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COLUMN:Psychologist taps into real horsepower

A horse is only a horse, of course, unless the horse is an adjunct psychotherapist.

Local clinical psychologist Dr. Paul Haefner calls this curious style of horsepower key to his thriving sports and general psychology business, Riding Far LLC.

Using horses used for therapy isn't new, as most riders will tell you, Haefner said.

Yet it is a new idea to pair classic psychiatric treatment with direct and active work with horses at liberty, under saddle and in competition.

The results are telling.

Haefner's clients range from beginner riders to international champions. Each gains a measure of confidence and self-awareness from direct ― innovative and unexpected ― work with horses.

“My goal is to raise riders・awareness of the importance of mental and emotional skills in equestrian sport,・Haefner said.

"By achieving personal riding goals, we can tap into some real growth potential in other aspects."

It's a dry way of putting a rather intriguing and complex theory: By watching and expanding our physical, emotional and mental relationship with our horses, Haefner maintains, he can help create a new reality; a new storyline.

One that resonates with the modern notion of self-improvement, self-awareness and self-sufficiency.

“We create our own reality," Haefner said.

"By not make it a positive, creative, winning self-conversation, not one of self-defeat. By raising out self-awareness, we can tap into true individual potential," he said.

A graduate of Iona University in New York and Catholic University in Washington, D.C., Haefner began riding as a child in his native Rochester, N.Y.

Haefner, 52, linked horses to clinical psychology when he opened his practice some 25 years ago.

“I knew the attraction of horses,・he said. "It's powerful medicine."

Haefner has a doctorate in clinical psychology, and he's a Certified Master Practitioner of Neuro-linguistic Programming.

Also a Certified Clinical Hypnotherapist, Haefner works with the Loudoun Therapeutic Riding Foundation, Equine Assisted Growth and Learning Association.

He also serves on the board of the Horses and Humans Research Foundation.

His multi-faceted experience ― and more than four decades of riding ― gives Haefner an edge when it comes to working directly with riders.

He can better talk to them about fear of a big jump, anxiety when on a young horse that's “getting a little light on the front end” and offering to rear, or in-gate nerves.

“Many [horsemen] have issues like performance pressure, fear, anxiety, motivation, goal setting, focus and problems with concentration," he said.

"Tapping into equine-facilitated personal and professional development, you begin to develop the unique relationship between people and their equine partners. A relationship with a horse is a mirror to our relationship with ourselves, and others."

Haefner believes work with horses, especially at liberty, helps develop self-awareness and begins the healing and growth processes to overcome everything from simple performance anxiety at a horse show to serious relationship conflicts, depression and anxiety.

In liberty sessions, Haefner turns a horse loose ― no bridle or saddle ― and sets his client to work “moving” the horse around [no use of hands allowed] and trying to become a “dance partner” with the animal.

It's hard, he said, but also telling.

“One of the hardest parts of my job as a sport psychologist is convincing riders that self-awareness, self-knowledge and self-regulation [discipline] are as important as riding skills," Haefner said.

"To better understand your horse, we must first better understand ourselves.・

Therapist Gabrielle Gardner uses horses in her Shine For Life work, and she echoes the value of the horse-human relationship.

“One of the reasons I think equine-assisted therapies work so well is that everyone has a reaction to horses," she said.

"People either love them or fear them, so that's two big emotions that immediately reflect what most of life's issues" encompass.

“If you overcome the fear, it isn't a bad starting point," she said.

Haefner said horses naturally pick up on the way a client is feeling, mirroring emotions and responding in kind.

Haefner works in a small, enclosed area of a paddock at a farm he leases near The Plains.

A typical session has him turning one of his horses loose in the pen and sending a client in on foot a few minutes later.

As a herd animal attuned to stress and body language, a horse will move away from an angry person, he said, and following someone it trusts.

A horse becomes unsettled when it senses fear.

“The reaction of the horse helps guide our session," Haefner said. "So often riders ― and I include myself here ― are impatient and unforgiving when it comes to ourselves. When a [mental] problem arises, we want it to change, and change quickly. Riders want their confidence back, or their fear and anxiety to go away. Yet, we all know that change is a process," he said.

"Psychological attributes of a solid equestrian competitor are nurtured and developed over time. What lies at the core are three things: emotional tolerance, capacity to focus, and self-awareness," he said.

"In order to face the challenges of our sport and succeed, a rider needs to be able to tolerate a wide range of emotion, which may include feelings such as anxiety, frustration, disappointment, fear, anger, excitement, etc," he said.

"The capacity to accept what we feel, without the immediate need to discharge the feeling or react to it, is the core of emotional fitness.”

For instance, if you “always” get nervous at the in-gate before performing in a horse show, Haefner creates a new strategy for the seconds ticking down to showtime: Do a quick visual review of the course, take three deep breaths and use a silent repetition of a mantra.

Do a ritual straightening of the number pinned to the back of your jacket ― always use the same hand, holding your reins in the other, and a ritual stroke of your horse's shoulder as you jog into the arena.

Like Olympic champion swimmer Michael Phelps, who famously performs identical ritual warm-up stretches prior to diving in, any rider at any level can learn new strategies, and un-learn distracting mental blocks.

“These are helpful techniques," Haefner said.

"Whether you're talking about fear of a big downhill coop out of muddy footing in the hunt field to being scared to fly on an airplane, we create our own reality," he said.

Practice doesn't make perfect, he said, perfect practice makes perfect. And this includes mental practice.

Riding Far offers seminars throughout the year in addition to private counseling sessions – unmounted, mounted, and at competitions. Log onto www.Ridingfar.com for details.

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