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Experiencing the Healing Power of Equine Connections

Article by Meghan Smith / Photography by Mark Reeder

At eight years old, Sue Dixon first fell in love. Her father bought a quarter horse from Picov Downs. The horse, Tobin, had been treated poorly, causing him to be head shy and unwilling to pick up his feet for almost anyone, except Dixon.

“He let me pet his face and pick up his feet because I was just a kid,” recalls Dixon, who is a Huntsville resident and the owner of Partnering Horses with Humans. “It was all about trust. I trusted him and he trusted me.”

It was that special connection with horses that has led Dixon to build unions between horses and humans.

Partnering Horses with Humans is more than people sharing space with horses. It’s the opportunity for individuals to find themselves and their inner strength, through connections with horses. Highly intelligent and emotional animals, horses offer a bond to those who are navigating difficult life choices, experiencing anxiety or seeking comfort following the death of a loved one.

While Dixon’s first horse Tobin was sold after a few years, she knew she needed horses in her life. She began horseback riding lessons at a stable near her childhood home in Toronto. She bought a palomino, named Tex, who she rode through her teenage years until he developed lung congestion and had to be euthanized.

Dixon relocated to Huntsville in 1984 after years of visiting friends who spent summers at cottages in the area. Once again, Dixon found herself drawn to horses working in the stables at Deerhurst Resort, part-time, while also working part-time at the local Kimberly-Clark Corporation facility.

“After that job, they were out of my life for quite a while but every time I saw a horse in a field, I felt a connection,” says Dixon.

Around 2006, a co-worker at Kimberly-Clark lamented to Dixon that her daughter would not ride her horse in the winter because it was too cold. Dixon could not resist and was once again back at a stable, riding horses. As she got comfortable in the saddle and frequented the stables for horse time, Dixon wanted a horse of her own. Her coach had recently re-acquired a horse he was helping to sell and he happily introduced her to Eddie.

“He was an older gelding but as soon as I saw him, I knew that was the guy for me,” shares Dixon. “He was good for someone who needed to build their confidence back up. He even took me over a few jumps.”

Sadly, after a few years together, Eddie broke his leg and Dixon had to say goodbye. Heartbroken, Dixon stepped back and disengaged from the horse world. However, it wasn’t long before she realized how much she missed the community and the network she had with her barn family.

“After Eddie died, my husband said to me ‘You can’t not go back. It’s not much of a testament to Eddie if you don’t go back’,” remembers Dixon. “So, of course, I did go back.”

A friend of Dixon’s at the stable owned Egalie, a Thoroughbred-Clydesdale cross. Her coach insisted he was the right horse for her to gain back her confidence and feel comfortable. Always thinking he was a fancy horse, Dixon was nervous to get back in the saddle with Egalie.

“I was really honoured to ride him,” says Dixon. “It was a great experience.”

Not long after the first few rides with Egalie, Dixon found out that he was for sale. Her network at the riding facility cautioned that he’d been through trials in his life. Dixon knew the initial magnetism she felt with Egalie would help them work through any challenges, together. From there, she has not looked back.

“I would just hang out with him at first,” says Dixon. “We got to know each other and learn each other’s quirks. We bonded and we gave each other confidence.”

As Dixon developed her partnership with Egalie, she agreed to help another horse owner practice for Facilitated Equine Experiential Learning (FEEL) certification, al-though she did not fully know what it meant at the time. From those initial sessions, Dixon proceeded to participate as a client at Horse Spirit Connections, a stable in Tottenham that administers the FEEL program. 

“I had a session there with an off-track thoroughbred named Spirit Walker,” shares Dixon. “I had a profound experience with him. When we were debriefing my session, I started crying. He made me realize something that I needed to realize. Then I just had to go back.”

In 2016, Dixon completed her first Facilitated Equine Experiential Learning course that focussed on the bond between horses and humans and how to facilitate that connection. As a practitioner, Dixon facilitates interactions with a horse and a person on the ground, no horse-back riding involved. Sessions are a discovery, with horses offering support and love without judgement or pressure.

“The course taught me some of the scientific evidence behind my bond with Egalie,” shares Dixon. “My relationship with Egalie became even deeper. It made it real. And it made me appreciate all my relationships with my past horses.”

