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Originally published February 21, 2013 at 8:18 PM | Page modified February 21, 2013 at 10:07 PM

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Book explores science of horse and human connections

Equine therapy — using the strong horse-human connection to help people heal — is the subject of a book by a Chehalis horse trainer who is also a mental-health therapist.

The (Centralia) Chronicle

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The similarity between humans and horses is remarkable. Their diseases are very similar... MORE

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Leigh Shambo wants you to understand the science of horse whispering.

A Chehalis horse trainer and licensed mental-health therapist, Shambo wants you to know, in biological terms, how horses and humans connect, and she wants you to know exactly why that connection is more powerful than one with, say, a dog, a cat or another human.

Explaining the previously inscrutable practice of equine-facilitated therapy is the driving force behind “The Listening Heart,” Shambo’s self-published first book. Co-authored with her husband, David Young, the book — a project seven years in the making — breaks new ground, according to Shambo and Young.

“A lot of people have been banging away at this subject for a while,” said Young, a horse trainer and researcher. “They’ve written a lot of emotional stuff that’s very rich, but this is the first book to explore the scientific basis.”

“The anecdotal evidence shows that the horse did something magical and the person felt much better,” Shambo said. “But the skeptics want to know why.”

Innate, emotion-driven, mammal-to-mammal connection is Shambo’s answer.

Both humans and horses are biologically predisposed to living in small groups, held together by friendship and familial bonds, she said. That predisposition, she said, is coded in the brain’s limbic system, the part of the brain that regulates emotion, behavior and social bonding.

Harnessing this limbic connection can provide powerful healing, particularly for people who do not trust other humans, Shambo said.

During an equine-facilitated therapy session, there is little to no riding. Instead, students interact quietly with the horses, using them to better understand themselves and their relationships with others.

Humans and horses in similar social standing tend to find each other; a woman recovering from an abusive spouse, for instance, might work with Gem, Shambo’s diminutive, 40-year-old mare.

“The horses will astound you with the different things they do with each person,” Shambo said. “They have an incredible ability to amplify what’s right in the person, what unique, adaptive strengths they have to relate to another mammal.”

Many of those successes are detailed in “The Listening Heart.”

Shambo and Young detail one study, for example, that measured depression, anxiety, dissociation and ability to function in everyday life. The vast majority of the participants — a group of clients from Cascade Mental Health — saw their symptoms improve through equine-facilitated therapy.

Depression “virtually plummeted,” and “continued to drop” four months after therapy was completed, according to Shambo.

For some participants — particularly those suffering from complex post-traumatic stress disorder — the equine therapy succeeded where other treatments had not.

“The horse isn’t getting paid to tell you something nice or put a label on you,” Shambo said. “If it’s coming from the horse, it’s going to be straight.”

Shambo and Young say they hope the information in their book will help move equine-facilitated therapy from a fringe practice to a widely accepted one.

“We need to establish its importance. It’s a cumbersome and expensive type of therapy,” Young said. “But it’s also really powerful.”

Student Shirley Mitchell walked along the paddock fence Tuesday, and — like some ancient ritual — waited for a horse to choose her.

The last time Mitchell worked with the horses, she planned to partner with Beau, but was instead chosen by Dixie, she said.

So Tuesday, she went into the exercise without preconceptions.

The third horse that Mitchell passed, Cloud, approached the fence; the two would work together.

“Horses have a special way of working with people,” said Shambo, who founded the Human-Equine Alliance for Learning in 2000.

“If they approach you, it’s very intentional. If they can’t read you they walk away.”

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