Grass Valley woman enlists equine therapy to help us understand the deeper self
Twelve year old “Amber” was having trouble making friends and she didn’t understand why. But things started to change when she met two horses, Sugar and Willy.
The horses’ owner, Windy DiPietro, is a Grass Valley-based licensed marriage and family therapist who combines psychological therapies with equine therapy. Through her work with Amber (not her real name), DiPietro suggested that she designate four spots in a pasture, with each spot representing one of four emotions — happiness, sadness, fear and anger. As Amber stood in each spot, DiPietro instructed her to think of times in her life when she had felt each emotion.
Something interesting happened when Amber stepped into the anger spot. Willy, the horse who is known to be the protector of Sugar, stepped in between Amber and Sugar, as if to protect Sugar from Amber’s rage.
Amber, who had felt an affinity toward Sugar, could see she was being blocked. It was both a tangible and symbolic lesson for Amber, said DiPietro. The experience helped her to realize that her anger was keeping friends away.
According to DiPietro’s clients and an impressive body of anecdotal evidence, working with horses is a powerful tool when it comes to forcing people to tune into their instincts and become more honest with themselves.
Just like humans, horses are social creatures with herd behaviors that mimic those of human families. This can be a learning tool when it comes to tapping into ones’ destructive or self-sabotaging behaviors, said DiPietro.
“When people are stressed or ‘activated,’ they tend to do one of three things — fight, flight or freeze,” she said. “This applies to horses too. They’re prey animals just as we are. When a person is stressed — and even when they’re not — horses can be amazing mirrors. They’re hyper vigilant.”
Equine therapy can help clients move away from circular thoughts regarding life’s problems, which can include denial and blame. Instead, clients are forced to monitor the physical responses that accompany their emotions and how they can affect others.
If a person is aggressive or angry, a horse may become obstinate, said DiPietro. If someone is nervous or anxious, a horse can be skittish. Conversely, if a person is relaxed and open, the horse will be too. When a client sees the horse’s response to their own emotions, it can help them see themselves more objectively and teach them to regulate their emotions so as not to alienate others.
DiPietro, who has been a therapist for 20 years, has extensive training in trauma and addiction. She served as a supervising therapist at Community Recovery Services for eight years in Grass Valley. Through the course of her work, she has found that equine therapy has been extremely helpful to those struggling with addiction, especially when it comes to re-establishing communication after years of isolation due to prolonged drug use or mental illness.
While a client may still have trouble getting close to people, they often find they can establish a close bond with a horse. The horse’s reactions and responses can be a guide for clients, who may unknowingly be projecting their own struggles onto others, said DiPietro.
Additionally, facing the fears that often come with being near a large animal can help with past trauma, feelings of powerlessness or inadequacy. For example, a horse will not tolerate a controlling or dominating person, or won’t cooperate if a person is too passive or disconnected.
Just like people, when treated well horses are gentle animals. But unlike humans they are not capable of manipulation, deceit, judgement or blame. For these reasons alone, horses can be tremendously healing, said DiPietro, who has been around horses all of her life. People who are projecting old traumas onto others often can’t see it clearly until they’ve spent time with her horses.
“Horses can really help people identify feelings and figure out where in their body they’re feeling certain emotions,” said DiPietro. “They are also very good at helping people with communication skills, facing fears and self-empowerment. People learn to tap into that moment of pause between thought and action.”
On Oct. 8, DiPietro and Rennie Smith, also a Nevada County marriage and family therapist, will team up to offer a women’s six hour “Equine Experiential Workshop to Help You Find Your Joy” at Dragonfly Ranch in Grass Valley. The small group (a maximum of six), will get a chance to work with Willy and Sugar.
“The purpose of this workshop is to re-remember our passions and what inspires us,” said DiPietro. “We want to rediscover our child-like excitement about the world.”
“I’ve been doing this for 20 years and it’s still exciting,” added DiPietro. “Horses show us how we let obstacles get in our way. But when you see someone make a connection with a horse, you begin to see a stronger sense of self emerge. You suddenly see self compassion and acceptance. That’s when lives turn around.”
To learn more about the equine experiential workshop on Oct. 8 with therapists Windy DiPietro and Rennie Smith, call 530-273-5355.
To contact Staff Writer Cory Fisher, email her at Cory@theunion.com.
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