I Tried Horse Therapy for a Week—Here’s What Happened

Updated: May 28, 2024

Spending a week in the majestically peaceful company of horses taught this reluctant health editor even more about herself than the animals she met.

OK, confession: I’ve never really understood the big deal about horses. As someone who grew up in Indiana, I was surrounded by people who spent time on farms or took horseback riding lessons and gushed about hanging out in the stables, but I just didn’t get it. Horses are huge, they kind of smell, when they need to go to the bathroom, they just drop it. What’s the big deal?

However, earlier this spring I was invited to attend an Unbridled Retreat at the beautiful dude ranch resort Rancho de los Caballeros in Wickenburg, AZ, where I spent five days learning how to ride, groom, lead, and just stand near a horse without getting anxious, all in the pursuit of personal growth.

Initially I was skeptical—but keep reading to learn why, after days experiencing the powerful healing effects horses can have, I now identify as a “horse girl.”

The demonstrated connection between horses and mental health

As I weighed my enthusiasm to participate in several days of equine therapy, I did some research and learned that horses have brought a wealth of value to patients in the physical therapy setting. Individuals with cerebral palsy in particular have been shown to benefit from this intevention, known as “hippotherapy.”

I discovered horses are also employed therapeutically for many people facing mental health and behavioral issues, including those on the autism spectrum, people recovering from substance abuse, people struggling with eating disorders, children with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). A 2021 study led by Columbia University researchers followed 58 veterans seeking treatment for PTSD through eight sessions of equine-assisted therapy (EAT) and found that 54% of participants showed “clinically significant change” at a three-month follow-up. 

Real-world inspiration to try equine therapy

Unbridled Retreats founder, equine coach and “equestrian of the wellness world” Devon Combs taught me how she knows firsthand what emotionally moving companions horses can be. Combs grew up in the world of horse shows, where she says she witnessed a lot of “ego-dominated one-way communication” toward horses. She shares that it wasn’t until after most horse shows, when she could spend time alone grooming the horses in the barn, that she experienced the “totally at peace” feeling being in the presence of horses gave her. 

When she later struggled with an eating disorder that led her to two suicide attempts, Combs eventually landed at a treatment center that offered equine-assisted therapy. “They took us to this ranch where the therapist met us,” Combs says. “As we walked outside, there was a round pen, and a horse loose [in it]. The therapist said, ‘Who wants to go be with this horse and connect with him as part of the equine therapy?’ I volunteered right away. Horses had always been my passion, so I was very excited to reconnect with them.” Combs describes the perspective-shifting moment that came next: “I walked into the round pen in my ego, like, ‘Oh, I’m a horse woman. I know what I’m doing.’ The horse named Jack turned his butt to me and walked away.”

She felt rejected, she reflects, but the therapist encouraged her to stop forcing it—stop trying to control the situation, stop trying to project her agenda—and just breathe. Combs says once she did that, and a wave of emotion overcame her, Jack the horse turned back around, locked eyes with her, and sauntered over to place his head on her heart. 

“I felt this unconditional love and acceptance I had never in my life felt,” Combs says. “This horse saw me, felt my pain, acknowledged my authenticity, and truly connected with me. It was as though the horse was honoring my pain and letting me know it was going to be OK, and I was OK. I was lovable, even in my messy, vulnerable, imperfect state. That’s where the true connection was possible.”

I learned for myself that in the retreats she leads today, Combs guides guests like me reach this level of connection with horses by helping us show up as our authentic selves and work through mental roadblocks and self-limitations. “Unbridled” is the perfect way to describe it.

Grooming a horse taught me the power of presence

Woman with a black horse for horse therapyCourtesy Miranda Manier

As someone who had never been near a horse beyond skirting past their smelly pens at a county fair or two, I was intimidated to suddenly be tasked with “grooming” a horse.

But Combs explained how to safely walk around a horse, how to position our feet to avoid being stepped on, where to touch and where not to touch—all the tools I needed to feel safe. However she couldn’t prepare me for the emotional component. 

The horse I was paired with, a beautiful older gentleman named Slim Shady, was gentle…although, as I started to brush him, he seemed a little avoidant. Right away, I bristled too. See? I knew I wouldn’t be a natural at this. I was locked in my head, worried about getting it “right.”

But slowly, as I relaxed, I felt Slim Shady’s muscles soften too. Within a couple minutes, I noticed that my awareness had moved from my thoughts to now being in my body and where it was positioned near his. We were both present. We’d both released tension. I also started to notice how our breathing had matched up—Slim Shady and I were breathing in rhythm.

Then, in cautious awe I observed as Slim Shady—who, minutes earlier, had been pretty indifferent to me—started to lower his head. Gently, he nuzzled into me.