The FEEL process has the individual set goals for each session, with the main objective to have the person leave better than they arrived. Dixon facilitates sessions for clients, but swears the heavy-lifting is all done by the horses.

“I’m trained to work safely and guide the activities of the session,” shares Dixon. “I ask questions that provoke thought. Sometimes it’s just being in a horse’s company. It’s all about the horses. It’s not about me.”

Horse owners, Dixon imagines, often take for granted how special it can be to share space with the gentle giants. Individuals who are regularly around horses can take for granted the confidence and trust that’s required to lead a horse or, in some cases, to even touch them.

“You have to look where you’re going when you’re leading a horse,” explains Dixon. “If you’re looking back or are unsure, they won’t follow. That’s a powerful life lesson. Mindfulness and positive outcomes are a big part of the work I do.”

Recently, Dixon invited a group of psychiatrists and psychotherapists to attend a session with her. The activity had the client blindfolded, searching for the horse. During the exercise, the client suddenly said, “I feel such joy, all of a sudden,” and removed the blindfold to find the horse directly in front of her.

“Horses bring emotion to the surface,” explains Dixon. “Emotions aren’t always negative, even when the expression is crying.”

Often, Dixon’s clients have spent no time around horses before. She guides them through the session, as well as safely navigating their first interaction with a large prey animal. In a recent group session, Dixon hosted individuals with recent trauma in their lives. The session progressed the group from being nervous to feeling empowered.

“Through the whole session, one young woman just stayed emotionally flat,” says Dixon. “She didn’t engage. She wouldn’t smile. But then, when it was her turn to lead the horse, she turned around and she was smiling. She was glowing really. She took her power back and she just lit up.”

Connecting with horses is a magical experience, one that can provide insight to achieve personal, educational or professional goals. As a prey animal, horses are dependent on their sensitive observational skills and intuitive responses to their surrounding environment in order to survive. Their intuition surpasses what humans can, or refuse to, acknowledge.

“I think everyone can channel the bond with a horse,” says Dixon. “I work with people who have never been around horses and they connect.”

Although Egalie is her own special horse, Dixon works with many horses at locations in both Muskoka and Orillia, where Egalie resides. In her facilitation role, Dixon feels she can join up with most horses and discern what they can best help clients to achieve and overcome.

“Presto, he’s a very gifted Appaloosa,” says Dixon, referring to another horse she uses in her practice. “He has held space for people who are in a very dark place. He’s very sensitive while Egalie is better for people looking for confidence. He’s too much of a clown. Egalie tends to think some of the work is a bit of a game while Presto takes it more seriously.”

Dependent on the group or the individual client, Dixon plans sessions that may be highly interactive, involving leading the horse or grooming the horse, or may have almost no interaction at all, such as watching the horse from outside a round pen. Every session is geared to the individual and the positive outcomes they want to achieve. Dixon’s clients can engage with horses in a safe environment, have time to understand their own actions and understand how actions impact the behaviour of and relationship to the horse.

In May 2019, Dixon went back to Horse Spirit Connections and completed an advanced certification in Facilitated Equine Experiential Learning. The advanced course delves even further into the spiritual connection between horse and humans.

“Every horse is a gift and every horse has a gift,” shares Dixon. “There is so much to learn and it’s so evident how connected horses actually are to us.”

Horses can sense both inner and outer wounds and connect with human feelings. As each horse holds a different energy, so can they pick up on the energy of those around them. Through equine assisted learning, Dixon facilitates horse interactions that help individuals recognize coping strategies, move beyond pain and connect with true potential.

“Every time I work with horses, I learn something else,” says Dixon. “No two people are the same, no two horses are the same, and so no two sessions are ever the same. I get to work with horses and I get to see horses help people.”

For those who know horses, each one has their own individual personality, just as humans do. Earning the trust of a horse, as Dixon does on a regular basis with her clients, is an exceptional gift. The confidence to lead and guide a 1000-pound animal can alter the way an individual walks, talks and even thinks about themselves. For Dixon, Partnering Horses with Humans is about building others up and continuously learning from those around us, especially the horses.

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