Trotting Through Trauma

Brett A. Reyes , Drake University

Skepticism and fear accompanied me during my first visit to Wildwood Hills Ranch for equine therapy. Expectations of another failed attempt to heal myself created a wall between client and counselor. In my mind, any treatment conducted outside of a cozy office building was nothing more than witchcraft. Taking pills and going to counseling had become a routine that I engaged in to keep people from worrying about me. The lunacy of thinking I could successfully fake my emotions with a horse like I did with past counselors is humorous to me now. Those horses felt my pain the moment I stepped foot on Wildwood Hills Ranch.

Medication and traditional therapy have offered me little hope over the past decade. Two combat tours in Iraq left me riddled with various physical and mental disabilities that only intensified the longer I put off treatment. Anxiety would later turn into panic and suicide ideation would eventually partner with my depression. At its best, traditional counseling talked me off the ledge while medication helped numb the pain. However, simply not wanting to kill yourself anymore does not equate itself to a full recovery. A foundation of healthy coping techniques was never established, and damage control had engulfed my life. Progress becomes nearly impossible when you’re constantly struggling to breathe.

A casual walk through of how equine therapy works is how I envisioned my first session. That idea was quickly disrupted the moment I was given a rope to catch a horse. My nervous system immediately went into overdrive, which was uncomfortable, but not far off from my usual level of anxiety. No instructions or guidance were given to me as to how the halter should be properly placed on the horse, even after asking a couple times. It was a part of the process, but still provoked me to start looking for my nearest exit, which had become a crucial part of my action plan to combat ongoing panic attacks. Eventually, I would come to the conclusion that no detailed instructions would be given to me before catching the horse.

My approach to walking up to the horse was done so in tip-toe fashion. Being completely oblivious to how I was going to catch the horse caused my body to stiffen up. It was as if I was learning to walk for the first time. Somehow, I was able to drag my body and all its anxiety over to the horse. It wasn’t long after that the horse ran away from me and I was left feeling rejected with a pile of horse feces underneath my feet. In hindsight, the horse had every right to be scared of a panic-stricken human coming towards it with a rope in its hand.

The rope, which I later learned was a halter, eventually found its way around the horse’s neck. This simple task became the first of several lessons I would learn over the next few months. The sense of accomplishment did not come from putting a rope around a horse, but rather the completion of a task that caused me anxiety. Normally I would run or resist once fear started to settle in. This was the first of several victories I would experience during my time at Wildwood Hills Ranch.

The habit of always having to be told what to do and how to do it saturated my life more than I realized at the time. The Marine Corps does not promote a lot of freethinking within its ranks, and rightfully so. They were training me for war, which does not allow for a lot of time to ask questions. The VA picked up where the Marines left off by telling me what pills I should take. They seemed to have a pharmacological solution to every symptom I presented them with. Anti-depressants and benzodiazepines quickly became my answer to every negative emotion that sprung itself at me. This pattern of behavior went on for many years and is part of what made me come to doubt any type of treatment that didn’t involve a pill.

Catching a horse during my first lesson gave me a sense of accomplishment that a pill could never provide me. The halter was not put on correctly, but that did not matter. It was the confidence that I gained from standing up to my fear that compelled me to push forward with the rest of the lesson even after being rejected by a horse. It’s the enormous amount of insight I’ve gained from such simple tasks with the horse that continues to amaze me. 

The grip I had on the lead rope of the horse for the first time was similar to how a millennial holds up their participation trophy. In the moment, the horse was a prize I wasn’t sure I deserved nor knew what to do with. My confusion during the first part of that lesson was thankfully greeted with a second set of instructions that I was impatiently waiting for. Walking the horse would become my next anxiety provoking task of the session.

Now this is harder than it may seem, especially for a person on the verge of a panic attack and preoccupied with the discovery of the nearest safe exit. Walking the horse quickly turned into the horse walking me, which made the horse the managing partner. This is eerily similar to how my trauma treated me. At the time, traumatic experiences had a way of dragging me in unwanted directions throughout life. The feeling of being in charge of my emotions had become unknown to me.

