Participants at a Healing With Horses program in Connecticut feed treats to the horses. (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)

Participants at a Healing With Horses program in Connecticut feed treats to the horses. (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)

Long ago, someone said, “There’s something about the outside of a horse that’s good for the inside of a man.” People who work with therapy horses, like Mary Poupon, believe that’s true. (Handout)

Long ago, someone said, “There’s something about the outside of a horse that’s good for the inside of a man.” People who work with therapy horses, like Mary Poupon, believe that’s true. (Handout)

Judeley Hans Debel removes a boot from Tic Tac the horse, holding out his prosthetic leg. He takes therapeutic riding lessons in Petion-Ville, Haiti. (AP/Dieu Nalio Chery)

Judeley Hans Debel removes a boot from Tic Tac the horse, holding out his prosthetic leg. He takes therapeutic riding lessons in Petion-Ville, Haiti. (AP/Dieu Nalio Chery)

Wild horses gallop near U.S. Army Dugway Proving Ground, Utah. Horses like to stay in herds. (AP/Rick Bowmer)

Wild horses gallop near U.S. Army Dugway Proving Ground, Utah. Horses like to stay in herds. (AP/Rick Bowmer)

Wild horses drink from a watering hole outside Salt Lake City, Utah. (AP/Rick Bowmer)

Wild horses drink from a watering hole outside Salt Lake City, Utah. (AP/Rick Bowmer)

Horse Knows Best

Posted: May 1, 2022

In 2013, nurse Mary Poupon entered an arena with a herd of horses. She had been invited to train in horse therapy. Mrs. Poupon works with people with mental health problems. She was skeptical. Could horses help her patients? She felt a push at the back of her head. “I looked up and standing above me was a 1,200-pound horse. . . . At that moment, I felt that he could feel that I had an attitude.”

Mrs. Poupon learned that horses are tuned in to people and their feelings. Animals like coyotes and wolves often prey on wild horses. So horses have learned to notice all possible threats. A horse that feels afraid will react with “fight or flight.” That means it wants to run away or to defend itself. Horses that can’t run from what scares them will often bite or kick.

People can act the same when they are afraid. They might move away. Or they might just shut down. (That’s “flight” mode.) Frightened people also can act angry. They might lash out with words or actions. (That’s “fight” mode.)

Like people, horses don’t like to be alone. They stay in herds. People enjoy being with family and friend groups too.

In horse therapy, patients mostly feed, clean, and walk beside horses. Therapists and equine experts watch how the patients and animals respond to each other.

Horses mirror what people feel. So a patient who wants to be close to a horse learns to be gentle and relaxed. Just brushing a horse has proven to calm people’s bodies. That’s good for both!

Mrs. Poupon now directs Embrace Hope, a horse therapy center in Connecticut. She says seeing kids heal as they work with horses has been “nothing short of magical.”