I’m sure you’ve met people who’ve been told by their therapist that a pet could help them through a difficult situation of trauma, grief, depression, anxiety, etc. And suddenly you run into that person on the street walking a dog, with a tenderness and sensitivity you never would have expected.
Dogs are probably the most familiar therapy animal, but they’re not the only four-legged creature that can help humans to heal psychologically, emotionally, and even physically.
In a recent article, we highlighted the example of a horse that visits the sick and brings them comfort. In fact, horses are often listed as among the most common therapy animals.
Why is this? Why are horses good at helping humans in distress?
To answer this question, we talked to Enrique Zunzunegui, one of those people who knows how to read the looks and gestures of horses and who, besides being a horse trainer, specializes in equine therapy for human beings.
Horses don’t judge you
The first few words he tells us already reveal much of the secret: “Horses don’t judge you, they don’t label you. Every day, every moment you start from zero. They don’t categorize you, they simply act according to how you’re behaving with them.”
When he talks to me about this, I can’t help remembering how St. Josemaría Escriva spoke about “beginning and beginning again.” You start with a blank canvas every time you approach a horse.
That’s something our society often denies our young and not-so-young people. We forget that one mistake cannot characterize, define, catalog, or represent the rest of our lives. Horses naturally are free of this prejudice, and don’t fill their memory with a list of grievances.
They remind us of God’s attitude toward us: Every time we approach them, we start from scratch; we open a blank page.
Connecting with nature
Enrique explains that horses bring us back into connection with nature, bring us back to our origin. This translates into things such as understanding the importance of having time to listen to people; realizing that it’s not normal to be tired and not be able to sleep at night, and that stress cannot be our natural state; and savoring the experience of sharing time and space (even in silence) with others matters more than material things.
Adventure, he tells us, is another healing element. It’s an incredible lever for getting you out of a rut.
A powerful medicine that comes from dealing with horses is that they’re great seekers of peace; they seek well-being and are great disseminators of that state. Horses manage to give us little doses of peace that calm us down.
That’s why if you don’t behave well, if you’re not at peace, they don’t want to be with you. This is similar to looking in a mirror, because their behavior reflects yours. You learn that, to be at peace with others, you have to be at peace with yourself.
If not, people — like horses — will stay away from you. Horses teach us to establish order and peace in ourselves first so that we can bring that peace to others.
“Horses help and motivate us to rediscover the passion of living … The life we deserve!”
Based on this perspective, Enrique has planned a camp for young people this summer in Seville: a camp where you don’t have to prove anything! The participants don’t go to compete, but just to enjoy and learn from horses, who are great teachers.
I ask him what God’s role is in this project. He answers me with deep peace and firmness that this project is “of, with, by and for God. He works, and I’m an instrument.” He explains to me that they are aware that there are many disorders, cases of depression, etc., that are spiritual battles, so at the camp,
“Whoever needs a friend will have one, whoever needs professional help—a psychologist, coaching—will be covered, and whoever needs a priest will have one right there. Always under that necessary and indispensable condition, one that pleases God and horses so much: freedom.”
Good ingredients for healing, don’t you think?