Horse Knows Best

05/01/2022
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    Abby Glenn pets the nose of Cash, a therapy horse, at the Griffith Ranch in Klamath Falls, Oregon. (Brittany Hosea-Small/The Herald and News via AP)
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    Sue Molloy says there’s a special relationship between horses and humans. (Handout)
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    Horses run in the 2016 Belmont Stakes race in Elmont, New York. (AP/Julio Cortez)
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    Long ago, someone said, “There’s something about the outside of a horse that’s good for the inside of a man.” People who work with therapy horses, like Mary Poupon, believe that’s true. (Handout)
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    Wild horses gallop near the U.S. Army’s Dugway Proving Ground, Utah. Horses stick together and stay alert for threats. (AP/Rick Bowmer)
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And they’re off! But not to the races. These retired racehorses have an exciting new role—that doesn’t involve being let out to pasture. A new medical development involves retraining racehorses to be therapy horses. 

Most racehorses retire from competition after only three or four years. Sue Molloy works at the National Horse Racing Museum in England. “Racehorses . . . really don’t want to be just standing around in fields for the next 20, 30 years. And they’re so versatile. I really believe there’s a job for 99 percent of them.”

It turns out that the retired animals are particularly well-suited to serve in a redemptive way: They can help people heal from mental and emotional pain.

In 2013, Mary Poupon entered an arena with horses to train in horse therapy. Poupon is a psychiatric nurse practitioner. She was skeptical at the time. How could horses help her patients with their mental health?

She felt a push at the back of her head. “I looked up and standing above me was a 1,200-pound horse . . . about six feet tall, looking into my eyes. At that moment, I felt that he could feel that I had an attitude.”

Poupon learned that horses have an ability to tune in to people and their feelings. Coyotes, mountain lions, wolves, and bears prey on wild horses. Equines have learned to be on high alert for any threat.

A horse that feels afraid will react with a “fight or flight” response. It wants to defend itself or flee. Horses that can’t run from what scares them will often bite or kick.

People can act the same when they are anxious. They might retreat or shut down. (That’s “flight” mode.) Frightened people also can resort to anger, lashing out with words or actions. (That’s “fight” mode.)

Horses are not meant to be solitary animals. They stay in herds for support and safety. In the same way, people thrive in relationships with family and friends.   

Because people have these characteristics in common with horses, a therapy horse is ideal for helping people regulate anxiety. Veterans and others who have been through trauma, people with disabilities, and those wrestling with mental health challenges all can benefit.   

In horse therapy, patients mostly feed, clean, and walk beside horses. Therapists and equine experts watch how patients and animals respond to each other.

Therapy horses mirror what people feel. A patient who wants to win the trust of a horse learns to be calm and relaxed—so the horse will be too. Just brushing a horse has proven to calm people’s bodies. Everybody wins!

Why? God has ordained that His creation is not only beautiful, but also has the capacity to help people recover from traumatic experiences.