Powerful Lessons from Horses That Can Help Heal Us

As Seen In the Colorado Lawyer Assistance Program

Like most of us drawn to the practice of law, I have lived my life in service to others.

My passion to make a difference in other people’s lives has, from a positive perspective, led me to experience the thrill that comes from successfully litigating issues on behalf of clients. It has also, however, led me to some harsh realizations about the cost of dedicating my life to a career that depends on your personal strength to flourish.

The Trial and the Turning Point

One day I realized that the “kill” wasn’t fun for me anymore; I got tired of the fight. What I had once perceived to be a full life was no longer fulfilling. If anything, it tended to be thankless. Clients only care if you keep them out of jail. They don’t care about you as a person, or say thank you. Sometimes, they don’t even pay for your professional services. To sum it up, I was heading for professional burnout.

It was around that time of reflection that I experienced a wake-up call that was, for me, life-changing. I was in the middle of a vigorous five-day trial. Like many defense attorneys, I lived for that moment in the courtroom when I was fighting for the underdog and could outsmart the prosecution. This time, however, my personal life impacted my professional performance. My beloved dog and companion, Bella, had been having seizures, and I was emotionally distracted by the situation. On the morning of the last day of the trial, Bella died.

I was devastated. How was I supposed to deliver a stunning closing argument when my thoughts were elsewhere? I tried to appeal to the judge’s sympathies but to no avail. I stumbled through closing arguments in a blur. When I was finished, I was so exhausted that I realized I needed to take time to think about what I really wanted out of my life. Bella’s death was the tipping point for me to take a closer look at my self-care and my work-life balance.

I took the summer off from my practice to play and live life again. I expected rejuvenation, a reawakening that would enable me to rediscover my purpose and passion as an attorney. Yet as the summer came to a close, I realized with a shock that I did not want to return to work. Nonetheless, there were bills to be paid, so I went back to work as originally planned.

It was then that I started to notice symptoms of stress—an elevated heart rate and strain to my voice—that I hadn’t observed in the past. My condition worsened, and I started having severe headaches. My health sapped my strength to the point where I could barely do my job.

For almost three years, I suffered through these apparent “stress” symptoms. I tried everything in hopes of getting well, from doctors and chiropractors to Reiki and changes to my diet. Despite my efforts, I kept getting sicker and sicker—to the point where I was taking several aspirin tablets a day to deal with the pain. One day I hit rock bottom and nearly passed out.

This brought me to a neurologist, who at first assured me that there was nothing wrong.

From Struggle to Redemption

I subsequently found out that I had a brain tumor and had to have emergency surgery. I had two weeks to organize my whole life on a piece of paper, and pray. A few weeks after surgery, I received what I consider a “Christmas miracle:” I did not have cancer, and I could move on with my life.

What was life going to look like moving forward? I had made a promise to myself that life was going to look VERY different if my prayers were answered and I survived the surgery. I knew I had to take care of myself before I could continue helping others. Part of that self-care was spending time with my horses, and that lead me to a startling discovery: Horses can change your life. I noticed that when I spent time with my horses, I felt more centered, grounded, and at peace. The positive change in my health was so strong that I enrolled in an intensive program that taught me how to combine Gestalt Coaching techniques with the wisdom of horses.

During my training, I explored my past, present, and future. I looked deep within, and with the help of a horse, found a reserve of energy and passion that I knew was there but couldn’t ever access. I knew that if I had experienced this kind of stress and pain in my life that other attorneys, judges, law enforcement professionals, and individuals in similar professions were likely going through parallel experiences.

Horses are deeply connected to humankind. Horses have supported our problems, worked alongside us, labored for us, fought beside us in war, and forfeited their lives to nourish our prosperity. The eyes of the horse can see
deep within the soul, and their hearts can reach places that we ourselves do not know how to find.

There are remarkable similarities between horses and people. Like people, horses are social beings whose herd dynamics resemble family dynamics. Studies have shown that horses can lower one’s blood pressure and heart rate, alleviates stress, and reduces anxiety and depression. Working with horses also helps people who struggle with addiction and mental health disorders to develop skills for healthy living.

Here are just a few of the skills that horses can help improve:

Communication Skills

Through working with horses, people recognize their conscious and unconscious patterns of interactions with others. Horses are excellent communicators. By learning to understand horse behavior, people can learn how other people function in the world. They also learn how their behavior impacts others. Exercises as simple as haltering, leading, and grooming teach people how to treat others with respect.

Setting Boundaries

Working with a horse can quickly expose unwanted social behavior patterns. Without using any words, horses are able to make it clear when someone has infringed on their comfort zone. Trying to control or dominate the horse will not work. On the other hand, being detached or passive can make it difficult to lead a horse and will keep the horse from complying with a request. The same premise applies to human relationships.

Recognize Feelings

Many people struggling with addictions, trauma, and mental health issues deal with painful feelings and emotions. They may use drugs or engage in obsessive behaviors in an attempt to dull sadness, anger, fear, or even joy.

One of the first steps to successfully working with horses is learning to identify, engage, and cope with emotions without feeling the need to escape. Equine work is a powerful way to get in touch with one’s feelings and accept them. Horses have an exceptional ability to sense emotions and react accordingly. They are the best lie detectors. They are attracted to energy that is congruent and repelled by energy that is not. If someone is angry, the horse may become obstinate. If someone is feeling anxious, the horse may become skittish. This helps explain why clients tend to mirror calm and open communication.

Trust

Horses are gentle giants. They are also very straightforward in their interactions. They don’t lie, and they don’t judge. It’s healing just to be in their presence. Spending time with a horse can be calming and help a client replace thoughts of unhealthy relationships with better memories. Clients who have experienced physical or emotional trauma can begin to learn that they can feel safe and loved again. When people open themselves up, their ability to build relationships with others begins to grow.

Overcoming Fears

Because of their size, horses can inspire fear. In a safe environment, clients can learn to face their fears and start building confidence. People who are intimidated and nervous will be surprised at how quickly they can overcome those feelings and find comfort by being near a horse. This experience helps people develop the confidence to address other fears and transfer these lessons to other areas in their life.

Conclusion

These are just a few of the lessons horses have taught me. I decided to share my journey so that others in the legal profession realize that there are ways to improve their quality of life. Learning responsibility, patience, humility, and an appreciation for the simple things in life are just a few ways that horses can help people grow. I hope this article motivates others to consider engaging in equine therapy and potentially learn to connect with their innermost selves as I have.

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