French novelist Anatole France once said, “until one has loved an animal a part of one’s soul remains unawakened.”
Whether it’s a dog, a potbellied pig or a horse, it’s no secret animals can help people feel better. However, horses are uniquely qualified for such a role since they can mirror what human body language is telling them and respond to human behavior. Not only that, horses can teach humans self-awareness, healthy boundaries, honest communication, leadership skills, patience, affection and much more, according to Gloria Lybecker, owner of Healing With Horses Sanctuary situated just outside Spokane near Airway Heights.
Lybecker, an equine specialist and certified coach, specializes in equine-facilitated learning, coaching and healing – an emerging field in which horses are partnered with humans for emotional growth, learning and healing. After years of working as a counselor, coach and mediator, Lybecker opened Healing With Horses Sanctuary in 2012.
Equine therapy has been around for decades although the term doesn’t necessarily mean riding a horse. Interacting with the animals can be just as important to healing as riding, Lybecker said.
“The focus is not on riding or horsemanship. The focus is on setting up activities involving horses which will require the individual or group to apply certain skills such as: nonverbal communication, creative thinking and problem-solving, leadership and teamwork skills, confidence and a positive attitude.”
Research has confirmed the effectiveness of equine therapy, showing that it lowers blood pressure and heart rate, alleviates stress and reduces symptoms of anxiety and depression, advocates say. It can also assist those struggling with addictions and mental health disorders such as post-traumatic stress disorder.
Lybecker said her work in this relatively new, emerging field comes together from a number of different disciplines and is “powerfully therapeutic.”
Through a horse’s responses and a counselor’s guidance, people begin to talk about what they see and feel. People can learn to face their fears and build confidence in their ability to overcome challenges, according to equine therapy experts.
“Joining with a horse touches your heart – their gentle and curious nature guides you to access deeper awareness throughout the process,” Lybecker said.
Her life’s work
Growing up near Kearney, Nebraska, Lybecker has been around horses since she was a child. When she was 8 years old, her parents gave her a black Morgan mare she named Beauty. “She was my best friend. I would spend hours with her … riding her bareback. We found new trails and explored being in nature.”
Lybecker continued to spend time around horses for most of her adult lifeas she pursued training as a counselor while raising five children. Her youngest child, now 18, suffered from an endocrine disorder that made him feel as though his body was on fire. His responses could be explosive anger or withdrawal, she said.
“I had gone to a lot of places to help my son get back in his body and be comfortable,” she said. “I wanted to build an environment where my child could thrive. As a counselor, I knew there had to be a way.” Lybecker studied nonviolent communication, personal neurobiology as well as other healing modalities and worked on her own issues that were triggered by her son’s behavior.
“I did my work so that I could heal my own past so that I could stay present with him, especially when it got uncomfortable. That’s what the horses helped me do, and I learned how to stay present,” said Lybecker.
At a recent workshop, Lybecker was accompanied by two equine therapy students – graduates of her coaching program – Sumaya Abahaidar, a Colorado resident who is starting her own healing with horses’ program, and Ruth Crea of Spokane. Before going out to the fields to physically work with the horses, Crea spoke to students about the characteristics of healing with horses.
“We used to think the brain was the most magnetic and most important part of our bodies, but really it’s the heart,” Crea said.
“Compared with a human heart, horses’ hearts are huge. A human heart weighs between 9 to 10.5 ounces,” she told the group, “while a horse’s average heart weighs between 9 to 11 pounds.
“Because of the horse’s heart size, their electromagnetic energy field is enormous,” she added. “And when in a horses’ presence, the human’s nervous system automatically syncs up with the horse. They can sense everything that’s going on in your body – your thoughts, your energy and the other most important amazing thing standing by a horse being in their presence can calm your entire body.”
Abahaidar, who also helped facilitate the workshop, said she met Lybecker when she was an advanced facilitator for a Boulder, Colorado, school for coaching with horses. She and Crea both recently graduated from Lybecker’s Healing Herd Program.
After riding and being around horses her entire life, Abahaidar said she decided to make equine coaching her life’s work two years ago. She plans to open her own equine healing program in Colorado.
“Working with horses has helped me learn to be in the present moment, develop awareness of my inner landscape (thoughts and emotions), to develop sensitivity to other living beings and to my environment,” Abahaidar said. “It’s given me emotional agility, patience and compassion for others, clear communication skills, confidence, and a softness and clarity in my leadership (style).”
Abahaidar has worked with a number of people who all have had different reasons for wanting to receive equine-guided coaching – those who are dealing with anxiety and stress, relationship difficulties, parenting challenges, those dealing with big decisions or life transitions and those needing support while grieving.
“I’ve seen people come away from the work with a lightness and hope that comes from being in the presence of horses and also from being deeply listened to and supported (by both horses and human coach),” she said. “Horses give people a model for how to more gracefully navigate life, so people often walk away with a clear picture of what it might look and feel like to let go of the thought patterns that cause emotional suffering, or what it might feel like to flow with life’s ups and downs with more presence, more resilience.”
Meeting the horses
At the recent workshop, participants were led through exercises to become familiar with Lybecker’s herd of horses and their personalities. She urged participants to consistently remain grounded in their own bodies (with the help of facilitators) and then to identify feelings and responses precipitated by the horse.
“Horses unsurprisingly respond positively to humans who learn to balance their stress levels at equine-facilitated learning workshops – especially when the experience is combined with mindfulness-based, body-centered practices,” Lybecker said. “As a person learns to pay attention to their body’s wisdom, noticing sensations and emotions as they come and go, they can increase their body’s capacity for healing exponentially.”
Sabrina Godner, today a local corporate wellness coach, had not been around horses when she had a traumatic experience horseback riding at a summer camp when she was 10 years old. She thought she would never get near a horse again after her first experience but decided after hearing about Healing Horses Sanctuary that she wanted to take a workshop.
“It was really powerful to be introduced to horses again when we entered the arena,” Godner said. “It was a really a neat experience to gain an appreciation of the animal that had been terrifying before.”
Godner said after listening to several friends in the area who had “a great love for their horses,” she decided to take a second look and try to deal with her fear of horses.
The horses reacted differently to each participant in Godner’s group. “They could sense those of us who were feeling comfortable and those who weren’t,” she added. “It was interesting to experience in my body what it was like to have this really large animal come toward me, but I knew Gloria and trusted that nothing bad would happen to me..”
As the equine coaching session ended, Godner said she found herself responding positively to the animals. As her fear subsided, she said she noticed things she’d never experienced before. “It was a really neat experience to notice the beauty of their manes, and appreciate their long eyelashes, and how rough the horse’s tongues were. … Overall, it was a really powerful time of appreciation as I was looking at these animals, really, for the first time. I hadn’t seen a horse in that way before.”
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