Horses: a Bridge to Healing?

By Shawn Rodrigues - 04/04/2023


The road to healing can be long and winding with many obstacles. Sometimes we need a bridge…

It was a warm March afternoon as I stood with a father as we watched his children greet the horses in my arena. After a few months of sessions the boys invited him to attend an equine-assisted psychotherapy session with us. The father commented on how helpful our work had been in helping his children find their voice, develop the ability to pause, set respectful boundaries, and find a safe place to share their pain and fears.

I encouraged him to join his sons in the arena as they said hello to the horses. He replied that he was here because the children had asked him to come and he really did not think we could be of much help to him – therapy had not been helpful to him in the past. He went on to share that he had tried everything the VA could offer him since he returned from Vietnam decades earlier. I nodded and invited him to consider that it might be fun to brush a horse with his boys without any expectations or pressure. I encouraged him to simply “be” with his sons and the horses. He stood his ground at the fence.

I stepped into the arena and our session unfolded. Dad was attentive throughout yet did not step in, despite several invitations from his sons. The session ended, we spoke briefly, he was patient and his voice soft as his boys buckled their seatbelts. I did not expect to see him again. His presence told me that something shifted. His breath was deep and slow and eye contact minimal as he left. The wheels in his mind were clearly turning.

The following week I expected the boy’s mother to bring them to their session. Nope, here was Dad again… and again… and again. The next three weeks he shared various unsolicited feeble excuses about why he was bringing them to session instead of Mom. Each week he stood at the gate. Each week we gently invited him in. Each week he stood his ground and did not enter the arena. Until the fifth session. Our biggest horse, standing 17 hands (68”) stared at him from across the arena. As the father stood at the fence, the large paint draft horse approached him. The horse walked across the arena with intent. Suddenly this big man appeared small as he stood face to face with the big horse who stopped just a few feet in front of him. The boys had created an obstacle course and were leading horses around the arena and through the course. Over and over they navigated the course as children will do. The big paint horse remained as still as a statue as did the big man. The boys finished their activity. I signaled to the equine specialist and pointed to the far gate. The equine specialist guided the boys to get a snack, water, and look for the eggs that our hens elusively hide from us on a daily basis. Dad and horse remained still at the gate.

As the boys left the arena, the father’s posture melted. His 6’4 frame draped over the fence as if for the first time in decades he was allowed to relax his body. He hung there for several minutes. The horse remained still. When he stood and looked at me I saw in his eyes the 18 year old boy who was sent to war. His voice sounded very young as he turned and asked “do you think this one would walk the course with me?” I put a halter on the big horse and they walked the course together over and over, just as his children had. The horse matched the rhythm of the man’s footfall. He then asked me to join him. We walked in silence around and around the arena, outside of the course his boys had built. He began telling me a story about the war. Tears fell as we walked and talked. It was a story off loss, regret, fear, shame, and blame. As he finished telling the story he sighed deeply, as did the horse. We walked again in silence for several ‘rounds of the arena. He then took the halter off of the horse and began picking up the obstacle course. This seemed important and I did not stop him to tell him he did not have to clean up. The horse followed him as he stacked cones, rolled barrels, and piled the poles that his boys had used to create the course. When he finished he looked at me and shared that he had never told a single person that story. He had carried the burden all of these years. “Who knew a horse would lighten the load and help me share it with a person?” He then met his children at the minivan and off they went.

We did not speak of this for a while.  We closed our work with his children a few months later. At this closing session he asked to again talk with this horse. After spending a few minutes with his horse he shared with me that although he did not understand what had happened, he was grateful for the space and time that we gave him to lean on the fence and be still. He shared that the obstacle course became the theatre for the story in Vietnam and the horse became his higher power – unwavering, omnipresent, and forgiving. He walked the course over and over trying to find a different way than what had transpired. He eventually determined that he had done the best he could in a horrible situation. He shared the story with the horse and then with me. Neither of us left him or judged him. From here he was able to step into therapy with new eyes and begin to truly heal. This was the first step towards true healing.

That was 12 years ago. The boys are grown, the family moved from Arizona to California, and that big horse has passed. I received an “accidental” text a few months ago from his wife. We reconnected to catch up. She shared that she was not sure of the details of that day but she knows that the walk with that big horse set in motion events that changed their lives. Her husband was finally able to heal from the invisible wounds of war and they came to know each other in a way that she never thought possible.

A few years ago you may have read a blog that I wrote about pressure – horses respond and learn by the release, not the application of pressure – so do we. In this case we provided the safe space, removed all pressure and waited.

The welcome that our troops received when returning from Vietnam was far less than welcoming. If you come across a veteran or service member, no matter how old or young, look them in the eyes and take a moment to thank them for their service. It is the least we can do for the freedom we enjoy.

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