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How Can a Horse Really Matter?

Dr. Paul Tontz, an academic counselor for the Vets2BSN program, had the opportunity to take part in the Heart of Horsemanship (HOH) Workshop this past weekend.  Below is his experience.


"This past warm, sunny weekend for Armed Forces Day, I had the opportunity to participate in a one day Heart of Horsemanship (HOH) workshop presented by Drs. Ellen Kaye Gehrke and Michael Myers and Mr. Tom Gunter at the Rolling Horse Ranch in Ramona.  The Heart of Horsemanship is an 8-week program offered to veterans as a complementary approach to treating symptoms associated with Post Traumatic Stress.  It is a form of equine therapy where one has a chance to improve confidence, self-esteem, and reduce anxiety while learning to ride and connect to horses in the western tradition.  Past participants have reported a positive well-being, reduction of stress and anxiety, and emotional regulation as a result of participation.  Admittedly as a therapist in training learning more traditional means for therapeutic invention, I was skeptical.  I believed the day to include some fun with horses and meeting a few new veteran friends. However, what I gained from my participation was a sense of joy, peace, and renewed mindfulness.

The day opened sharing in a small group setting with about six other veterans, many impacted by post-traumatic stress.  After our personal introductions and learning about the purpose of the program, Dr. Gehrke facilitated a discussion on connectedness and being mindful through a series of partner communication and energy exercises.  These would prepare us for our meeting with our “teammates” for the day, the horses.  Each participant had the opportunity to meet each horse and make a connection. As with humans, we learned that horses are sensitive to one’s personal energy. After all as humans you wouldn’t approach just anyone and reach out to give them a hug.  The horses in short, choose to work with us, not the other way around and each participant discovered a teammate for the day.

I entered the day with a sense of fear and anxiety having never been exposed to a horse before and honestly the thought of approaching an animal that could easily hurt me if it wanted to, was terrifying. I gently approached my tethered horse and felt a sense of peace as I began to brush his hair and groom him.  All of the fear and anxiety I had felt withered away quickly as I chose to mindfully and consciously make myself vulnerable and to just “let go”.  An amazing sense of peace and joy overcame me as I felt connected to this hot-blooded horse named Storm.

The workshop continued with more exercises connecting with our horse, including what is known as the “round pen”.  In this exercise participants are eased into a one-on-one connection in which the horse is removed from its lead and asked to demonstrate the confidence in leading the horse in a circular motion around the pen.  Abandoning my fear, I felt a sense of confidence and reassurance when I turned my back and found the horse came to me on its own free will, demonstrating I had made a real connection.  In this moment I was again filled with joy and overwhelming happiness.

The day completed with another trust exercise as the horse and participant walked through a modified obstacle course and Dr. Gehkre and Dr. Myers asked members to share and reflect on the day.  I was incredibly humbled and connected with not only my horse, but also the other participants in the workshop in a very short time.  I was amazed at how much joy and peace I felt leaving that day.  I was a skeptical in believing that interacting with a horse could make me feel this way.  But, I am now a believer in the utility of this therapeutic intervention.  And while I am unsure what it was specifically about the day that created such a positive change, I plan to add this approach to my tool kit in the work I do with military and veteran populations.  The HOH program is incredibly moving, powerful, and I highly recommend it." 


What an awesome way to spend the weekend.  For more information on the Vets2BSN program or the Heart of Horsemanship Program, click on the links at the top of the post!

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