For quite some months, Tiffany Ashenfelter invited, encouraged and nearly insisted I come to the ranch and learn more about her work doing equine therapy. Though I love animals, and have two cats and a dog at home, I had never been around horses and my eagerness to take her up on this offer was minimal. I kept finding excuses, primarily that I was in my mid-30s and since I hadn’t been near a horse yet, I thought I was past my prime. Simply put, I wasn’t too interested. Even amid hearing the amazing work our shared clients were achieving in equine therapy, I was just fine supporting without first hand experience.
After delaying the inevitable and turning down my talented colleague in the past, my husband and I finally agreed to help Tiffany and her husband Michael with some equine therapy promo material. We arrived on a lovely Saturday evening. I was fully intending on being the helpful coworker who would lend a hand for some photos, but not really engaging in any sort of “real” equine therapy. As we greeted others and began to discuss the evening plans, the idea of having the Ashenfelter’s and their equine team walk us through the typical therapeutic activities was brought up. Everyone agreed this was a grand idea.
I wasn’t so sure because I didn’t really want to do equine therapy.
I didn’t need to build a relationship with my horse. All I was aiming for was keeping my boots clean, my arms looking slender, and my hair photo-worthy amid the Texas humidity. But, approach and bridle a horse. Walk with him or her. Get the horse to trust you. This all sounded a little intimidating and not quite what I had agreed to.
After acknowledging I was a bit anxious and discussing with the other attendees my lack of any sort of history with horses, I was attended to by the team. I was reassured and immediately felt at ease that they were for me and my success and ready to help empower me in the equine therapy work. Soon, we were assigned a horse to approach and connect with. I was given the smallest little guy, Jessie, and I was perfectly happy with it. “It’s just a big dog,” I repeatedly told myself.
I entered Jessie’s space and he allowed me to bridle him before I led him as directed by the therapy team. I spent time petting his mane and back, learning about how his response to me was reflective of my own experience. Jessie and I worked together, alongside my husband and his horse in an easy and comfortable manner. We bonded more than I ever imagined I could with an animal in such a short time. I was surprised at how I felt connected to and protective of “my” horse when we were asked to change horses and work with a new therapeutic equine partner.
As I reflected on why equine therapy went from something I was uninterested in to something I found calming, connecting and insightful, I thought of the relationship with the horse. I went into the experience somewhat anxious and hesitant, and yet while acknowledging those feelings, I acted on my value for relationship. I recognized that amid my uncomfortable feelings, I calmly welcomed the relationship, because it was just that, a relationship.
My equine therapy experience reminded me I could connect based on the way that I chose to show up, not how my fears enticed me to avoid. The horses were open to me if I was willing to approach them in a safe and unassuming manner. The work provided insights into my personal agency in interactions, awareness of how my feelings sometimes lie to me, and personal satisfaction from acting on my values. And the best is that I was with my husband and all this could easily translate into our marriage relationship.
I would have never guessed all this could come from a few hours with a horse and team of wonderful folks guiding our work together. Equine therapy and working with the Ashenfelter’s was a gift to me as both a colleague and clinician. If you are at all interested in how this work might help you or a client you have, especially if you work with couples, I can’t recommend it enough.
Written by Lindsay Williams, MA, LPC.
Lindsay Williams is an individual therapist for adolescents and adults at Restoration Counseling in Dallas. By encouraging value driven actions within a safe and confidential relationship, her clients gain self worth and personal empowerment.
Lindsay uses DBT skills and practices alongside professional experience with complex family systems, substance use, depression, anxiety, and divorce.