It was on the back of a horse that Dale Phillips found a voice for the anger and pain he had been carrying from years of childhood sexual abuse. Now he is offering that same solace through his horses to those suffering from addiction.
Phillips is the equine therapist for Bluff Plantation treatment center in south Augusta. The therapy has been noted in different studies for helping improve the functioning of children with autism spectrum disorder and has been found to reduce anxiety and other symptoms for trauma patients and those with post-traumatic stress disorder.
More recently it is being added at various treatment centers for addiction and Phillips said he has started four programs in the last four years to provide equine therapy. He knows it has helped him, even before he knew it was therapy.
He got his first horse when he was 7 years old, growing up in northern Mississippi, and horses became a refuge in childhood from his abuse and the taunting he endured at school.
“The only thing I had was horses,” Phillips said. “I’ve always coped with them. And didn’t realize what I was actually doing until the last 10 years. I kind of fell into it by accident really.”
It was while sitting atop a horse one night that he finally opened up about his childhood abuse and later a therapist encouraged him to pursue becoming one himself, which he has done the last eight years.
There is a simplicity to it in that horses have “no agenda,” Phillips said. “They are just being horses. People look at them and they don’t see them as threatening.”
But they have something in common with people struggling with addiction, he said.
“Horses do what is natural to them and that is survival,” Phillips said. “When people are struggling with addiction, that is kind of the mode they are in, they are trying to survive. Substance abuse overrides everything else in their lives.”
How a group of patients interact with a group of horses is telling, he said. Often, when told to pick a horse, a patient might interact with only one horse.
“Generally, they will pick the one that comes to them first,” Phillips said. “And that gives me an opportunity to say, ‘Is that how all of your relationships are?’ And they are able to see how they get in such relationships, how they do not invest in relationships.”
How patient and horse interact can also open the door to have other conversations. Phillips remembers one man who was getting frustrated because the horse would not do what he wanted and the man began cursing it to the point where Phillips had to step in. That suddenly opened the man’s eyes.
“He finally saw what his behavior was and he was just floored,” Phillips said. “He was just overwhelmed with grief and remorse.”
The setting, outside and away from the main treatment center, also encourages people to open up in a way that sitting in a room talking would not, he said.
“When you’re out there, you feel normal,” Phillips said. Horses get that.