My Body Experiment: Equine Therapy

How a travel journalist found natural anxiety relief in the deserts of Jordan

When your job requires to you to travel around the globe, panic attacks and anxiety are not just unsettling—they’re debilitating. International travel consultant and writer Sunny Fitzgerald experienced her first panic attack while on a business trip in India in April, 2017. In its wake she almost canceled her next trip: an event organized by the Adventure Travel Trade Association (ATTA) in Jordan in May 2017. Instead, she saw it—and the equine soul session she would experience while there—as an opportunity to fight back against anxiety in a natural way. This is her story.

“Everyone must wear closed-toe shoes,” she says, eyeing my exposed toes peeking from the front of my sandals. Desert dust swirls toward me through the open door of the minibus. We have barely come to a stop at the top of a dirt driveway when equine trainer Sandra Jelly appears at our door.

She is petite but her presence is immense and undeniable. Her piercing blue-grey eyes move up to meet mine, and I immediately feel an urge to duck lest her energy engulf my own. Bending down, I slip my sandals from my feet and fumble around my bag in search of proper footwear.

We are already exhausted, having spent the first half of the day driving from Aqaba and hiking in the 95-degree heat in Little Petra. Sandra seems anxious to get started. Just as quickly as she appears at the door, she spins around and moves toward the horse stable, gesturing for us to follow her.

“Yallah, let’s go!” she says. As she glances back at us over her shoulder, she smiles. Her sun-kissed face softens and a gentleness now emanates from her eyes.

One by one, my travel companions—a spirited mix of award-winning journalists and adventure travel specialists from the US, Europe, Canada, and the Middle East—step out of the air-conditioned bus and onto the gravel driveway in the blistering afternoon sun. I stay seated, stealing a few more moments in the cool comfort of the bus.

horses
Jelly galloping in Wadi Rum with two of her horses, Gamar and Nour
Photo courtesy of Sandra Jelly

How the hell did I get here? I wonder, at once amused and a bit embarrassed. Am I just another cliché traveler, trying to Eat, Pray, Love my life?

Doubt sets in and I scan the desert-scape, quickening my steps to catch up to my companions. Sandra’s wavy, cropped hair bounces with her stride as she guides the group along the side of the stable.

We near the fenced paddock and a chocolate-colored horse stretches her head out to greet us. A few of my fellow travelers reach up to stroke her neck. The horse’s warm welcome thaws some of my skepticism.

Recent memories flash through my mind, reminding me exactly what drew me to this Arabian horse stable in the desert.

Chest pains. Panic attacks. Dread that held me hostage in my own home. I’d been suffering silently with this secret for months. Or had it been years? Anxiety didn’t knock politely on the door and announce her arrival in my life, so it’s impossible to say when she showed up. Maybe she snuck in a window with the wind when I wasn’t looking. Or perhaps she’d been hiding under my bed all along, her darkness creeping out across the floorboards until she’d filled every corner of my life, choking out the light. If I dared to leave the house and her behind, she’d always find me, no matter how far or fast I ran. Even on the other side of the world, I couldn’t escape her. The more I ignored her, the louder I laughed, the freer I lived, the more brazen she became. On my final day of a work trip to India in April 2017, after my travel mates left for the airport and I stayed behind to catch a later flight, Anxiety swooped in and shoved me down with a panic punch so powerful and a dread so heavy, I was certain I would never stand again. I was sure I would die there—alone, bones and soul smashed under a thick slab of darkness.

That was the day—a sunny April afternoon in India—I stared Anxiety straight in the face for the first time. And swore to her that if I made it out alive, I would find her fuel and drain her dry. Whatever source she was drawing her power from to steal mine, I’d snuff it out.

Nauseous, exhausted, and trembling, I dragged my bags and aching body onto my flight that night, running solely on sheer desperation and the strength my sister sent across the many miles with texts that read, “It’s a panic attack. I know it feels like you are dying. But I promise it won’t kill you; it can’t. You’re going to be ok. I’m here.”

