Listening Horse is a free horse therapy program based in Santa Fe, New Mexico that helps wounded veterans and others reconnect with their spirit, their humanity, and their will to live. Listening Horse is the sole Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship International (PATH Intl.) Equine Service for Heroes program currently active in New Mexico. Gus, director of Listening Horse and certified therapeutic riding instructor since 2003, recognizes that the most important aspects of the program are the horses, their connection to the participants, and program safety.
Promise, Zorro, Sugar, Doc, Concho and Socorro are the horses available in the program. Because of the unique philosophy of Listening Horse, the horses are allowed to exist in as natural a state as possible, which means they are not shoed, and for purposes of riding, a simple hackamore is used rather than a bit.
Listening Horse adheres to all the safety guidelines of PATH Intl., which include the use of helmets and the presence of a primary and assistant instructor at all times. Additionally, a former VA physician, Dr. Como, assists Listening Horse with monitoring and assessing the safety of participants as they progress through the program.
Wounded and struggling veterans and members of the public often rely on drugs (prescription or otherwise) and destructive behavior to manage their conditions and escape their pain and anguish. Listening Horse provides an alternative, known informally as the “Third Herd Way.” (The term “third herd” comes from the practice of military units referring to their third platoon as “third herd,” a term meant to evoke the sense of unity, trust, and acceptance often present in a platoon of close-knit soldiers.)
Typical animal therapy, including horse therapy, is intended to connect the participant with the mindset of the animal. A relaxed dog or relaxed horse can have immense benefits on those experiencing stress, trauma, and pain. But these are often short-term benefits, lasting only so long as the animal is near at hand.
By contrast, the “Third Herd Way” is dedicated towards achieving long-term healing. It does so by acknowledging that veterans and members of the public can work at creating lasting and durable bonds with horses so powerful that a transformation is possible: over time and with persistent cultivation of “mindfulness,” the veteran can gain acceptance into the herd, a vibrant and healthy reality grounded in the present moment and not in past trauma.
The “Third Herd Way” recognizes principles long understood by Native Peoples but largely overlooked in the Western world: that animals inhabit a world that has grown increasingly apart from our own, as we have become increasingly denatured through our modern lifestyles. For the “Third Herd Way” to work, the world of horses must be recognized as no less precious than our own, with their sense of reality just as viable as our own, etc.
Listening Horse is predicated on the belief that we can heal ourselves through persistently courting this beautiful and alternate dimension of the animal experience, which is grounded in the present moment. To this end, every veteran is expected to approach the horse on the horse’s terms. By doing so, the veteran begins to enter the reality of the horse and actively form a meaningful bond with them.
The experience of this bond may result in personal transformation. For some, it may be the first time they are assisted into the saddle of a horse they have bonded with, and realize the exhilaration of doing something they never thought possible.
For others, it may be the first time they ride bareback with the reins slack in the hands, and feel an absolute sense of oneness with the horse, grounded in the present moment and filled with trust. It is here in this dimension that lasting healing may occur.
To sign up for classes or for more information, go to www.listeninghorse.org