Photos by Joshua Thaisen.
Horse-assisted therapy at the Otra Mas Horse Rescue in Orange County has helped a young California State University, Long Beach (CSULB) student build confidence and recover from a violent and traumatic childhood. Otra Mas is a non-profit horse rescue that adopts unwanted horses to provide psychotherapy for children and adults recovering from an array of physical and emotional difficulties.
Twenty six year-old Sarah Smith was born into adoption and was sexually abused while attending pre-school at the age of three. Eighteen years of physical, psychological, and sexual abuse followed her into adulthood, where she became a homeless addict by the age of 19. Smith was living out of friend’s cars and public bathrooms around the Long Beach area for several years before Pathways to Independence recovered her from the streets by providing food, healthcare, education and a place to live.
Smith is now five years sober, and is close to graduating from her sociology program at CSULB with a 4.0. Two years ago, Smith was diagnosed with throat cancer, and after a determined battle against the disease, she is now in full remission. She was gifted the therapy treatment with the hope that documenting her experience will help others on their journey to recovery.
Going into therapy Smith was optimistic that the horses could help her address some ongoing issues attached to her self-esteem, confidence and trust in other people.
Horses make great companions for psychotherapy because they can mirror and respond to human behavior by observing the physical and emotional feelings demonstrated by people. Horses are herding animals that rely on their acute senses to make decisions about safety and danger. They have over 300 degrees of vision and can hear the human heartbeat within four feet. When people are introduced to the herd environment for therapy, horses respond within the same spectrum of physical and emotional responses that govern their own behavior, allowing therapists an insight into the inner psychology of the client.
The Otra Mas program director is Carol Caddes—a horse lover and clinical psychologist with over 20 years of therapy experience. Throughout therapy, the horses are at liberty to respond, un-contained by a bit and spurs. Caddes believes that “you get more of an authentic response by giving the horse more freedom."
In the first session, Caddes eased Smith into the program with a sensory exercise with a 20 year-old mare called Madonna. The activity required Smith to leave her comfort zone by feeling her way around the horse with her eyes closed. It is common for people to feel intimidated by the sheer size and power of horses—weighing up to 2000 pounds; horses become poignant metaphors for dealing with intimidating life circumstances.
“I was a little skeptical at first and I found the horses to be very intimidating, I didn't know what was going to happen," said Smith. She said the exercise bridged the gap between herself and the horse. "I had no expectations… I made eye contact with Madonna and I felt immediately connected to her."
Smith arrived at the second therapy session feeling a lot more confident and relaxed around the horses. Caddes directed Smith to select a prop and make it symbolic of an aspect of her life. Smith chose a small colorful parachute that signified her confidence in school. Smith laid it down in the middle of the arena and stood next to it, but Madonna wouldn't budge. Instead, a nine-year-old black and white pony named Chips walked over and began investigating the parachute.
The wild pony abruptly bolted to the other end of the arena in a nostril-flared panic, leaving Smith alone with her parachute in the middle of the arena.
“Chips got scared, I don't know what happened, but it reminded me of being a child," she said. "I went over to comfort her and said I will never hurt you.”
When Smith went to comfort Chips, she was struck by an intense surge of emotions and tears began to stream down the side of her face.
“I saw Chips like me as a child, I was crying hysterically, a real deep cry, I felt a sense of protection and sadness," Smith said. "The horse allowed me to feel those feelings, the horse comforted me when I was emotionally vulnerable.”
For some people, equine-assisted psychotherapy has the potential to undercut the language of traditional talk-therapy. Through the use of horses it is possible to re-interpret the sensations, feelings and images attached to trauma, creating an internal freedom where a huge amount of metaphorical learning can be achieved.
“There is an aliveness to the process, and there is an experience in the body," Caddes said. " The body is the place that usually holds trauma because the body is bracing. Because Sarah was in the present with the horse she can re-negotiate the past, so that it is not in her face, and off at a distance, creating an interaction where valuable lessons can be learned.”
On the morning of the third therapy session, Smith divided the arena into three sections that represented her past, present and future. Madonna made herself available once again for Smith's therapy, and after they re-ignited there connection, Madonna companion walked in unison with Smith around the arena without the use of any tools. The moment was very empowering for Smith allowing her to be more free, authentic and confident with herself and others.
“I was in disbelief! I didn't think I could have an emotional connection with a horse… Companion walking felt great, I felt like I made a friend, there was a bond," said Smith. "I walked Madonna over to the space that represented me in the future, I got to touch her and see who I wanted to be, having such a strong animal next to me was symbolic of my future, I felt a sense of accomplishment, I felt comforted and amazed!”
“The emotional bond with the horses allowed for me to really get in touch with how I feel," she said. "There’s no denying, when you’re with a horse there is this emotional bond and connection. Especially if you’ve been hurt— sometimes it’s harder to be around other human beings, but there’s no judgment with a horse.”
Madonna represented Smith's strength, and Chips her innocence, but is was their combined presence in therapy that allowed Smith to realize that her past does not have to rule her future. During therapy Smith explained that walking through her childhood with the horses forced her to put her pain in the past, and helped her identify the person she hopes to become. Smith also noted a considerable improvement in her communication skills and confidence within her difficult relationships as a direct result of this program.
At the conclusion of the last therapy Smith was in complete awe of the horses and their power to heal, unable to continue articulating an experience so beautiful, Smith simply smiled and said, “words are so limiting sometimes.”