"Neigh," my horse called out to me. She held her head high and perked her ears toward me. At that moment, I knew I wasn’t healing from another surgery alone. My animals would always be by my side.
I set the walker that held my limping self aside, letting my horse support me. She stayed close, like she could sense my physical and emotional pain. From that day on, my horse provided me with unconditional love as I healed until I could thrive with her again.
Freedom. Love. Trust.
Empowered. Understood. Grounded.
Peace. Joy. Safe.
This is what I felt my first time on a horse. I still feel these things every time I am with horses today. As a childhood burn survivor with scars on roughly 91% of my body, these are all of the things I struggled to feel in my day-to-day life growing up. And frankly, there are still times of struggle today. The scars on my physical body often caused me to feel judged, misunderstood, restricted, unsafe, and uneasy.
When I found horses, that all changed.
There are no endless questions about my scarred, patched-together body or my dark past. There is no judgment, no need to explain why I am the way I am. Rather, horses accept and show me love just for being me. They have taught me to strive to be better, do more, and give more. At my lowest points, when I would wonder if there was anything to keep fighting for, they stayed by my side as I learned how to heal and save myself.
My love for horses began after riding at a camp for burn survivors in Estes Park, Colorado. The repetitive trauma of countless surgeries as a result of my burn injury caused many difficult times growing up. It shook my sense of feeling safe in my body. When working with horses, one of the most important elements is trust. Eventually, I came to understand that if I could feel safe and could trust a 1000 lb animal I could also feel safe and trust myself, others, and the world again.
Horseback riding can positively contribute to the cognitive, physical, emotional, and social well-being of people at all stages and from all walks of life:
Horseback riding provides rhythmic, three-dimensional movement that stimulates the rider’s body with movement similar to the human gait. This helps improve the rider's
Fine and gross motor skills
Horses mirror one's emotions overall, helping to teach emotional regulation
Socially, horseback riding offers a sense of community and feeling of belonging
All of these benefits can uniquely help those affected by a burn injury learn to survive and thrive in life again.
Horses ultimately saved me from becoming a constant victim to my burn injury. They taught me work ethic and drive, how to make adaptations, take care of myself, love life and so much more!
Please note that riding may cause chafing or irritation without appropriate equipment and/or adaptations to protect scarred skin. If you are interested in riding horses and have concerns, please contact your medical team or an equine professional. Or, feel free to contact Michelle for guidance and assistance with finding the proper equipment. For more information regarding the benefits of horses, click here.
Michelle Lauren Anderson, MA, MBA, is a Minnesota native. At 2 years old, she was burned on over 91% of her body. She learned how to navigate life with her scars on her sleeves. After attending a camp for burn survivors in Colorado, she fell in love with horses and spent years training and competing horses. She is now an Equine Specialist in Mental Health and Learning and a Certified Therapeutic Riding Instructor. When Michelle is not spending time with her animals she is a Business Analyst and is writing a book about her burn survivor journey. Visit her website for more information.
Portraits courtesy of Jamie Sukow