I knew there’d be more days ahead when I’d be far from home. Travel wasn’t just my love and my life; it was my job. I couldn’t fathom a world in which I would stay forever trapped in my house. But the fear of another paralyzing panic attack was real. It made me take pause and carefully consider my next steps. I didn’t want to focus on the symptoms anxiety caused; I needed to get to the source. So when the hosts of the travel conference I was scheduled to attend in the Middle East in May offered a choice of adventure activities to try, I was immediately drawn to travel company In2Jordan’s “Inner and Outer Adventure.” It offered a combination of activities intended to challenge our bodies and minds while acquainting us with lunar-like landscapes, ancient sites, cuisine, and local culture of Jordan. That is how I got here. This was what I signed up for, and it was too late to turn back.

canyon
Fitzgerald wandering the ancient city of Petra
Photo courtesy of Sunny Fitzgerald

Sandra slides off her shoes and sits down in the Bedouin-style tent facing the paddock, instructing us to do the same. A local Bedouin gentleman passes around hot tea while Sandra briefly introduces the soul session she and her horses are offering us.

“Horses’ minds are pure,” she says. “They don’t overthink the way humans do. They feel you and respond immediately, acting as a mirror, reflecting your feelings and fears.”

Flies buzz about, zipping in front of our faces and diving into our tea cups. Some land on Sandra’s chin and cheeks as she speaks, but she remains poised.

“When you enter the paddock, choose a horse you feel called to,” she says. “Don’t initiate contact. Just mentally set your intentions and wait for them.”

Her instructions seem vague, yet deliberately so. The horses are, after all, the leaders of this soul session.

“Take notice of feelings and thoughts that arise, but don’t force anything,” she adds.

We spend a few moments in silent meditation, connecting to our body and breath before she sends the first group of three participants into the paddock to join the horses.

I remain seated in the tent, aware of my own medley of fears and feelings of skepticism, hope, shame, anticipation, and self-doubt already bubbling to the surface.

I observe the range of interactions between my fellow travelers and the horses already in motion: playful, tearful, aggressive, gentle, indifferent. Each horse’s behavior is noticeably distinct to each individual.

A familiar panic consumes me.

Could a horse expose my inner world for everyone to see? What will they think of me?

Sliding one leg over the bottom bar of the rusted fence and ducking under the top one, I step into the soft sand of the paddock. Before my back foot has even hit the ground, the chocolate-colored mare Remaz is making her way toward me. Recalling Sandra’s instructions, I stand still and try to focus my mind on my intentions.

But as Remaz approaches, a wave of anxiety surges through my body. She is tall and wide and strong. She has hard hooves and huge teeth.

She could hurt me if she wanted to.

with horse
Fitzgerald's powerful connection with Remaz
Photo by Alper Ertübey

I formulate an escape plan, mentally measuring the distance between me and the fence. I contemplate diving back through to safely place a barrier between us. Against my instinct, I hold my ground, reminding myself to breathe and try to trust the horse.

She inspects my hips and hands with her nose, then moves on to my ears and hair. Her whiskers brush my neck and I let out a nervous laugh. The tension in my body melts and I drop my shoulders. Just as I am beginning to feel comfortable and curious, Remaz suddenly turns and walks away.

I stand alone, wondering whether I did something wrong.

I watch as she moves quickly toward another woman that has just entered the paddock.

Am I not interesting enough to keep her attention? Is she easily distracted by new things?

The sun has become a spotlight magnifying my humiliation. I am convinced everyone saw Remaz abandon me. And I want only to hide anywhere but here.

with horse
Gamar feeling playful in Little Petra
Photo by Michelle Grosz

Take notice of feelings and thoughts that arise.

Sandra’s words echo in my ears, and against my desire to run, I stay planted in place, watching Remaz affectionately nuzzling another, and acknowledging everything that surfaces inside me.

Jealous. Alone. Abandoned. Afraid. Untrusting. Unseen. Unloved.

I wait a moment more, wondering whether Remaz will come back to me or I’ll remain alone. She appears to be comforting the other woman, and my tendency toward compassion for others ahead of myself takes over, silencing all other emotions.

I climb through the fence and walk back toward the tent, dejected and wondering if a few moments with a horse could really provoke such powerful and conflicting emotions.

They act as a mirror, reflecting your feelings and fears.

Sandra had warned us. Remaz didn’t provoke powerful and conflicting emotions; she simply showed me that they were there.

