When we think about horses, what usually comes to mind is horse riding, the Melbourne Cup, a horse-drawn carriage, maybe even medieval knights. But how often do we think of the horse as a healer?
With the limitations of traditional talk therapy becoming increasingly clear, perhaps it’s time to open ourselves up to more holistic therapeutic approaches.
Pictured: Judy Brightman
Driving to interview Judy Brightman, an Equine Facilitated Learning Specialist based on the northern outskirts of Sydney, I found myself scrutinising a recently-exhumed memory. Having spoken on the phone, I knew that Equine Facilitated Learning brings together horses and people in a safe, supervised space designed to elicit a positive and empowering interaction. I knew of the mounting scientific evidence especially in the case of PTSD, and Judy’s own work from family therapy to complex trauma and personal development. But what had struck me most about our conversation was something she had mentioned about the horses themselves. A horse can sense your anxiety, and if your internal and external selves don’t align.
This had struck somewhat of a dissonant chord with me. As a child, I had rarely received the warm welcome from horses I once felt entitled to. One in particular had shown all signs of extreme distress as my nine-year-old-self approached in awe and fear on my first and only day of equestrian camp. Were they sensing something within me that I wasn’t aware of? And would they sense the same thing today, nearly two decades later?
Pictured: Judy Brightman
Meeting Judy in person, my nerves were soon soothed by her disposition, at once calming and commanding. Sitting on her porch overlooking a row of sprawling orange trees and the field beyond, I asked why she chose to work with horses.
“The thing about horses is that they don’t judge,” she explained. “They don’t care what you look like, what car you drive, your material status, any of that. They just read your energy and intention. Are you safe to be around? Should I be fearful of you? Are you clear about what you’re doing?”
Furtively hoping that when the time came to meet her horses they would read my energy and intention favourably, I instantly reproached myself for being so eager to please. Thankfully, I had little time to linger on the thought as Judy’s shamanic practice and perspective on a horse’s role in society piqued my interest.
“My personal view is that horses are very much here to heal and they are helping us profoundly, now we are becoming more conscious as a planet and species,” she began. “Horses will help us in very different ways, not just in the mechanical ways of the past. We are now working with them very much as horse as muse, horse as healer, horse as shaman essentially.
“I work with horses in a way that is holistic but respectful that each of us has their own input, each has their own value, noone has more value than the other. This equal relationship is really important to shamanic practice.”
Judy’s Equine Facilitated Learning is informed by her shamanic beliefs that everything in nature has the power to heal, and runs in sharp contrast to mainstream approaches emphasising human dominance. Human dominance. My trail of thought pulls me back to that same equestrian camp, as I ask my instructor how they ever know for sure whether a horse wants to be ridden. The silence worries me.
Judy’s expressive tone brings me back to the present. “It was a particular horse who I was privileged to share space with for a long time that started me down this path,” she reveals. “She was a very wise horse who I cared for and rode, and she was the one who opened me to a way of working with horses that is really different.
“Very often through grief is where horses are so very powerful. They simply breathe on you, wrap themselves around you, support you with unconditional love. Nothing is more powerfully healing than unconditional love. That really is their greatest gift to us.”
Pictured: Judy Brightman
Having spent several years as an instructor at Riding for the Disabled, Judy repeatedly witnessed the healing power of horses. From a previously non-verbal teenager uttering their first ever word to tangible and long-lasting increases in mood and concentration, their effects were undeniable.
She now works in a wide range of settings, one of which is alongside psychological professionals in family therapy. Reflecting back on my mixed experiences of talk therapy, I wanted to understand exactly how Equine Facilitated Learning and Equine Facilitated Therapy can bypass the limits of traditional talk therapy.
“For many, they can’t do the talk therapy. They either can’t express the words or they may be non-verbal. So it’s a very different process, but what happens is that we help them get into that place of feeling safe and then start developing some tools to notice when they are getting stressed, or their arousal is going up, to tools to help calm themselves.
“Their experience with a horse might be the first secure attachment they have ever felt. Because there’s no talk and it’s unconditional, and because you’re not relying on people being in their heads, you are getting back into their somatic experiences,” she explains. “We know now that trauma stays trapped in the body, and every therapist knows that they have to use some form of somatic therapy to help move trauma successfully out of the body. Cognitive therapy on it’s own cannot do it for many.”
As my desire to meet her horses escalated, she relayed one particularly powerful story of a young woman with extreme anxiety and complex trauma who found it difficult to communicate. Despite this, she was so interested in horses that she was happy to spend time with Judy during their sessions.
“Over a period of six weeks, we went through various activities starting with meeting and observing the horses, learning about their behaviour and their body language. Reflective grooming, quiet time with her hands on the horse. So helping her feel the horse’s breath and then practicing counting the breaths, watching the belly move up and down trying to synchronise her own. Then we tried to form a connection with the horse. A true connection. A true partnership. So we are working in relationship. Attachment, connection, relationship. It’s all really important in healing. Whatever healing you want to do.
“By the end of a six-week program, the young woman was able to sit still with me in a chair and completely go through a kind of mindful moment breathing with a mini body scan. She was able to initiative conversations, she had learned some competencies with the horses, she became confident with them, she smiled a lot, she felt connection, she was able to understand when she was escalating and to calm herself, and she felt compassion. The three things that I talk about: calmness, connection, compassion."
Pictured: Judy's horse Jaz
As we walked down to horses’ paddock to meet them, I felt the stubborn tightness between my lungs start to intensify. Sweaty palms, slightly blurred vision, an old psych once told me the obvious – this is how you know. But what surprised me was as Judy led me through a body scan and some grounding energetic poses in close proximity to her horses, those feelings started to slightly abate. Respite?
As we slowly approached her first horse, what I intuited matched my memory from equestrian camp. This horse doesn’t feel safe. Was that Judy’s voice or my own? Her second horse, however, let me into his personal space. Judy encouraged me to place my hand on him and try matching my breath to his. I remembered what she had said just minutes before, “...particularly for people who have trauma, we need to get them breathing.”
The horse abruptly turned towards me, and Judy asked me to claim my personal space by taking as much distance as I needed.
“Most people are pretty unclear about their boundaries, physically, mentally and psychologically. And so, with a horse being big and potentially pushing into your space, we can teach people how to keep themselves safe, how to set boundaries. How to say that’s close enough,” she explained.
Relaying these experiences is uncomfortable, as the Melbourne Cup is set to start in only three hours. Whilst I type, it brings me closer to things to things I prefer to keep hidden from the human gaze but that I cannot keep hidden from a horses’. It reminds me of the potential fate awaiting some after today’s race. Today especially, Judy’s words ring true.
“When you look more broadly at what we’ve done to animals in terms of institutionalised torture and factory farms, and how removed we are from the connection with the land, with nature and with animals, we’ve done ourselves a big disservice. It’s interesting that science is now catching up and actually proving much of the wiser spirituality that has actually been known for years.”
To enquire about Judy’s Equine Facilitated Learning programs, please click here.