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Equine-Assisted Learning

“When a person turns to horses for healing, it is because they have identified a need in themselves, a lack, an ailment, a wound. Very often they have tried doctors, psychologists and other forms of therapy and nothing has worked, or maybe horses are their first stop because they feel a connection with animals and nature, or perhaps horses have always been in their blood.” 

Dawn Oakley Smith, The Empowered Herd

When working with horses to assist in therapeutic outcomes, it is important to understand why it is possible for them to support us in unravelling the threads of our lives that have brought us to this point - when we have decided to tune in to the mystery of ourselves. It is also vital that we understand why horses are so adept at this and how we can support them in being fully able to give of themselves in this way. 

Dawn knows that much of the reason her clients reach positive, often remarkable, and life-changing outcomes, is because her horses live naturally, are empowered, and feel secure in their environment. You can read more about The Empowered Herd here.

Every person’s journey is unique when it comes to therapeutic work with horses and, as with many forms of therapy, it can often seem from the outside as if nothing is happening when in fact huge learning and growth is taking place. To give you an idea of what a session can look like, Dawn writes here about her experience with a client called R.

Tai Pan Irish Sports Horse

“R, a man in his 40s with undiagnosed Asperger’s Syndrome, had been born in Beirut.  As a child, he had experienced horrors that resulted in PTSD. His relationship with his mother had not been easy. She openly preferred his younger brother to him. Early on, R received the message that he was not good enough, that he was unlovable and worse he was damaged and damaging.

“Despite all of this, R attended Harvard, moved to England, and created an extremely successful business which, when he first visited Heartshore, he was in the process of selling for millions. He had two sons whom he loved very much and were the reason for his existence, he said. R is a highly sensitive person, as many Aspergic people are. Highly sensitive persons are often inaccurately labelled autistic and are medicated because their abilities, insights and behaviours are so often misunderstood, misinterpreted, and feared. R knew that something was deeply amiss in his life. He was, in his own words, ‘in a great soul darkness’. He had tried many other forms of therapy, but none had been able to shine any light into this darkness or come anywhere close to leading him out of it. Fortunately for R, he had a cousin by marriage who knew about the medicine available from the herd. An ex-student of ours and an addiction counsellor working with horses in Beirut, his cousin recommended that R come to the Heartshore herd.

“R’s presenting symptom was his relationship with his wife. It is interesting to see how he had recreated his relationship with his mother in his own marriage. Perhaps it was his soul’s way of attempting to bring a corrective emotional experience to his relationship with women. To his wife, as it had been with his mother, R was not good enough and he was unlovable.

“What in R’s own behaviour might have been creating this response? No doubt each time R went to his mother for love and affection, he would have been rebuffed. Eventually, R’s false self would have created strategies to keep himself safe from constant rejection. His protective measures would have made him appear cold and distant. He would keep others at bay. Reject first, before I am rejected.


“But all of this was just a story. Too often we inhabit our stories, mistakenly believing that they are what makes us interesting to others and to ourselves. We believe that our stories define who we are. What our minds tell us we believe, and these stories are often far from the truth.

“This is not the case with horses. They do not inhabit their stories. We can make up stories about them, and we can know their personal histories, but that is not where we will find them. And they are not interested in ours. What they are interested in is how we show up in the moment. What our heart rate is saying, our breath and our body-language, how present we are, how far our mind chatter and our emotional reactions to our inner-dialogue take us out of ourselves.

“The first time I met R, he had been driven from London by one of his chauffeurs to meet with me and the horses to make a judgement about whether he felt he could work with me. This also gave me the opportunity to decide whether I could work with him.

“When he arrived, he was in a highly triggered state and was shaking uncontrollably. I thought he would shake himself to pieces! Hypervigilant, he immediately lost himself in the telling of his story - he barely noticed the horses. His eyes were the colour of warm chocolate. I did not expect him to be able to make eye contact, but when he did his gaze felt like the grip of a drowning man.

“The first horse to approach R was Moth. Her appearance told me immediately that the underlying issue was relationship with mother, regardless of what R’s story was or what he would say was the issue. Moth is the horse who always comes forward when mothering is the issue. Moth is a small gypsy cob, black with long shaggy mane and feathers. Moth’s mother died giving birth to her, so Moth was hand-reared.

“As Moth greeted R, I asked him about his relationship with his mother. My question stopped his story in its tracks, and he proceeded to tell me about the verbal abuse he had endured from his mother, the harsh words delivered continuously that stripped him of his confidence and self-worth. Moth revealed to me within the first five minutes of this preliminary visit, what R’s first circle wounding was. R’s relationship with his mother would be the way in to exploring his inner landscape, its mountains and chasms, the smooth ways and the rough.

“Moth offered to come to R in his highly triggered state because she has the confidence that comes from living an empowered life.

She knows her place in the herd and she is secure there. She is not distracted by the anxieties that beset other horses who have had to endure constant human interference and disruption to their natural order. Her lifestyle means that she is confident in who she is, and so she is able to sense and respond to the pulls from the limbic systems of the humans she encounters.


“By understanding the basic needs of the horses, and attempting to meet them, we are ensuring that the horses are given the best chance to be in the right relationship with themselves, with us, and the world.

“R received much in the way of healing from his four-day intensive, both directly from the horses and from our verbal interpretations. In an email some weeks after his visit, he said: “Just a quick note to say that my life has been transformed since the days I spent with you”.

If you would like to talk to Dawn about her therapeutic work and if you would like to meet us and see if it is for you, please get in touch here.

To understand more about why it is important for horses to live an empowered life, here is a piece from Dawn about The Empowered Herd.

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