Healing Through Horses
Horses have a unique ability to respond to human emotions
By Lesley Berkshire Bradley » Photos by Brandon Williams
With their heads hovering over 6 feet in the air and weighing nearly 1500 pounds, it is hard to imagine that horses bring comfort to people experiencing anxiety, depression, grief, physical disabilities or PTSD. Yet, despite, or perhaps because of their size, horses help people heal.
In the Sandhills, three organizations harness the healing power of horses. Each group has a different focus, but all three understand that horses have a unique ability to respond to human emotions and give immediate, and visible, feedback to humans. If the horse is happy, their ears are forward; if they are not pleased, their ears lay back. If they are not enjoying their time with you, they will simply turn and walk away.
This straightforward and authentic communication offers opportunities to help people learn social skills, flexibility, self-control and problem-solving. Simply being outdoors, in a peaceful farm environment, surrounded by the sounds of horses nickering and swishing their tails, makes it easier to open up dialogues about difficult topics.
Prancing Horse Center for Therapeutic Horsemanship opened its barn doors in 1984 teaching horsemanship to young people with disabilities. It is accredited by PATH, the Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship International.
Students learn the basics of horse care such as brushing their horse, and then move onto riding one of 14 horses in the program. With horses ranging from a tiny former driving pony to a gentle giant named Lana, a former Amish plow horse, there is a horse to fit everyone. Riders must have trained sidewalkers and leaders, requiring nearly 90 volunteers to manage the demands for Prancing Horses’ services.
The horsemanship classes at Prancing Horse provide physical benefits, such as strengthening the core muscles of a child with low muscle tone. And also, emotional benefits, such as slowly rocking with the horse as it walks in the ring. And let’s not forget the sense of pride that a student gets from meeting a challenge, overcoming it and realizing how much they can really do, and even winning a ribbon at the annual horse show.
“We see so much growth in the kids during the year, they are ready and excited to try new things,” notes Judy Lewis, Prancing Horse Executive Director, “The connection with an animal so large is powerful.”
Prancing horse has expanded their services to include two new programs. Saddle Up is a one-week horsemanship program for children of active-duty service members and Freedom Reins is a program for both active-duty service members and for veterans.
Andrea St. Hilaire, a life-long competitive equestrian, says that ‘horses saved her’ and so, she is paying it forward through her therapeutic equine program at Halcyon Healing Center. With a strong personal connection to the military, St. Hilaire focuses on helping soldiers who suffer from PTSD, often coming to Halcyon as the result of a referral from a military chaplain or a soldier’s friends.
Her farm and the horses offer a respite, a place to just wander or to engage with the horses. Halcyon is in the process of completing the accreditation from PATH.
“When significant change occurs throughout life, from role changes and retirements, dying and loss, or even ‘leveling up’ with career progress, pain can be felt, and forms of grieving can occur,” explains St. Hilaire, “The animals and the peaceful setting allow the mental space to rediscover that connection within ourselves, to sort out life’s challenges, and to find footing in building forward.”
The services offered at Halcyon are tailored to each individual. Some may want formal riding lessons while others may just want to spend time with their children and families in order to reconnect after deployments. The environment at Halcyon is designed to be safe, calm and welcoming, and to ensure that the soldiers feel accepted and understood. The 18-acre farm is home to the therapy horses, as well as donkeys (Ranger and Recon) and the resident calf (Ambush).
At Halcyon, the hope is that a soldier will feel a gentle rapport with the horses, learn to trust themselves and their intuition. Even the simple act of quietly grooming a horse, can provide an opening for meaningful conservation.
“Just being able to have a safe place to talk about their buddies can help them find footing,” adds St. Hilaire.
Be Herd Equine-Assisted Counseling Services follows a traditional therapy approach, utilizing Licensed Therapists/Licensed Mental Health Counsels but in this case the therapist is working in conjunction with a horse handler and the client. Each client has an assessment and a treatment plan. Neither riding nor horsemanship are taught at Be Herd. Rather, instead of going to a therapist’s office, the horse farm offers the clients a different environment in which to address their mental health challenges, such as anxiety or depression.
The therapist is watching the client in the moment of behavior; they are seeing through the lens of what is happening between the client and the horse. This allows the therapist to ask less invasive questions, such as ‘how do you feel right now versus when you are at home’ or ‘how do you feel about how the horse is behaving’, or ‘where else is this happening in your life’.
With this therapy approach, the client gets live feedback from the horse. A high energy child who approaches a horse and sees that it runs away, opens the door to talk about why the horse ran way. It is an experiential approach to therapy, allowing the therapist and client to gain insight on their behavior patterns and the opportunity to try something different in real-time.
Horses behave similarly to people in their social environments, as such, the therapy approach can help people develop healthy relationships by teaching them to use cooperation to get the horse to work with them versus assuming that submission is the best course of action. And accomplishing a goal with their horse improves the client’s confidence.
“There is nothing more validating for our clients than when the animals respond,” notes Denise Dauval, Be Herd Director and Equine Specialist.
You don’t have to participate in one of the therapeutic equine programs in order to enjoy some of the healing benefits of a day spent with horses. Prancing Horse holds its annual fundraiser Barn Tour on October 17, 2021. With nearly 500 people taking the self-guided tour of six outstanding farms in the Sandhills, it is one of the most popular local events of
For more information:
Halcyon Healing Center, halcyonhc.org
Prancing Horse Therapeutic Horsemanship, prancing-horse.org
Be Herd Equine-Counseling Services, beherdtherapy.com