Do horses help heal people? We hear of stories and know there are programs which focus on using horses to heal people emotionally, but how many of us have witnessed the process in action? I had the privilege of watching the Join-Up® portion of a recent Horse Sense & Healing weekend at Flag Is Up Farms, the home of Monty Roberts in Solvang, CA.
Horses Help Heal People – Beginning the Path for Veterans and First-Responders
Eight individuals, who as first-responders or veterans have experienced trauma, came for a weekend of interacting with horses to learn about themselves. Seven of the eight individuals had never even touched a horse before coming to Flag Is Up Farms and taking part in the Horse Sense & Healing program offered by Monty Roberts. The primary focus is to get the participants to relax and enjoy the session in order to help them come through the trauma they have experienced. Horses and the Join-Up sessions were the tools provided.
Join-Up with Horse Sense & Healing – Getting a Join-Up Session Started
Participants were instructed beforehand what they were to do with the horse once in the round pen. They were handed a horse outfitted in a halter and lunge line to lead into the center. After a bit of coaching, they took the horse to face the wall then unhooked the lunge line and stepped away from the horse.
Master Instructor Miguel Lupiano oversaw each session and coached participants through the experience. The horses they were using had been through the gentling process – some only weeks prior.
The participant’s first action was to send the horse away from themselves, watching to stay out of the kick-zone, and continue to send the horse along the rail.
This was the first test of assertiveness and confidence along with body placement to send the horse forward with pressure. Each horse tuned into his new handler for instruction and leadership. If the handler was not clear, or tense or had his or her body poorly placed, the horse did not know what to do. In that case, Miguel coached them towards success.
The Four Signs of Join-Up
The goal was to get the horse trotting along the rail then do a switch of direction and continue trotting in the other direction. All the while the participant is watching for the signs that the horse is ready for Join-Up. It takes patience, attention, trust and awareness to find the right moment to ask for Join-Up with these signs from the horse:
- Inside ear is turned to handler
- Pace is slowing and circle is getting smaller (horse is coming in towards handler)
- Drops head
- Licking and chewing
Achieving Join-Up is a Magic Moment
When the horse shows all these signs, the participant – with some coaching for the right moment – steps towards the horse then turns away from the horse and walks to the center of the round pen. Join-Up occurs when the horse follows the handler and when the handler stands still, the horse continues to come then stops at the handler and reaches out with its nose. It’s a magic moment.
Nearly all the participants achieved Join-Up® the first time they asked. A few had to return to sending the horse and find a moment again. Every participant did achieve Join-Up. Only seven of the eight participants had ever touched a horse before participating in Horse Sense & Healing. Once Join-Up occurred the participant rewarded the horse.
After Join-Up, the Next Step Towards Healing – Taking a Leadership Role
The next step towards healing was taken after Join-Up. The goal is for the handler to turn the horse without the aid of a lead rope or lunge line each direction. Once comfortable, the horse was unhooked and free. The handler positioned themselves next to the horse’s head and with confidence and purpose walked the horse in a circle both directions.
Here the participant’s leadership and confidence was tested and strengthened. If the horse did not follow and turn, or stopped midway, the participant had to re-evaluate how he or she was communicating with the horse, and work through tenseness and lack of confidence. Each one experienced first-hand how they impact the communication with the horse.
Debriefing: Lessons in Achieving Join-Up Leading to Emotional Healing
The biggest key for all participants was to relax and enjoy the time with the horse. When they stopped trying to control everything and listen to how the horse was responding, Join-Up happened. Communication with a prey animal happened. The horse placed trust in the handler.
Dealing with Situations Outside of Our Control
Life happens and we must learn to relax and go with events which are unplanned. Two unplanned situations turned up in the Join-Up sessions. The first one was having the overhead arena sprinklers come on while a horse was being sent around the pen. The handler stayed relaxed through the event so the horse did too.
The second was a horse who was really missing her barn mates. She was a bit frantic with whinnying and her head high trying to get a glimpse of her buddies on the other side of the arena. With the help of some coaching, the handler was able to get the horse to relax and focus on the session and achieve Join-Up.
A few times the handler had to overcome a horse not responding well to his or her communication. This forced the participant to look within him/herself for how he/she was contributing to the broken communication.
Debriefing – Horses Help Heal People
Following the Join-Up sessions the group pulled together with the volunteers, organizers, instructors plus Monty and his daughter Debbie and talked through the lessons learned through the Join-Up process. Questions were asked to get dialog and sharing going.
“Horses are big!” exclaimed Danny before his Join-Up session. Yet overcoming the size, relaxing and learning to lead the horse, resulted in the practical experience of what patience and the right communication produces.
Many of these participants have been so trained in doing their jobs their muscle memory of not making a mistake kicks in and causes tension, breaking the communication with the horse. In order to get the horse to respond they had to relax and cut loose, which is part of their healing transition into a successful civilian life. Join-Up is a practical and tactical experience which demonstrates how to get others to come into their lives.
Miguel, the lead instructor, says, “This is all about showing them how to help someone else. When you try to help someone, that’s a good thing.”
One participant reflected during the debriefing session, “I felt something today for the first time in a long time.”
Horses help heal people and are truly a specific and incredible tool for helping emotionally heal those who have trauma to work through. The Horse Sense & Healing program is held several times a year at Flag Is Up Farms in Solvang, CA. Participants are sponsored through individuals and local organizations such as Join-Up International, The Wood-Claeyssens Foundation, the Santa Barbara Foundation and Restoration Oaks. Patriot Outreach sponsors the travel costs of some individuals, so there is no cost to the participant.
Photo Credit: Sharon Jantzen Photos
A big thank you to the participants plus Monty Roberts and crew at Flag Is up Farms for providing this experience for these participants.
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