THE SCIENCE BEHIND EQUINE THERAPY

Equine-assisted therapy has only recently cropped up in pop culture with celebrities like 2 Broke Girls’ Beth Behrs and comedian Whitney Cummings publicly praising the method as an effective approach to alleviating anxiety and emotional crises. But humans recognized the benefits of equine interactions long before Hollywood existed. According to The Ismael Pinto Equine Therapy Association, horses’ healing effect was noted as far back as 460 BC by Hippocrates.

WHAT IS IT:
Horse meditation and soul sessions, like the one Fitzgerald participated in, are forms of equine-assisted therapy in which participants meditate in the presence of horses and an equine trainer, and then unpack the experience through discussions and reflections. In some sessions, participants connect with the horses further though grooming, leading, and feeding them.

In some forms of equine therapy, participants also ride the horses. According to a study done by researchers at Baylor University, these activities can help “improve communication between the participant and the horse, improve muscle function and coordination, and decrease stress.”

HOW IT WORKS:
“As convincing as we may act to hide our true feelings, they always show up in our bodies,” internationally recognized natural horsemanship clinician Tim Hayes says in his book Riding Home, “and a horse will instantly and without fail perceive all of them.”

A study published in the Applied Animal Behavior Science Journal confirms horses can communicate with humans. And according to a separate study led by animal behavior researcher and scientist Amy Victoria Smith, horses do indeed distinguish between human facial expressions of emotion, perhaps as the result of evolution. For the sake of survival, horses tend to be hyperaware and loving, two traits that we all need in a friend, partner, or therapist.

However, according to The Koelle Institute for Equus Coaching, horses are missing the judgement gene: “Unlike most adults who have been socially trained to form judgments and think in terms of right and wrong, horses only reflect the truth of the present moment. Therefore, they will consistently mirror back to a person the effect their inner dialog is having on them and others in their surrounding environment. Horses are remarkable for their ability to give clear, direct, and rapid biofeedback [meaning you receive information from a part of your body]. This feedback enables the student to deepen their awareness of themselves.”

WHO IT’S FOR:
Horse-guided therapy can be beneficial for people of all ages to help address physical, mental, behavioral, and sensory issues. CRC Health reports that it can be a successful addition to treatment programs for those suffering from behavior or mood disorders, depression, and more. The Baylor study concluded that interacting with horses, either on the ground or by riding, can improve health-related quality of life for veterans, and may even improve physical symptoms.

horse
Sun sets over the stables in Little Petra
Photo by Michelle Grosz

We gather together in the tent again and Sandra expands on the experience. “Horses help us to become more present in our bodies,” she says. “They help us become aware of the subtle messages we are carrying—messages we may ignore in our busy day-to-day life, but that are influencing our beliefs, decisions, and experiences.”

She invites us to reflect and share. When it’s my turn, I part my lips to say simply, “My horse walked away, so nothing really happened. I’ll pass.” Instead, hot tears and pained words of past traumas tumble from my face to the tent floor before I can stop them. I cover my mouth with a trembling hand, but it’s too late. I can almost see the shards of my soul lying on the floor in front of me.

I look up, expecting to be met with uncomfortable laughter, judgement, and disbelief from the other travelers. Instead, I find eyes filled with compassion, welling up with tears of their own. The burdens shared somehow feel lighter.

“She’s waiting for you,” Sandra says, looking past me toward the paddock. “Turn around.”

I stay seated in the tent, turning only my head. Remaz is there, resting quietly on the sand. “Do you want to go to her?” she asks.

Sandra and I climb back through the fence and squat down beside Remaz while the other travelers remain in the tent. Despite the horse’s size and strength, Remaz exudes a steady calm. I reach my shaky hand out and connect with her shiny coat. A wave of warmth flows to me. My hand steadies and my heartbeat slows. Joy fills the darkness and a childlike laughter bursts through my tears.

Sandra backs away, leaving me to sit silently with Remaz.

“You do love me,” I whisper, words once again escaping from my lips, surprising me, rising not from my head but somewhere hidden.

Whether those words are meant for Remaz, my mother, ex-lovers, former friends, others, or even myself seems to matter less in that moment than the realization of complete acceptance expressed in them.

