A life in connection, with horses

Perhaps some of you have shared this same frustrating situation in the high country, or can imagine what it may feel like; the moment after gathering pairs from the mountainside and moving them for hours to fresh pasture, one by one the calves turn back towards where they started.  Not just turn and look for their mama cow a few hundred feet behind them, but run back for miles to the last place they remember being with mom.  

We wish that we could rationalize with those calves and explain to them that their mama is in the herd and that as soon as they get to fresh pasture they will join back up and live a swell life on the new grass. But they don’t care about the promise of food and water, they just want their mom. They are looking for connection.

Science is proving more and more that mammals’ (especially including humans’) need for connection with others is right up there with our need for food, water and shelter. You see, what you need more than anything for survival is relationship with others. That’s why I founded Equine Empowerment, a non-profit based in Colorado that provides therapeutic horsemanship programs from therapeutic riding, equine assisted counseling, equine assisted learning and team building. We take the need for relationship seriously and treasure it as the root of healing and growth in the clients we work with.  

We work both in our local community and through partnerships across the country. We use the relationship with a horse as a platform for growth, change and healing. With a vision to “empower brave-hearted actions and inspire positive changes in individuals, families and communities through experiential activities and therapies,” we use arena dirt, hoofbeats and big blue skies to walk alongside others as they find connection to themselves and authentic growth for life outside of the arena.

A group of youth in foster care watch the mustang herd they just worked with. Photo by the author.
A group of youth in foster care watch the mustang herd they just worked with. Photo by the author.

Horses do relationship better

Horses were always my best friends, my partners and effectively my therapists growing up. As prey animals, horses desire for relationship is a primal need, resembling that of humans. Horses live in a herd and develop social relationships similar to how humans interact in their everyday life, except in many ways, horses do it better. Horses don’t bring things into relationships that humans do—they don’t lie, steal or gossip. Horses live honestly and don’t get caught up in the shame of the past or the worry of the future. They are not self-conscious and they don’t worry about judgment from others. They desire authentic relationships where both parties are regulated, respected and congruent. Horses give immediate feedback on the human behaviors we bring, and when a person changes behaviors and approach, the horse responds. This results in present and authentic feedback that we can learn from. Horses have distinct personalities, attitudes and moods, which means that an approach that works with one horse won’t necessarily work with another, which requires those working with them to problem solve and be creative.  

So, when I first heard about people partnering with horses for healing, I jumped in, volunteering at a therapeutic riding program. My life changed. I focused my post graduate degrees and certifications to gain knowledge and a firm foundation to help people in my community with a better way of experiential therapy and learning with horses as a partner. In my career, I have been able to develop specific programs for children in foster care, substance abuse residential treatment programs, therapeutic riding programs, hospice, day treatment programs, alternative school programs, business team building, CASA and others. They say that if you do what you love, you will never work a day in your life.  I say that if you do what you love and help others doing it…especially with a horse…that’s a pretty good deal. 

By working with horses, our clients gain awareness of their own behaviors. This allows for clients, the horses and the Equine Empowerment therapist to work together to identify relationship patterns and then form ongoing positive changes by practicing and forming new behaviors. It is these characteristics of a horse which creates a beautiful framework for therapy and learning when partnered with trained therapists and educators.

Growth looks different for everyone

A young rider connecting with her horse after a great ride. Photo by the author.

Brave-hearted actions in the arena can be expressed in the beautiful change we saw in a man who only knew what relationships felt like when he was in total control. It took three days of work for him to find a healthy connection with his horse, who then chose to “join-up” and follow him three times around the arena at liberty. It was amazing to watch that man finally understand that connection is not control and glimpse the feeling of a relationship where both parties feel safe.

It’s impossible not to smile writing about the brave-hearted life we partner with in a 12-year-old rider with cerebral palsy who is unable to talk, eat or walk on her own. She has such an intense bond with her horse who hears her without words, who loans her his legs to walk and allows her to sit tall above others when she is used to sitting in a wheelchair. Watching the young girl and her horse is one of the most amazing relationships I have ever seen. You can feel it just by being in the arena!  

Working with groups who have the courage to step outside of their comfort zone and challenge themselves in the arena to set boundaries, be heard or express themselves is awesome to share in.  The “a-ha” moments when a group realizes the ways they can improve to be most successful and to best connect to their peers is much easier to reach through experiential work with horses.

Honored to partner on others’ journeys

Our work is made possible through collaboration. We collaborate with youth programs, hospice programs, other therapeutic horsemanship programs and, of course, Women in Ranching. Each partnership looks different in terms of our goals for the participants. Sometimes our work is shaped to create a platform for deeper personal healing from trauma. Other times we’re supporting teamwork to improve group dynamics and a greater understanding of roles within the group. 

Equine therapy is an extension of the work we already do as cowgirls, cowboys and people in agriculture. It is an expansion of the relationship we have with the animals we raise on our ranches, because we all have a primal need for connection. Equine Empowerment is honored to partner with people to find their own bravehearted way to live out that passion.    

Beth Godbey is the founder and director of the non-profit Equine Empowerment and a licensed mental health counselor, certified therapeutic recreation specialist and equine specialist in mental health and learning. Beth considers it an honor to partner people with horses to create space for developing the deep connection needed for growth and healing to occur. Beth currently lives in Colorado and raises wild kids and grass-fed beef with her family using regenerative ranch management.