Former clients Allegra Solitaro, foreground, and Michael Bullard visit the Project Horse Empowerment Center, a provider of therapy services in Purcellville, Va., on May 10.(BRETT ZIEGLER FOR USN&WR)

Former clients Allegra Solitaro, foreground, and Michael Bullard visit the Project Horse Empowerment Center, a provider of therapy services in Purcellville, Va., on May 10.(BRETT ZIEGLER FOR USN&WR)

PETTING HER AUSTRALIAN shepherd service dog Wren, Allegra Solitario says she's always liked animals.

So when she was in middle school and "going through a rough time" with panic attacks, depression and other physical ailments – and feeling "enclosed" in traditional therapy – her parents leveraged that love to try to get her the help she needed.

"(Working with horses) helped me to be a little bit more social because normally I would never really talk about feelings or what was going on in my mind, so it made me open up a bit more," says Solitario, who between seventh and ninth grade participated in a horse-assisted group therapy program through the Project Horse Empowerment Center in Loudoun CountyVirginia. "It's a different type of therapy, but it's a therapy I enjoy."

In a field officially known as equine-assisted psychotherapy, clients like Solitario can work with a mental health professional and a horse specialist on therapy goals, ranging from dealing with depressionand anxiety to boosting self-esteem and recovering from traumatic life experiences. Under guidance, the client interacts with a horse to varying degrees, perhaps simply learning to pet the horse or leading it through an obstacle course.

The goal: to create a sense of calm control that can help the client both in the moment and later on.

"It's more about the horse than it is about you. You have to focus on everything about the horse," Solitario says. "It made me forget all about my problems, all about my worries, because I had to focus so much on the horse or so much on what I was doing with the horse."

The idea of equine-assisted therapy more typically calls to mind its successful use as a therapeutic tool for kids with sensory issues or autism. And while it became more widely recognized and practiced for mental health purposes in the 1990s, years later it's still less commonly known and used as a mental health tool, perhaps as a result of relatively limited research into its benefits. Safety also is a consideration, with the potential for being stepped on, bit or kicked that a traditional therapy session doesn't present.

Yet those who have participated or practiced in the field say its departure from the traditional office setting provides a less pressured environment, and that it's gaining in popularity.

"I think when we talk about traditional therapy, there's this really rigid boundary around what we consider therapy, where you go into an office, you sit across from a therapist and you talk about your problems," says Jenny Preston, manager of equine therapy at Newport Academy, a teen therapy and rehab organization focused on mental health and substance use issues. "What equine really does is it bumps up against that boundary and tries to make that boundary a little more fluid."

Leslie Roberts, a licensed professional counselor and a certified substance abuse counselor, has worked at Project Horse for almost a decade, and has practiced equine-assisted therapy for 15 years. With her experience in therapy totaling more than 25 years, Roberts equates one equine-assisted therapy session to "eight or nine office visits."

"There are so many similarities between horses and people – they're both in a social context," Roberts says. "It helps people identify what they're feeling. The horses reflect beautifully the emotional state that people are presenting in front of them."

Roberts, who worked with Solitario, says the human body's response to being near a horse naturally coaxes clients who "come in too anxious, too depressed to even think that they could make changes" to relax.

"Oxytocin is that good hormone in our bodies that makes us want to connect with others. It immediately happens when you work with a horse," Roberts says. "So there's lower blood pressure, heart rate slows down, breathing slows down, because people can't think and feel at the same time. They really need to calm themselves down in that sort of primitive part of their brain so that they can make decisions and look at things in different ways.

"The horses are wonderful because they help you see things in different ways," she continues. "You can see the world in a whole different viewpoint."

For Sophie Sinsigalli from Santa Cruz, California, participating in equine-assisted therapy through Newport Academy provided a level of familiar comfort as she sought treatment at the age of 15 for anxiety and an eating disorder.

"Horses have always calmed me and whatnot, so it really helped to be around horses in such a stressful time," recalls Sinsigalli, now 19. "It taught me about how horses mimic your moods, and how horses can teach you about yourself. I find that If I'm fighting with my horse today, it usually means that I'm mad at someone or that something's going on within my own life."