You do love me.

I feel love. I feel lighter. I feel whole.

I stand and return to the tent. Remaz also stands, but remains close to the fence, as if to reassure us she is still there, should we need her.

“When emotions from traumatic experiences can't be fully acknowledged, their energy gets stuck in our bodies,” Sandra explains as we rejoin the group. “That stuck energy creates limiting beliefs and we unconsciously recreate the same painful experiences over and over again. It is only in connecting to these emotions that we can learn from them, release them, and change our beliefs and our life.”

It is said you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink. In the same way, it seems horses can lead us to our demons, but they can’t make us deal with them. Remaz revealed some of the root causes of my anxiety: Painful memories and limiting beliefs I have been carrying—some since childhood. In reflecting my inner world with such unadulterated honesty and loving acceptance, Remaz created a nurturing space for me to do the same. She effectively led me to the water. But she can’t make me drink. Taking that sip—the work of sifting through the darkness, acknowledging past traumas, releasing toxic thought patterns, and creating healthy, new ones—is up to me.

Upon arriving home in Los Angeles, Fitzgerald felt her body was in LA but her heart was still dancing in the Jordanian desert. She immediately began making plans to return to Jordan and headed back there in July 2017 to continue the soul work she had started, prioritize her health and well-being, and explore more of this country that had so positively and powerfully impacted her. Her love of Jordan has led her to become a Jordan destination expert for Lonely Planet and kimkim, encouraging others to travel to Jordan and experience its magic for themselves. Her next adventure: a 400+ mile, 40+ day trek across the entire length of Jordan that she will begin on March 2, 2018.

horse at sunset
Fitzgerald's final moments shared with Remaz
Photo by Sunny Fitzgerald

THE SCIENCE BEHIND EQUINE THERAPY

Equine-assisted therapy has only recently cropped up in pop culture with celebrities like 2 Broke Girls’ Beth Behrs and comedian Whitney Cummings publicly praising the method as an effective approach to alleviating anxiety and emotional crises. But humans recognized the benefits of equine interactions long before Hollywood existed. According to The Ismael Pinto Equine Therapy Association, horses’ healing effect was noted as far back as 460 BC by Hippocrates.

WHAT IS IT:
Horse meditation and soul sessions, like the one Fitzgerald participated in, are forms of equine-assisted therapy in which participants meditate in the presence of horses and an equine trainer, and then unpack the experience through discussions and reflections. In some sessions, participants connect with the horses further though grooming, leading, and feeding them.

In some forms of equine therapy, participants also ride the horses. According to a study done by researchers at Baylor University, these activities can help “improve communication between the participant and the horse, improve muscle function and coordination, and decrease stress.”

HOW IT WORKS:
“As convincing as we may act to hide our true feelings, they always show up in our bodies,” internationally recognized natural horsemanship clinician Tim Hayes says in his book Riding Home, “and a horse will instantly and without fail perceive all of them.”

A study published in the Applied Animal Behavior Science Journal confirms horses can communicate with humans. And according to a separate study led by animal behavior researcher and scientist Amy Victoria Smith, horses do indeed distinguish between human facial expressions of emotion, perhaps as the result of evolution. For the sake of survival, horses tend to be hyperaware and loving, two traits that we all need in a friend, partner, or therapist.

However, according to The Koelle Institute for Equus Coaching, horses are missing the judgement gene: “Unlike most adults who have been socially trained to form judgments and think in terms of right and wrong, horses only reflect the truth of the present moment. Therefore, they will consistently mirror back to a person the effect their inner dialog is having on them and others in their surrounding environment. Horses are remarkable for their ability to give clear, direct, and rapid biofeedback [meaning you receive information from a part of your body]. This feedback enables the student to deepen their awareness of themselves.”

WHO IT’S FOR:
Horse-guided therapy can be beneficial for people of all ages to help address physical, mental, behavioral, and sensory issues. CRC Health reports that it can be a successful addition to treatment programs for those suffering from behavior or mood disorders, depression, and more. The Baylor study concluded that interacting with horses, either on the ground or by riding, can improve health-related quality of life for veterans, and may even improve physical symptoms.