I Tried It: Horse Therapy

By Kimberly Cunningham, 34, Mission Hills

Kimberly Cunningham receiving horse therapy

I’d read about equine therapy in an article written by one of my favorite life coaches and Oprah contributors, Martha Beck. In it, Beck described a life-changing, spiritual encounter that helped one of her clients alleviate major anxiety, stress, and control issues.

Anxiety, stress, control issues. Check, check, and check. I’m guilty of all three. So when the opportunity arose to try a similar experience here in San Diego, I was the first to volunteer.

I met Anna Ryan, Ph.D., a licensed therapist and certified equine specialist, and her son, Joseph Gabriel Ryan (aka G. Man), at Bright Valley Farms off Campo Road in Spring Valley. The Ryans run an interactive program with horses called Equines and You, designed to help people conquer their fears and other emotional issues. Those they’ve helped include veterans suffering from PTSD, children dealing with the loss of a parent, or CEOs looking to gain a little empathy.

You Try It

DRESS PROPERLY. Wear closed-toed shoes or boots that you don’t mind getting dirty.

KEEP AN OPEN MIND. After all, no therapy works if you’re not open to hearing what a professional (or horse) has to say.

GIVE IT TIME. Don’t expect life-changing results in one session. Like anything, it may take some work.

Equines and You costs $200 per 1.5-hour session in Del Mar or Spring Valley. sandiegotherapycenter.com.

Enter a 30-something journalist, who suffers from acute overachiever syndrome and persistent self-doubt.

It was a blustery day in late November. As I approached the corral, I was overcome by a mini cyclone of dirt and twigs. This might be a little too much nature for me, I thought. But at that moment, Anna gestured toward me, beaming, “We have wind and sun—two things that horses love!”

I wiped the dust off my freshly applied lip gloss, and resolved to keep an open mind.

Each session includes three different types of encounters with the horses. Step One is called the Herd Experience.

Anna opened the gate and gave me a simple instruction: “Introduce yourself.”

It was an intentionally vague request.

In Beck’s article, the horses scattered when her client, who was so anxious and stressed, entered the pen. I expected these horses to do the same with me.

Except they didn’t scatter. There were 10 horses inside, and most of them came right up to me, pushing their noses into my hands, their ears perked in curiosity.

During this process, Anna and G. Man stood on the sidelines, serving as interpreters (for those of us who aren’t fluent in horse).

“That is a sign of affection,” Anna said, as one of the horses tugged at my sweater.

Horses have huge teeth. They weigh about a half-ton. When they extend their necks, they tower over you. And yet, there is something serene and highly intuitive about them. They can supposedly sense negativity, fear, and pain—but do so without judgment.

As I stood there, letting them smell me and see me and make an afternoon snack of my $300 sweater, I felt myself surrender—too scared to move, or speak above a whisper. I didn’t want them to leave me, to scatter like they did in the article I’d read. Time stood still, and the simple action of being near these horses was incredibly powerful.

After the Herd Experience, Anna led one of the horses, a hypoallergenic American Bashkir Curly named Indie, out of the pen. She handed me a small rope and harness and said, “Okay. Harness the horse.”

I looked at the object in my hands, all leash and buckles, with no rhyme or reason. And then I looked at the horse. It was a very little harness for such a big animal. The holes were much too small to go through her legs. And really, they seemed too small to go over her nose. They had to go over the ears, but the rest of the harness wouldn’t fit around the neck. Or the chin. Or the torso.


This went on for about 20 minutes, as I verbally talked myself through this and gently tried to fasten the harness around the horse. Meanwhile, Indie bowed and started to nibble on some grass. Eventually Anna stepped in.

“Do you see what’s happening here? The horse hasn’t moved an inch. Amazing!”

I’d just assumed the horse was well trained, and knew she was supposed to stay put. But according to Anna, there are many people whose impatience and strong energy send the horses running. People get frustrated, stomp their feet, or throw the harness down, and the horse mimics that behavior.

Anna said, “I hope you remember for the rest of your life that you were patient, and that the core of who you are is gentle, and this horse showed you that.”  

I’ll pause for dramatic effect, and let that sink in.

There was a third exercise where I led Indie through a small obstacle course lined with props, meant to symbolize different aspects of my life. This part felt a little far-fetched, and it was hard for me to connect the dots between the props, the horse, and my inner psyche.

I preferred the moments that involved less analysis—the intimate nonverbal moments with the horses, where I could just relax.

Anna says it’s a metaphor for your life. From the manure on up, everyone’s got a lot of crap to deal with. And whether you’re trying to harness your horse, your boyfriend, or your boss, there’s something that these creatures can teach you.

For me, the lesson lies in my constant fear of abandonment. I kept worrying that the horses would run off. I view myself as being so stressed out and anxious, but perhaps that’s inaccurate.

Of course the journalist in me is trained to be a skeptic, to think those horses are just tame and domesticated and that their affection was only a manifestation of hunger. They didn’t want me; they wanted carrots. (By the way, we gave Indie a bucket of food at the very end.)

But I’d like to believe it’s more than that. Anna has dozens of stories about people’s lives that were forever changed after their experience with these horses. And for the record, while I was there, the horses never ran off. Despite my fear, they stayed by my side the whole time.


What Else We Tried:

Acupuncture Horse
Meditation Juice