Sinsigalli, who has had her own horse since she was 13, says she noticed how the therapy offered a welcome diversion from her anxiety.

"I always find that if I'm distracted in some way or another, I'm more likely to talk about my problems than if I'm just sitting down, looking at a person, so it really allowed me to face my problems and figure out what they really were," she says.

Using horses for mental health isn't limited to children and teens. Such programs also have been used as a way to help veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, and organizations like Project Horse can help families and individuals work to overcome issues such as a death in the family or a child who is acting out.

Darcy Woessner, executive director of Project Horse, says that as prey animals, horses are intuitive to how humans – natural predators – act when nearby.

"Horses are sensitive and extremely perceptive, and they pick up on incongruencies in people," Woessner says. "So if someone comes out and is around the horses and says they're not afraid of the horses, but on the inside they're really nervous and uncomfortable, the horse will pick up on that and respond."

Compounded by a lack of access to mental health resources, the stigma that can be associated with seeing a therapist may cause young people to resist seeking help when they need it most. But for some, taking time outside the traditional therapy setting and working with a horse can guide them through their emotions, says Cristina Lindsay, a life coach at Project Horse.

"I think what happens with teens is that oftentimes they can project what's going on with them onto the horses, so it helps them to give a voice to what they're experiencing or feeling in their lives," Lindsay says. "You can't bullshit a horse."

source: https://www.usnews.com/news/healthiest-communities/articles/2018-05-24/horses-help-anxious-teens-in-equine-assisted-psychotherapy 

 

Equine Therapy: How Horses Help Humans Heal

Super-sensitive animals may pick up on hidden emotional trauma.

SITTING WITHIN THE confines of a traditional office, talking things out with a therapist between four walls, doesn't always work for kids and adults grappling with tough mental, emotional and behavioral health issues. For some people, adding equine-assisted psychotherapy may be an option. Hanging out with horses could feel more natural and nonthreatening – and you don't even have to ride.

Vulnerable Creatures

"I use horses to help folks heal," says Holly Hansen, an equine-assisted psychotherapist with Sabino Recovery, a residential treatment center in Tucson, Arizona. She's part of a team approach that uses a mental health professional, an equine specialist and horses to treat people with emotional trauma and addiction.

This on-the-ground therapy incorporates a connection between troubled humans and highly sensitive animals. "Horses, while they're very large animals, are very vulnerable," Hansen says. As prey animals, horses are hypervigilant, constantly scanning their environment for potential danger. "People who've experienced trauma can really relate to that," she says.

She recalls a client she treated at a previous workplace, a man with chronic relapses of drug and alcohol abuse. Along with receiving regular office therapy, he reluctantly agreed to walk out and sit in the adjoining pasture where horses grazed. After a couple weeks, the horses came closer and closer. Finally, a single horse approached and got down near him. The trusting relationship that gradually developed led to a breakthrough for the man, Hansen says. Instead of temporary abstinence, he achieved real and lasting recovery.

Sabino Recovery is a private pay residential facility. However, Hansen says, outpatient equine therapy in the Tucson area costs about $225 for a two-hour session. "Depending on the insurance plan. If a licensed clinician is facilitating the equine therapy session, then the session may be covered the same way any other therapy session would be covered by insurance," she says.

Hansen is hard-pressed to name a type of client who wouldn't benefit from equine therapy – other than someone who's severely allergic to horses.

Equal Footing

Amanda, a 13-year-old student, shows up at the main barn in a state of frustration over backbiting friends and middle-school drama. Her session at the Project Horse Empowerment Center in Purcellville, Virginia, begins with a short walk to a nearby field alongside equine specialist Maria Kimble and therapist Heather Kirby. The adults, in T-shirts, shorts and caps, are dressed for horses and the heat on this August day.

About three-fourths of the center's clients are under 18, says Darcy Woessner, executive director of the volunteer-led nonprofit center and a certified equine specialist. Kids are dealing with issues including attention deficit and eating disorders, trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder, autism, and emotional and behavioral modification.

Equal Footing

Amanda, a 13-year-old student, shows up at the main barn in a state of frustration over backbiting friends and middle-school drama. Her session at the Project Horse Empowerment Center in Purcellville, Virginia, begins with a short walk to a nearby field alongside equine specialist Maria Kimble and therapist Heather Kirby. The adults, in T-shirts, shorts and caps, are dressed for horses and the heat on this August day.

