Horses Healing Hearts
Equine-assisted therapy benefits all participants
BY JANICE LEWINE
Horses possess traits that are unrivaled in the animal kingdom. As prey animals highly attuned to their surroundings, equines depend on their survival by being aware of everything in their environment and communicating with each other. When humans enter their space, they become aware of the feelings people carry and can read even the most subtle body cues.
These abilities have enabled equines to be ideal candidates for individuals dealing with mental, emotional and physical challenges. Equine-assisted therapy is an experience-based treatment option offering a variety of modalities, including therapeutic riding, hippotherapy, occupational therapy and mental health treatment. Professionals guide clients of all ages through activities with horses to enhance the quality and productivity of their lives. Each program offers different goals for the people involved.
Finding a Path at Unbridled Way Forward
Amanda Graham, founder of Unbridled Way Forward in Rougemont and a licensed clinical mental health counselor, says clients seek out her services to deal with something in their lives—a relationship issue, anxiety, depression or grief—but don’t know how to move forward.
“Working outside with horses who are at liberty to respond as they wish provides so many opportunities for people to learn about themselves—and their challenges and strengths. Talking in an office about problems has its benefits, but bringing a person out into a new environment—with horses and facilitators—to work on those issues brings things to life in a way that talking just doesn’t,” Graham explains.
Clients at Unbridled Way Forward engage with horses on the ground, with no riding involved. Working with a mental health facilitator and an equine specialist who provides physical safety for both the horse and client, individuals begin their session with a mindfulness exercise to come into the present moment, then head to the pasture. Sessions can involve silence as clients engage with horses up close or from afar, as well as discussions with the facilitator about their thoughts and experiences.
“Horses help us bring ourselves out of our thinking brain and into our bodies,” she says. “To stand in their presence, or by touching or brushing the horses, people begin to feel that relationship build. Their defenses go down, and their bodies and minds relax.” This mental repose leads individuals to gain more insight on their struggle, and provides them the confidence and compassion to move toward a resolution.
Unbridled Way Forward serves older teenagers and adults, and offers monthly guided Herd Meditations that allow participants to interact with the horses, or simply explore the space. Facilitators close the session with a brief discussion of experiences for those who want to share.
Building a Brighter Future at Corral Riding Academy Corral Riding Academy offers farms in Raleigh and Cary to serve girls ages 11–18 years old who are in high-risk situations with low protective factors and resources. Most have faced trauma and have multiple odds stacked against them, yet they hold a capacity for change through a holistic program of equine therapy and education.
Corral, founded in 2008, collaborates with referral partners to identify participants and then pairs them with one of 15 rescue horses in its 12-week Join the Herd program. Through its team of licensed professionals, girls spend the majority of the time on the ground developing a meaningful relationship with a horse, a process which is almost identical to how they would foster a healthy relationship with a person.
“For kids with trauma, they have learned a lot of maladaptive relationship skills to stay safe in their environments,” explains executive director and co-founder Joy Currey, who has witnessed 514 girls discover a brighter future through the program’s community-funded services. “If a horse is passive or resistant, the therapist steps in and helps the girls identify the behaviors, attitudes and beliefs that might be inhibiting their ability to create strong relationships. Horses reteach those skills. The work itself is also healing to the horses, who come from difficult situations as well,” she says.
After completing the Join the Herd program, girls can apply for The Riding Academy, a long-term intervention that combines individualized equine-assisted psychotherapy with academic tutoring, vocational training, mentorship and family counseling. Lasting anywhere from one to six years and occupying 17 hours a week, The Riding Academy is where Corral sees real-life change in its participants.
“Kids who enter The Riding Academy usually aren’t doing well in school, but after they have been in the program for three years they typically have over a 3.0 GPA,” Currey says. “Over 75% of our high school seniors go on to college, and of our alumni that we’ve surveyed, more than 90% have participated in college. We’re really proud of the academic achievements of our youth.”
Gaining Strength at Five Hearts Therapeutic Horsemanship
Located in south Raleigh, Five Hearts Therapeutic Horsemanship provides equine-assisted activities to young people with mental, physical or emotional challenges. Students learn basic riding skills to enhance gross and fine motor skills, balance, social skills and more, while navigating obstacles, playing games and riding on sensory trails. Most of Five Hearts’ clients, who range in age from 6–17, are on the autism spectrum. Others have ADHD, Down syndrome or global developmental delay.
“We tailor our lessons based on their need. For kids who come to us needing communication activities, we work on giving the horse verbal and nonverbal commands so they can communicate with the horses in their own special way,” explains founder and executive director Dana Cooke. “For those who have ADHD, we help them work on focusing skills and following multistep directions. Others come to work on their muscle strength, coordination and balance. A few just need that confidence builder and take command of their actions as they relate to the horses.”
Five Hearts’ Makin’ Strides program is periodically offered for children on its waitlist. Participants can sign up for a one-hour session to enjoy the horses in a group setting, where each has the opportunity to ride and groom a horse, learn about horse behaviors and experience the natural farm environment. Cooke says her enjoyment stems from watching how young people become soothed around a horse. “Horses have such a big heart,” she says. “They can really tap into our emotions and have that calming presence kids need.”
Equine-Assisted Therapy Programs in the Triangle
A Horse Connection | ahorseconnection.com
Back in the Saddle | backinthesaddle-es4h.org/
ClearWind Farm | clearwindfarm.com
Corral Riding Academy | corralriding.org
Five Hearts Therapeutic Horsemanship | fiveheartsth.org
Helping Horse | helpinghorse.org
Hope Reins | hopereins.org
Horse & Buddy | horseandbuddy.org
Horses for Hope TRC | horsesforhope.org
NC Therapeutic Riding Center | nctrcriders.org
Reins from Above | reinsfromabove.com
Shepherd Youth Ranch | shepherdyouthranch.org
Unbridled Way Forward | unbridledwayforward.com
Wind Horse Center | thewindhorsecenter.org