The timid approach I took to walking the horse led it to believe that it was in charge of me. Anxiety towards the horse was now accompanied with embarrassment. It was the embarrassment of the horse walking me around which led to the realization that I had to somehow force myself to become more confident. Otherwise, the horse would continue to lead me around.

The thought of a horse telling me what to do frustrated me, and it was that frustration which ignited my search for confidence. It had to be real confidence though. Faking it would only be dismissed by the horse. But it wasn’t long before I was guiding the horse around the arena in the direction I wanted to go. The roles had become reversed with a little touch of confidence. The real test would be applying this newfound confidence to help overcome the trauma that had manifested itself as the managing partner in my life.

Every little victory built up the confidence I would need to accomplish the next task. Getting the horse to follow you with a rope connecting the both of you does not require high levels of skill. Believing in myself enough to get the horse to walk by my side without using the rope as a crutch is much more difficult. Being panicked did not give the horse a lot of hope that I would lead it in the right direction. Holding my breath and looking at the ground as I walked didn’t help either.

 The way I walked was congruent with the panic I often felt inside. Eyes at the ground, hunched over, and fidgety is my anxiety demonstrating itself in physical form. This was going to need to change if I was going to get the horse to follow me without the lead rope. The horse walked in the opposite direction the first few times the rope was no longer connecting us. This confused me because my eyes were centered straight ahead with my shoulders tucked back with what I felt was confidence. My body language had changed, but inside I had my doubts that the horse would ever follow me without having to guide it with a rope. The doubt is what the horse was picking up on despite my change in posture. The faking was still not going to work.

It was not comfortable having an animal read my emotions. No words were spoken, but my feelings were still being communicated to the horse. A counselor knowing exactly how you feel during the first few minutes of a session is not a realistic expectation, so I’m sure you can imagine my astonishment that a horse could do this by just being in its presence. Maybe equine therapy was not witchcraft after all.

After a few attempts I got the horse to walk by my side without the rope. Not too bad for a guy who had never touched a horse before I thought. It was my third personal victory within one session, and my skepticism about equine therapy started to transition into curiosity. It was a change of pace from sitting on a cozy couch talking about my feelings. Being able to overcome my debilitating anxiety and self-doubt in order to accomplish different exercises with the horse was shocking to me.

A week later I came back to Wildwood Hills Ranch anxious, but ready to learn more. Being told that I would be riding the horse this session reignited the same levels of panic that I brought with me to the first session. Being challenged is what I needed, but it was disrupting the bubble of comfort I constantly strove to be surrounded by. The counselor encouraging me to take growth over comfort was not received well the first time around. This encouragement was coupled with a purposeful breach of my personal space. Any human getting within a few feet of me set off internal alarms, and the horse was once again greeted with the anxiety monster I so often resembled.

My legs immediately gripped the horse after mounting it and I began to suck in unnecessary amounts of air as I started imagining how my funeral would turn out. Surely this was going to be the day I die. This kind of dramatization is how I frequently approached my daily life. It was my belief that danger and imminent death were around every corner, which helped pump large amounts of adrenaline throughout my body. The delusion that the horse was going to kill me was communicated through the death grip I had on its mane. What I was going to do when the horse started moving was beyond me.

The habit of holding my breath when feeling anxious is nothing new, but the frequency at which I was doing it became apparent while mounted on the horse. Little did I know at the time that this anxiousness was brewing up increasing amounts of energy that the horse could interpret as a cue to go faster. The thought of increasing the speed of the horse terrified me. Learning to decrease the amount of energy I was putting out would be essential to taming the speed of the horse.

The anxiety I often felt throughout my day hurled negative energy everywhere I went. It sent unwanted messages to people, which were similar to what I was communicating to the horse at times. My body was telling the horse to speed up while my mind was trying to figure out where the emergency brake was located on this animal. Controlling my breathing became the only way to slow the horse down during that lesson. Consistently practicing speeding up and slowing down the horse with my energy is part of what has helped shed the mass amounts of panic I once carried around.

