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Equine-assisted therapy helps clients consciously manage behavior and emotions



The mare's ears flick back with the slightest movement of her penmates, a hesitant, unsure behavior that echoes my own. I tentatively stroke her coarse black hair. Finally, on my third attempt, I manage to enter Montana's bubble. The American paint horse doesn't walk away.

The trick is to approach the left shoulder of a horse, rather than come in directly from the front — it removes any perceived threat the animal may feel, says Nancy Beers, the program director of Pikes Peak Therapeutic Riding Center.

Montana is one of the 16 donated horses at the oldest, largest PATH (Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship)-accredited nonprofit in southern Colorado, located in Elbert. In partnership with the Pikes Peak Range Riders (whose mission is to "support the Pikes Peak or Bust Rodeo"), 33-year-old PPTRC offers equine-assisted therapy in areas such as hippotherapy — therapeutic riding and equine-facilitated psychotherapy — with 150 volunteers helping serve an average of 110 clients per week.

"It's not your conventional therapy," says volunteer coordinator Dayna Jenkins. "It's so natural, it doesn't feel like therapy."

Physically freeing

The classic picture of equine therapy is hippotherapy, which focuses on the movement of the horse to achieve a specific outcome based on the client's needs, impairments or disabilities. But it's so much more than that, says Beers.

In hippotherapy, a physical, occupational or speech therapist treats the patient one-on-one, with an instructor facilitating the horse-to-patient exchange. Based on the client's needs and horse availability, the therapist makes a specific treatment plan. PPTRC works with Memorial Health System, one of 10 community partners that refer clients for services, to implement hippotherapy as a treatment option. A supplement to traditional physical therapy, it's most appropriate for kids ages 2 to 5.

In 20 years overseeing such programs, Joanne Daniel, occupational therapist and current manager of the therapy department at Children's Hospital Colorado at Memorial Hospital, has seen hippotherapy enhance language and physical development. "It's not a matter of if, but of how beneficial it is," she says.

Beers agrees. She has witnessed clients improve in terms of balance, posture and coordination. She says hippotherapy can also create or reestablish a client's mind-body connection.

"When you ride a horse, you use both sides of your brain by crossing the midline," she explains. Like walking, it encompasses both sides of the body, but riding a horse is a 3D movement, adding up-and-down and side-to-side motions.

For clients who use wheelchairs, "the horse can give them their legs"; riding mimics the pelvic movement of walking, and can trick the client's brain into thinking he or she is walking, Beers explains. Signals sent from the brain to the legs can rewire those circuits and initiate movement; as a result, Jenkins has seen clients take their first steps in equine therapy.

Additionally, riding builds the hip muscles and strengthens the core. She recalls one client who couldn't sit up on her own prior to therapy, but later "went from taking four hours to eat to two hours to eat," she says. "For a parent of someone with a disability, you're already hardshipped with medical bills. To give that to someone, that is a success story, a miracle."

That feeling is shared at the Colorado Springs Therapeutic Riding Center at Mark Reyner Stables, where clients ride as independently as possible depending on their respective disabilities, says PATH-certified instructor Jamie Harrison.

Therapeutic riding looks similar to hippotherapy, but is more of an adaptive riding lesson. It actually teaches riding skills such as using saddles and reins to guide a horse, Harrison says. And unlike some hippotherapy, it is not covered by insurance. But since its inception in August 2008, CSTRC has blossomed from three clients to nearly 80, helping them get stronger physically, emotionally and mentally.

"There's a huge need for this in such a big community," Harrison says. "Some people read about it but don't get the whole impact of it. But, if they come and watch the progress [as volunteers], it's amazing."

One 12-year-old client, whose first name is also Harrison, was previously non-verbal and had limited-to-no fine motor skills. Since his involvement in therapeutic riding at CSTRC, "he now uses his own voice every day to ask to see, ride and visit the horses," says his mom, Jane. Grateful for this path of healing, she has watched his balance, core strength, attention and communication continually improve.

'Mirror image'

Where equine-assisted therapy affects the individual holistically, equine-facilitated psychotherapy pinpoints emotional and mental health issues. A form of experiential psychotherapy, EFP treats a broad array of disorders including schizophrenia, anxiety disorder, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, autism and post-traumatic stress disorder.

In EFP, the client strives to build a relationship with the horse without setting foot in a stirrup. An instructor leads clients through activities such as guiding or brushing the horse, intended to facilitate communication- and relationship-building skills. A licensed therapist observes and helps the client explore how his or her behavior and emotions affect the horse's behavior, says Beers.

"The old saying goes that horses tell on you; they rat you out," she says. As a mirror image of your own emotions, the horse will reflect where you really are at a given moment.

Horses are hyper-alert, prey animals. In response to a perceived threat, they will become hyper-aroused. But if they stayed in that state all the time in the wild, notes Beers matter-of-factly, they'd die.

Most clients with whom she works are in that state all the time.

"It's like running your motor at too many RPMs — eventually, you burn out," she says. So, EFP is used to monitor those feelings and behaviors. This becomes particularly important for kids with special needs and behavioral issues. In five years working at Roundup Fellowship, a local nonprofit serving clients with special needs (where I am currently employed), Beers worked with kids from a group home setting. Now, she serves them through equine therapy at PPTRC.

"For these kids who are living together, we wanted to focus on unity, solidarity and teamwork," she says. "If they can control their behavior here, they'll be more tolerant and more willing to communicate with each other, rather than blow up."

Counselor Shannon McNiece from Roundup Fellowship has observed significant changes. One of her more hyperactive clients, who has Asperger's syndrome, conduct disorder and oppositional defiant disorder, struggles with personal boundaries and social cues, says McNiece. So he was paired up with a horse that doesn't necessarily like physical contact.

"This incredible flow takes over the two of them," McNiece says. "They enter into an unbelievable union with one another, and just vibe like nothing I have ever seen before. The power of that one single relationship has made me a lifetime believer in animal-assisted therapy."

Even though health insurance only covers clinically diagnosed clients, the average person can still reap therapy's benefits. For those with anxiety, depression or anger tendencies, it can be extremely beneficial, PPTRC's Jenkins says.

"In my mind, we're all disabled. I'm not a patient person, but working with the horses teaches me patience," she adds. "You can come here with anything. You are who you are."

Which I try to embrace, as my hands drift back over Montana's shoulder. My breathing steadily slows, and the temperamentally anxious horse stands unflustered. My anxiety lets go as my mind focuses in on the horse, roping me in to the present moment."We say it a hundred thousand times: It's all about being, not doing," says Beers. By giving each client the chance to reconnect to the present, away from the stress and trauma, they empower themselves. And that's where the real magic happens.


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