Locals look to horses for insights on inner life
Tucked away off a gravel road just south of
the Polk County border, a team of seven horses is doing a new kind of work.
Rather than carrying riders or hauling equipment, these animals are helping
people break through psychological and emotional barriers in a relatively new
practice known as equine-assisted therapy.
It’s an experiential type of therapy in which the horse is an active participant, explains therapist Lindsay Hildreth.
“It’s not talk therapy with horses present,” she says. “The horse is a co-therapist.”
Though Hildreth has an office-based practice, she is also certified through the Equine Assisted Growth and Learning Association (EAGALA) to work with clients in the pasture. She does so with the help of two EAGALA-certified equine specialists, Laurie and Steve Burgess, and their horses at the Yellow Rose Farm in Somerset.
The crew at Yellow Rose Farm works with groups and individuals for anything from team building to trauma counseling. They have programs designed to help people transition through marriage, divorce or career changes, and also offer counseling for depression, anxiety and active or veteran military personnel.
The horses have helped clients at the Yellow Rose Farm move through grief, adjust to divorce and learn to meld parenting styles. Typically, this is accomplished using the horses as part of a metaphorical exercise — they might represent people or emotions in a client’s life.
In one case Laurie Burgess recounts, an adult with lingering issues from a childhood trauma was referred to Yellow Rose Farm for six sessions. After establishing that she was holding onto sadness associated the trauma, Hildreth and the Burgesses asked her to find a horse that represented “Sad” and bring it back to them.
She picked out the horse, but when she tried to lead it back it wouldn’t budge. She tried again and again, to no avail. By the end of the fourth session, she still hadn’t moved Sad.
During the fifth session, exasperated, she threw her hands up and declared that the task could not be accomplished.
“Do you really want to move Sad?” Hildreth asked.
Their client’s face lit with understanding as she made the connection between the horse and her inner world.
“I don’t know,” she answered. “It’s been with me and protected me for so long.”
After talking through the issue some more, she said she thought she might be ready to let go. She thanked her sadness for the ways it had served her, then walked out into the pasture.
Almost unbelievably, Sad finally walked with her. The horse came three-quarters of the way back to the Yellow Rose Farm team, then stopped.
“It’s that kind of thing you can’t explain,” says Laurie.
“We’ve had people ask how we train the horses to do that,” says Steve.
But they don’t have to.
“It’s simple and complex,” Steve explains. “The horse is a prey animal, so it has to be 100 percent in the moment, 100 percent of the time. Because of that they have the ability to know what’s going on inside of us.”
“We live in our heads so much of the time,” adds Laurie. “The horses help us connect our head and heart.”
As equine specialists, the Burgesses are trained to spot horse behaviors that are out of the ordinary, which they bring up to clients as part of the processing element of the session. A client can ascribe meaning to those behaviors, or not.
“Horses don’t judge, blame, shame or hold a grudge,” says Laurie, “so it’s a safe place to explore emotions and new ways of being and doing.”
The sessions are typically limited in number and always solution focused.
“Our society is problem focused,” says Hildreth. “This is a solution-oriented approach.”
Many clients are referred to Yellow Rose Farm by office-based therapists who feel they are stuck and need a fresh approach.
“Things happen much more quickly in the pasture,” says Steve. “This work goes really deep really fast.”
According to Hildreth and the Burgesses, the solution can often be found within the struggle.
“People are used to being told what to do and what to expect,” says Laurie. “We hold the space for people to find their own solution.”