Slowing down the speed of the horse using my breath seemed like magic. My body became more relaxed with each breath and I began to feel my legs easing the grip they had around the horse’s body. The horse became more relaxed as my anxiety subsided. This was another victory I could chalk up from equine therapy, but also one that encouraged my counselor to again push me out of my comfort zone. Riding down and up steep ditches became an exercise I would have to accomplish before the end of my second session. The confidence I gained from slowing down the horse quickly faded with the thought of having to ride down a ditch. Thoughts of my funeral quickly popped back into my consciousness.

Riding a horse down and up a ditch seemed like madness, especially for a person who had just started riding a few minutes before. Calculating the steepness of the different sections of the ditch quickly became a top priority. At first, riding the horse down the steepest section of the ditch was not an option for me. The amount of panic I felt riding down the ditch was disproportionate to the task at hand. You would have thought someone was forcing me to drive my car into a molten lava pit. However, the second session ended in yet another victory for me, but only after I nearly passed out from holding my breath too long going down the ditch.

The third session focused on the relationship’s horses have with each other. Interactions between the horses were observed during the beginning of the session. For reflection purposes, about fifteen different horses were allowed to enter the arena where I was standing. It was intimidating, but I had come to the realization that anxiety was going to be a part of my first few sessions. The exercise for the day would be getting a group of horses to jump over an obstacle I had set up.

This session is where I was first introduced to power that the almighty balloon has over horses. Simply attempting to show the horses the balloon caused mass chaos. They ran away from the balloon much like I ran away from the different challenges I faced in my life. Balloons represented danger to horses, and it became a tool I used to get the horses to jump over the barrier I had set up for them. At first, only a few horses found their way over the barrier, while the rest made their way around it. This is where my anxiety turned into determination. The challenge in this session became a goal I wanted to achieve rather than a fear I wanted to run away from.

Fifteen plus horses were jumping over the barrier I set up by the end of that session. A lot of my determination during this exercise was fueled by the counselor telling me that most people don’t get all of the horses over the barrier. As it turns out, my ego still had a little juice left in it. Running and screaming with a balloon towards the horses is a great comparison to how my trauma chased me around on a daily basis. This connection helped put a lot of my negative feelings into perspective.

Getting myself worked up required little effort on my part. It was learning how to release my energy that I struggled with. In the beginning, moving more than a couple miles per hour on a horse horrified me. Allowing myself to relax and release energy acted as the brakes I so desperately wanted to be in charge of. Practicing breathing exercises during traditional counseling sessions was a joke to me. The practice of controlling my panic attacks through breathing seemed hopeless. My agitation for process only multiplied the more my counselors at the time encouraged the idea. Today, it’s nearly impossible for me to slow down my breathing during anxiety attacks without picturing myself mounted on a horse. Shockingly, a horse ended up being the one getting me to breathe again. 

Deescalating the rate of my breathing started to become a daily routine that is now oddly enjoyable. Crowds, loud noises, and breaches of personal space are no match for the breathing techniques I’ve developed over the past few months. Becoming in charge of my energy was something I desperately wanted to learn but failed to do multiple times over. How a horse was able to teach me this after ten years of failed attempts still boggles my mind.

The benefits of deescalating my anxiety surprisingly helped manufacture other positive outcomes throughout my life. Relationships of different kinds became healthier, and forming new ones were once again possible. Not having to worry about my next panic attack afforded me more time to focus on the people I loved the most in my life. Maintaining healthy relationships with the amount of anxiety I carried around on a daily basis was not possible.

A sense of tranquility has blanketed me. Developing new action plans for future panic attacks is no longer necessary, and the depression that once destroyed my willingness to get out of bed in the morning has vanished. Holding my breath while waiting for the next disaster to strike has been removed from my daily routine. The practice of being in charge of my energy has been put in its place, and the tension in my muscles is relieved with each exhale. Searching for danger becomes less of a priority the more relaxed I become. Never did I imagine that a horse would award me with this much relief.