About three-fourths of the center's clients are under 18, says Darcy Woessner, executive director of the volunteer-led nonprofit center and a certified equine specialist. Kids are dealing with issues including attention deficit and eating disorders, trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder, autism, and emotional and behavioral modification.

At the pasture area, the rest of the treatment team – two horses named Hope and Uncanny – awaits in two stalls within a small fenced area. All stand and interact.

"We refer to it as equal footing," Woessner says. Some clients don't even touch the horse, at least for a session or two, she says, because of extreme fear or anxiety. Some interact with horses over the fence. She recalls how one young boy with a history of horrible early neglect and abuse taught a horse how to kick a ball.

Uncanny, a thoroughbred quarter horse mix, is Amanda's favorite. Throughout the session, as the horses nuzzle Amanda's back or otherwise compete for her attention, Kirby and Kimble will help her draw parallels between the animals' behavior and situations among Amanda and her friends.

While petting Uncanny's mane, Amanda vents about school acquaintances who butt in. Hope continues to nuzzle Amanda, at one point forcing her to kneel and speak underneath the horse to her therapist. "Do you like her to do that?" Kimble asks. "No." "How would you tell Hope not to do that?"

As the humans talk about setting limits and learning social skills, the horses seem to be listening. Amanda, by simply standing with an air of confidence and assertiveness, wordlessly claims her own space as the large, pushy horse moves away.

Walking back to the main barn, Amanda appears happier and more relaxed. Her mother is waiting, and Amanda greets her with smiles, giving her a rundown of the session. ("Sort of role play," Amanda says.)

Afterward, as Amanda chats with the therapists, her grateful mother makes it clear these visits aren't just pleasant interludes. Amanda has been receiving equine therapy since March, following her latest of multiple hospitalizations for emotional issues including self-harm. Equine therapy is "beneficial," Amanda's mother says, and "an eye-opening experience."

Riding to Recovery

Horseback riding, carriage driving and on-the-ground equine therapy are methods used to help veterans with PTSD or traumatic brain injury, with sessions resuming this week in a peaceful Leesburg, Virginia, setting.

Carriage therapy, involving a horse-drawn adapted cart, is ideal for wounded warriors. "Veterans who are using a wheelchair and are participating at a wheelchair level can learn how to drive a horse and the skills involved in doing so," says Lucile Lisle, a nationally certified recreation therapist at the Washington DC VA Medical Center. Therapeutic horseback riding also addresses a variety of mental-health issues.

"I work with the veterans individually, along with their riding instructor, to help them formulate goals they'd like to work on," Lisle says. To cope with short-term memory deficits, for instance, veterans might learn strategies to help remember the chronological order of steps for securing the bridle and saddle on the horse, or the harness for carriage driving.

Soon, veterans are able to walk, then trot on the horse. "You're able to take control of that horse and be in charge as the rider," Lisle says, and self-confidence grows. Among veterans who have issues with anxiety or hypervigilance related to traumatic brain injury or PTSD, horse therapy can help them relax and feel more comfortable as they build trusting bonds.

The before-and-after difference is often vast. "Those veterans start out where they're just participating in in-house therapies, and they really aren't very independent or functional as much out into the community," Lisle says. "They may stay at home most of the time, and they don't have resources. Horseback riding also gives them those resources."

After 10 or so weekly sessions with horses, vets notice they're adjusting better to their disability or injury and are more relaxed in their daily lives. "Perhaps they're applying for a job," Lisle says. "Or they're out in the community in some other setting and they realize, 'Wow, this is really helping me.'"

Before You Sign Up

As an emerging treatment, equine therapy lacks a robust body of supporting evidence from large, long-term or randomized controlled studies. If you're considering equine-assisted therapy, look for a balanced treatment team that includes a mental health provider with equine-therapy training and an equine specialist. The Equine Assisted Growth and Learning Association, or EAGALA, certifies professionals in its treatment model.

source: https://health.usnews.com/health-news/patient-advice/articles/2016-09-02/equine-therapy-how-horses-help-humans-heal