Donate to Free Rein Foundation

Picturing Horses Helping Humans

Picturing Horses Helping Humans

Equine Specialist Michelle Desmond explains Free Rein’s framework for growth and healing

What kind of picture might your mind paint in the Free Rein pasture? A close-up of horses peacefully grazing, or a landscape of the paddock, neighboring green hills, trails and forest? For a Free Rein Equine Therapy client, what they “paint” on a blank canvas depicts aspects of their life.

Michelle Desmond explains, “In therapy, horses are often metaphorical, meaning they can represent or be compared to something or someone else. For example, a certain horse could remind someone of their dad of another prominent person in their life. That’s why we as therapists don’t share the horse’s name, background, or any of their distinguishing characteristics of the herd. Instead, clients are encouraged to explore and gradually, they draw their own conclusions and find answers to challenges they’re facing within themselves.”

Are some horses more ‘portrait-worthy’ than others? “Every horse has therapeutic value. They each have their own ‘horsenality,’ but they are naturally very sensitive to body language and can pick up cues people often miss. Sometimes they amaze us. A horse who tends to be aloof with most volunteers may walk right up to a client who is hurting and stand patiently while he or she touches and talks to them.”

Is the painting ever finished? “Absolutely. We offer the EAGALA (Equine Assisted Growth And Learning Association) methodology, which utilizes a solution-based therapy, often in six sessions or less.”

Who are the best “painters”? “We’ve seen great results for people with a wide variety of afflictions. All of us can appreciate coming out into this peaceful setting in the fresh air to clear our minds, and anyone who is willing to learn can make profound self-discoveries.

“We’ve seen a very positive impact on Military Veterans and first responders, who often bond well with horses. These men and women have usually developed a strong instinct for protection, just as horses in the wild have to be very wary for their survival. A horse’s first thought being, “Am I in danger?’ followed by, ‘What level of trust do I have?’ They can often identify with horses who need to learn to trust. Horses tend to be disarming creatures, and these guys can let themselves be vulnerable with the horses and open up in a safe way.

“For kids, there’s often an honesty and openness that horses seem to sense and respond to. We as adults have learned to put on a brave face; we’ve developed tools so that we’re not as authentic–‘We’re fine.’ Through encounters with horses, children often learn empathy, sympathy and caring about somebody other than themselves, which is really important in their development. They also develop coping skills and learn about boundaries.”

Is it true one hour in the pasture is worth 10 on a couch? “All modalities have merit and value. Equine therapy doesn’t replace traditional psychotherapy; it supplements it. Some psychologists refer their patients to the Free Rein program, such as those who are hesitant to sit and talk with someone. The self-discovery that happens here isn’t found in another venue.”

For more information on Free Rein’s Equine-Assisted Psychotherapy (EAP) and Equine-Assisted Learning (EAL) programs, please visit or email

Michelle Q & A

At a recent learning session for Free Rein volunteers, Michelle (and Lillie) provided insights into Free Rein’s confidential Equine-Assisted Psychotherapy (EAP) and Equine-Assisted Learning (EAL) programs. “It’s an experiential form of therapy that involves senses of sight, smell and touch,” she shared. “Now that the pandemic is waning, we look forward to welcoming back organizations that work with at-risk youth, Veterans and others who benefit.”