Horses That Heal Using DBT (Dialectical Behavior Therapy)

Horses that Heal through DBT (Dialectical Behavior Therapy)
Many of my readers have shared how animals play a role in their recovery from Mental Health symptoms and in their ongoing management of symptoms. Inspired by their stories, I looked into programs that integrate animal therapy into their practice.

This feature is about an organization called Trillium Family Services in Oregon, where horses are instrumental in teaching DBT (Dialectical Behavior Therapy) skills to those with emotion regulation issues, such as  Borderline Personality Disorder.

The following is my interview with Kristen Atwater, the Horse Program Director at Trillium Family Services.

Hello Kristen.  So, let's get started. Why horses in the instruction of DBT?

Hi Debbie! Horses are helpful in the instruction of DBT skills for several reasons.  First, they are very responsive animals.  Due to their natural standing as “prey” animals, they are always aware of their surroundings and are able to read and respond to their environment at all times.   This natural response by the horses is something we utilize as instructors to demonstrate specific DBT skills.  
    • Wise Mind:
      For example, in teaching wise mind; the balance between the emotional mind and the logical mind.  We can demonstrate what a response by each “mind” (emotional, logical and then wise mind) looks like by using the horses to do demonstrations.
    • Emotional Mind:For Emotional Mind, we often have a couple horses loose in the arena with an instructor or a client who walks up to them with something strange looking.  This could be a hoola hoop, a foam pool noodle, a tarp etc.  The horses consistently will make a snap judgment and perk their ears, look at it and turn and run away.  They don’t know what it is so they just get away from it.
    • Logical Mind:For Logical mind, we will present the horses with something they are used to and will produce a response that doesn't involve much emotion.  We might bring some food in to the arena, the horses without being too concerned of their surroundings will go right over and eat it.  They will easily just get right into a rhythm of eating and no longer care much about the strange looking items that are in a pile in the corner of the arena.  This is a way to demonstrate how only using the logical mind; the horses see food, they go eat it.
    • Wise Mind: Now we combine the two to make the horses help us demonstrate “Wise Mind”.  To do this, we might put their food and the previously scary object together.  The horses will often get scared, run away, come back, try to get to the food, sniff the object, touch the object, carefully investigate, pause, and just watch the items for a while, etc.   Eventually the horses will eat the food right next to the scary objects because they were able to balance their emotional response and their logical response without letting one completely take over. 

Wow. The DBT skills must come to life for the participants who observe this happening, right?

Most definitely. Activities like this provide a real and interactive way to better understand and experience DBT skills.  We can use these little demonstrations as talking points in the group to come up with other examples of using only your emotional mind or only your logical mind in tackling a situation.  

We also can compare what we saw the horses do in balancing their responses, and how people can balance their responses equally between the emotional mind and logical mind, thus using their wise mind.

Secondly, horses are big animals who respond best to confident and clear directions.  Because of this, they provide a great avenue in which to teach awareness around body language, and the difference between being assertive, passive and aggressive.  Students are able to get real feedback from the horses while practicing this.  A person ever so passively asking a horse to walk forward will not be successful but after changing their body language and interactions with their horse will be successful in the same task.

Lastly, horses are intriguing animals to people. They are exciting and novel feeling to be around.  This creates an engaging environment in which to learn and practice because people want to interact with the horses and their experiences are real and memorable.

This all sounds wonderful, Kristen.  Tell us a couple of success stories of applying Dialectical Behavior Therapy with horses. These can be brief examples or more in-depth specific descriptions of success stories.

Sure. Here are some quotes from students who have participated in our class:

  • "I enjoyed interaction with the horses while learning DBT skills and learning about the horses and how to care for them." - Female, age 16 
  • "I loved learning new things while relating it to horses." - Female, age 15
  • "I like being with the horses because I’m more at home with horses, and I can be their equal."  --Female, age 13
  • "It helps build relationships with my peers. It also builds trust and skills for my future." -- Male, age  16 
  • "The best thing about DBT with Horses is that you work with the real deal. It’s not in a clinic. -- Female, age 17 
  • "My favorite thing about DBT with Horses is that we get to incorporate ever day things with the horses, like emotions and social situations; including the social pyramid." -- Female, age 16

Wonderful. And, when did this program start?

It began in 2011 as a class only available to residents at the Children’s Farm Home, we have opened it up to outpatient clients as well in 2012.

Who can attend, and what is the cost?

Residential clients of the Childrens Farm Home as well as outpatient (non residential) clients from the community can attend.  We can only accept Medicaid clients for insurance payment but have a private pay option of $225 for 12 sessions (each an hour in length).  We accept ages 5-17.  No specific diagnosis is necessary to attend.

Wow. That seems quite reasonable. What a wonderful service!  What should a client expect to happen during a session?

A client should expect an educational portion for the first part of the class, this will involve learning about the skill, discussing it and coming up with examples of using it.  Afterwards a client will work with the horses sometimes as an individual, sometimes as a group to practice the DBT skill.  We end the session with a journaling activity.

Anything else about the program that I should be sure to include?

Please contact us if you would like more information!


I hope you all enjoyed this interview. Check out Trillium Family Service's Horse Program brochure here, and contact Kristen for more information.

Here are some photos from my readers who consider their pets to be very therapeutic as they pursue a life worth living:

Natalie and her "therapy dog" Mae

Daisey the "therapy beagle," and her sidekick, Moose
the cat. From reader Ann.
Susan's "therapy cat" Jazz

Susan's other "therapy cat" Shadow

Thanks for reading.
More Soon.


  1. I have ridden horses my whole life and am in school for veterinary medicine (again). Animals are healers. They are not judgmental. They get it. They get everything you cannot verbally say. It feels good that 'someone' is actually listening, and sometimes even better than people can! I encourage everyone to open up to the healing powers of animals, especially horses.

    Thanks for posting this. I love learning about places that offer these services. I want to get back into horse therapy again :)

    1. Hi Becky,

      Thank you SO much for sharing your experience around healing with animals. You are so right! Their ability to hold space for us in non-judgment is so powerful! I'm so happy you enjoyed this post. ♥ Debbie



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