or remedial” horse by watching the horse’s responses to his body language, which allows him to piece together the kind of abuse or mishandling the horse was subjected to. He begins with Join-Up so he can gain the horse’s trust. “Once you have the horse’s trust you can begin the long road of reschooling, of overlaying his previous experience by giving him positive reward for positive actions.”

As a trauma therapist, I know just how true this is for people who had to survive abuse and neglect in childhood. The effects of abuse are felt by survivors for a very long time and recovery takes patience, trust, respect, and persistence. As I reflect on Monty Roberts’ book and his work as a horse trainer, I see how therapists engaged in the relational treatment of trauma (like we do at Steadfast Center) are helping humans heal from abusive relationships in much the same way that Monty uses Join-Up to establish a healing relationship with a horse. I cannot help but notice that when Monty Roberts describes the journey of Join-Up he is essentially describing good relational therapy:

Join-Up is a tool, like a fine chisel. With it, you can carve a stable environment that enables communication. The tool must be used with skill, which may take years to perfect... It is, though, a procedure that must be precisely followed; there are no shortcuts. Each step is distinct and necessary. Join-Up may bring out conflict and perceived resistance or ambivalence. It is imperative that anyone using Join-Up be totally responsible for his own actions while allowing the other party to be responsible for his... It is therefore response-based, not demand-based. You have to learn to open the doors of opportunity and be confident that Join-Up will work... It heralds an end to isolation by establishing bonding through communication. Join-Up is the result of deep communication in a shared language; it is a bond based on trust and marks the beginning of a fifty-fifty partnership... It is nonviolent, noncoercive and can only be achieved if both partners have willingly entered into the process. Join-Up means stepping into the other person’s world, by observing his or her needs, conditions, rules and by working within his framework and communicating in his language... With humans, as with horses, communication enables Join-Up. Trust keeps the process alive.” (Roberts, 2000, pp. 22-23).

Equine-Facilitated Psychotherapy

I have often wondered what it is about women and horses (or children and horses, for that matter). Why are girls and women so crazy about horses? There seems to be a deep resonance between them. After reading Horse Sense for People and many other books about what humans can learn from horses, I think the answer lies in the shared experience of being preyed upon. Humans are predators but can also be passive, nonviolent, and nonaggressive. This mixture of fight and flight, prey and predator, is almost always present in our human relationships. Women and children identify with the horse because they identify with the experience of being hunted, misunderstood, and forced into submission.

When I was taking riding and horsemanship lessons during my grad school years, it became clear to me that my work as a counseling psychologist was going to involve horses somehow. After earning my doctoral degree, I went on to receive specialized training in equine-facilitated psychotherapy and personal development. I have had the privilege of bringing clients out to the barn to interact with horses and experience the Join-Up process with a horse. It is a sacred experience, one that often moves me to tears.

The adult survivors of childhood trauma who participate in equine-facilitated therapy sessions are impacted by what they experience in the round pen with a horse on a level that is hard to reach in a traditional therapy office. Many have expressed that they feel more comfortable and safe interacting with horses than they do with humans given the hurt that other humans have inflicted upon them in the past. Survivors of childhood abuse and neglect often suffer with toxic shame and self-doubt, uncertain of their worth, value, and influence on others. So many of the women I have worked with believe that the way to get the horse to “like them” is to be sweet, affectionate, and doting, and avoid asking the horse to do anything he seems uncomfortable with. Trauma survivors will often let my horse do whatever she wants or take too many liberties with their personal space. When this happens, it tells me that the client is probably not used to having her boundaries respected. She has probably been criticized, guilt-tripped, manipulated, and/or ignored when she attempted to say “no.” My clients are shocked and transformed when they learn the Join-Up method and discover that there is a way to establish a relationship based on mutual trust and respect that does not require “fawning.” They are astounded by the fact that a 1,000-pound animal chooses to follow them around, even after they have set a boundary and asked the horse to back up, move away, or stop before entering their personal space. In fact, the horse seems even more tuned in to them after they have shown respect for the horse’s boundaries AND demanded the same respect in return. This is a tremendously healing experience for abuse survivors, as it may be one of the first tangible experiences of nonviolent, nonaggressive, nonpredatory power they have ever had.

I am very excited that equine-facilitated psychotherapy is now one of the services we are offering at Steadfast Center. I know that the horses have much more to teach me, and that their big hearts are open and waiting for the opportunity to bring healing and peace to more people. Perhaps I will see you at the barn!

Reference: Roberts, Monty. Horse Sense for People. New York, NY: Penguin Books, 2000.