As I slowly made my way around him, at one point I came between him and the fence. He suddenly shifted, which, at worst, startled me. I’m small, and what would happen if he pinned me against the fence? I paused, and it seemed he meant no threat; he’d shifted just to get more comfortable. This left no space for me to walk around to his other side. What do I do?

Combs seemed to read my mind in what would become one of the most instructive moments of the week. Following her instructions, I placed two fingers on Slim, compassionate but intentional, and I gave him a little push.

Just like that, Slim Shady listened to me and gave me some space. Our slowly growing bond was profound: The more honest I was, the more open and sensitive he became. He was making it safe for me. 

How was he so intelligent? “A lot of it comes down to the fact they’re a prey animal,” Combs says. That makes sense, when an animal so large would have a tough time hiding from a predator like a wolf or coyote. So, scientifically speaking, horses are much more in-tune with and aware of energy. “They really want to connect when they feel safe, and that’s when somebody’s fully embodying who they are authentically in the moment,” Combs explained. Horses sense when the energy is off, when somebody’s presenting one way, but actually, the feeling, energy and body language communicate something different.

Leading a horse taught me confidence

If I thought moving a horse with a two-finger nudge was fierce, I was unprepared for how leading a horse would feel.

I’ve always struggled with confidence and anxiety, constantly picking apart the words I say and the things I do to judge them against what I think I “should” have said or done. The word “leader” isn’t one I’d typically use to describe myself. When you’re leading a horse, though, there’s no room for second-guessing yourself. Sweet, patient Slim Shady probably could have been led by a small child…but for some reason, I didn’t feel up to the task.

Once Combs taught me how to lead, though—chin up, eyes forward, looking where you’re going without yielding—I started to feel my own strength and power. I didn’t yank on the lead rope, I didn’t glance over my shoulder looking for Combs, or anyone, to reassure the authority I was showing. I just walked with purpose, and the horse followed. The result was profound for me: I was leading a 1,200-pound creature! And it was following me! I could feel my confidence growing with every step, reaching the point when we were practically in-step.

“Confidence is the bottom line,” Combs agrees. “Horses are looking to us for leadership skills. You have to embody leadership and know where you’re going to have a horse come with you. We can beg, plead, and be forceful, but none of that really works. It’s the middle ground. It’s being confident, not aggressive, but confident in where you’re going and looking ahead.”

That only made sense. You can’t “fake it ’til you make it” when a thousand-pound animal is taking its cues from you. It was valuable to have a space to genuinely practice this kind of confidence for a few days.

Riding a horse taught me to be assertive

woman riding a white horse in the desert for horse therapyCourtesy Miranda Manier

The first time I rode a horse would be the real test, and it wasn’t with my buddy Slim Shady. Instead a beautiful white, speckled horse named Twister was my companion, and he was tougher on me than Slim was.

As the retreat attendees ventured out on our group horseback ride, Twister again and again bent his head to graze, something we had been told not to let our horses do. I already felt self-conscious, being the only person there who had never before ridden a horse—and though Combs was right behind me offering gentle reassurance and tips, I was sure I looked foolish. I tried to give little tugs, pulls and occasional light spurs with my heel to urge Twister on, but he was persistent. Or hungry. Either way, it felt like he was testing me, and I had a challenge to fulfill.

As Twister and I rode, again I had to ground myself in that confidence Slim Shady had helped me develop. The more anxious I was, the farther away from my body I felt. However, when I focused on the feeling of Twister’s mane beneath my fingers, the warm Arizona sun on my neck and the strength I had been connecting with within myself all week, I was finally present. I remembered the story about Combs showing up in that pen with Jack, and it hit me: Worrying about doing it “right” or looking foolish was just driven by my ego. I was the one who had a certain expectation for how I was supposed to perform…and when when I let go of those expectations to feel legitimate certainty, the horse always seemed to respond. 

Twister bent to graze, and I gave myself permission to be self-assured without being aggressive. I gave a swift tug up the moment I felt him start to bend his neck and a quick, firm kick to his left flank to encourage him to steer away from the oh-so-tempting bushes—and this time, he listened. 

Based on what Devon shared about her own experience, and what I experienced for myself, horses and we humans do seem to have a unique way of whispering to each other. A few days on a horse ranch taught me what it was like to live in a world with no mixed messages, where I really had to “listen” for what the horse was communicating instead of counting on words. I learned horses have an honest, but kind, way of reflecting the energy we’re giving. Thanks to Slim and Twister—and to Devon Combs—I returned to Indiana a little stronger, a little wiser, a lover of horses…and myself.