I’m standing in a sand indoor riding ring next to Myk, a 17-hand Percheron-Paint cross. Lucy, a Warmblood Thoroughbred Pinto, comes over to check out what we’re doing. Myk pins back her ears, signaling “go away,” and sends Lucy off in the opposite direction.
Myk has become my caretaker — at least for the moment — and she’s wonderfully possessive.
I rub her withers, play with her fuzzy ears, and blow into her nostrils. She blows back at me. I find her itchy spot on her front shoulder, and she turns her head and nuzzles my leg while I’m scratching her.
I’m at Bridle Paths, an equine therapy program at Stone Horse Farm in Leesburg located on a vast acreage of rolling, green pastures with three-board fencing. Many of the horses here are not for riding or showing. Instead, they do therapy work with children and adults who have anxiety and depression, and work with veterans and others who are trauma survivors.
In the ring with me are Beth Ratchford, a licensed clinical social worker, and Katie Fallon, the founder and president of the program. They are guiding me through the process of receiving therapy from a horse, which basically means letting me and the horse do our own respective things until one of us decides we’re finished.
I initially feel a little strange, and I wonder out loud if I should be talking through my feelings with Ratchford, the human therapist, or spilling my guts to this horse. Fallon tells me to just let things be as they are, which is something with which I realize I often have a hard time.
Myk stands next to me for a long time as I pet and sweet-talk her until I think that I’m finished. Then, she walks across the arena and stands in the corner, letting me go on my way.
Later, Ratchford, Fallon, and I take Myk and Lucy to the outdoor ring and talk about the program. The 10 horses who live on the farm range from miniature horses to Clydesdales. The horses were either rescued or donated to Bridle Paths.
“Horses are prey animals, so they’re very attuned to their environment and they’re able to discern intention,” Fallon says, explaining how horses can help people psychologically. “They’re also herd animals, so they have the presence and awareness to be seeking safety.”
In the ring with a client, the horses don’t wear halters and they’re not given any commands by a trainer. If a client says that they’re feeling stuck in a particular area of life, Ratchford might facilitate the session by giving the client physical props to create a visual representation of their area of concern. “If someone builds a situation with pool noodles or some of the other items we keep here, saying, ‘This is how the situation feels for me,’ the horses participate and help the client construct — or deconstruct, as the case may be — their issue.”
“The horses take it where it needs to go,” says Fallon. “Horses use their senses to see the world as it is. We have a filter and see the world as we are. The horses help ground us to our presence in a situation, because people pretend. Horses don’t.”
Some inner burden passed from me to Myk in the arena. I feel better and lighter when I leave, and like I had just done something I realized I had forgotten how to do — be a human being. Stone Horse Farm: 43247 Spinks Ferry Rd., Leesburg
Feature image by Meredith Lindemon
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