Horses offer healing for the broken pieces of the human soul.
By Abigail Boatwright
Horses are therapy. Whether figuratively or literally, the influence of a horse can help humans in ways that therapy in medical settings often can’t. Hippotherapy, equine therapy and equine-assisted psychotherapy are gaining recognition as respected methods of facilitating healing while also cultivating humans’ development of confidence, sense of purpose, emotional connections, leadership and much more. Paint Horses are uniquely suited to this role, thanks to their vibrant color—which attracts attention from even non-horse experienced clients—and their solid, dependable temperaments. ride along as we explore several programs that employ colorful equines as integral parts of their human healing endeavors.
Hearts of Service
Located in Harvard, Illinois, BraveHearts Therapeutic Riding & Educational Center is a Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship international Premiere Accredited Center—the largest veteran-serving program in the country. Founded in 2003, BraveHearts has served veterans since 2007, and it also offers training and certification programs to become certified PATH instructors themselves, all at no cost to the servicemen and -women.
One BraveHeart client who has thrived under their unique structure is Nicholas Montijo. Nick was injured during his second deployment in Afghanistan and was later diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder after he returned home in 2009. While undergoing treatment for PTSD in late 2011, he discovered BraveHearts; after completing his treatment with the Veterans Affairs, Nick returned to the stable to ride—though he’d never interacted with horses before.
“I was really looking for a hobby,” Nick said. “At that point, I didn’t have anything to lose, so I figured I would try it. I didn’t know it would turn into a lifestyle.”
Through BraveHearts’ veteran program, Nick found a sense of purpose and a healthy adrenaline rush.
Nick quickly escalated from riding once a week, to two and then three times a week. On his off days, he volunteered by sidewalking and leading other riders during sessions and taking care of the horses—contributing anywhere he was needed. After a year of consistent work with the program, Nick’s mentor, PATH Master Level Instructor Meggan Hill-McQueenie, recommended that he pursue PATH certification.
“He was a blank canvas when he started, which is really an exciting opportunity,” Meggan said. “He took right to the horses and wanted to learn anything and everything he could. He signed up to help and learn at every opportunity.”
Nick decided to continue his equine-therapy education and achieved his Registered Level Instructor certification in 2013. He applied for an American Paint Horse Foundation Wounded Warrior scholarship for his PATH certification fees, and was the inaugural recipient; learn more at aphf.com.
“Nick was our first veteran who was able to get certified, and he’s had a great influence with the peer-to-peer support and bringing along other veterans,” Meggan said. “He is just a pleasure to watch teach. We get compliments on how fantastic his lessons are. He can identify with a lot of the men and women and where they’re coming from.”
“I often hear how much the horses mean to the veterans, and how much their peers mean, and if they could just help one fellow veteran, it would make it all worth it,” Meggan said. “If they could try to help one other person feel what they’ve felt through the benefits of the horses, it’s worth it. I think the common thread is that veterans have a heart of service, and so I just think it’s a natural progression for them to want to return that favor and share that with a peer.”
A Boy’s Best Friend
At the Ben Richey Boys Ranch & Family Program, horses help shape impressionable boys into strong, confident young men. The program serves boys, ages 6 to 14, and single-mother families. Offering a clean, comfortable and safe home for residents, the ranch strives to help youth develop confidence while learning to take responsibility for their actions as they strive to become productive, successful members of society.
The ranch has two 80-acre locations—one in Abilene, Texas, and one in Albany, Texas. Boys in the programs participate in community activities such as church, school, 4-H, FFA and helping out around the ranch.
Although the ranch was founded in 1947 by Ben Richey, it wasn’t until 2013 that a horse program was launched with the help of volunteer Horse Program Director Sheila Surgeon.
Under Sheila’s watchful eye, boys in the program learn how to ride and every aspect of caring for horses—all of which help them gain strength and coordination, increased concentration, stress relief, self-discipline, patience and confidence.
Sheila is a Paint Horse fan, and she uses 2001 sorrel tobiano mare Delta Olenas High Bet and other colorful horses at the ranch. Sheila says horses like “Mandy” lift the residents’ spirits and teach valuable life lessons.
“The boys respond amazingly to the horses,” she said. “Most have never seen or touched a horse. This program teaches responsibility, among other important values. Horses love unconditionally—that is the greatest benefit I can see.”
Empowered by Horses
Many equine programs work the boy, but the lessons learned on horseback can also help expand the mind or heal struggling hearts; equine-assisted learning, like the programs offered at Horse Empower in Durango, Colorado, help facilitate experiential learning through four-legged teachers.
Founded by Kim Hardesty in 2012, Horse Empower offers equine- assisted psychotherapy, working in conjunction with licensed therapists, as well as riding lessons with an emphasis on equine-assisted learning principles.
“In equine-assisted learning, your innate goals are confidence building, strategic problem solving, empowerment and thinking outside the box,” Kim explained. “With our programs, we can actually help riders improve their horsemanship through equine-assisted learning theory. It’s really powerful.”
Kim says horses often open doors to a client’s inner thoughts and feelings in a way that traditional therapy sometimes cannot.
“What I hear from therapists is that they get so much further when they come out to our facility,” Kim said. “Maybe it’s the fresh air or something about being around horses, but people let all those walls down and they are more able to hone in on their issues. It’s incredible. I stay away from the word ‘magic,’ but whatever it is that the horses bring to the table is so powerful. And their feedback is so honest. No judgment.”
Step by step, a horse’s walk helps heal and stimulate riders with physical disabilities, giving mobility to those who struggle to walk on their own.
Elizabeth Girard, a 2016 APHF therapeutic riding scholarship recipient, founded Girard Training Stables of Waddell, Arizona. Elizabeth, a PATH-certified instructor, incorporates horses into her program through a three-prong approach to help riders in her community. The stable offers hippotherapy for students with physical and mental disabilities as well as a Special Olympics equestrian team, traditional riding lessons for all horse-loving kids and a sponsorship program for riding-lesson students from economically disadvantaged households.
Elizabeth says horses also offer healing therapy beyond hippotherapy.
“Horses give you all these life lessons that just happen when you’re around them,” she said. “They help teach patience and consistency, stability, emotional regulation—good skills that carry over to other areas in their lives, such as schoolwork and working with a regular therapist.”
Not a Vacation
Heroes and Horses Chief Operating Officer Mackenzie Fink says despite more than 60,000 programs for veterans, 110,000 veterans have taken their own lives since September 11, 2001—that’s a rate of 22 suicides a day. Hoping to reshape the minds and lives of combat veterans, Montana-based Heroes and Horses offers a challenging and comprehensive nine-week program that pushes a small band of warriors to their physical and psychological capacities through a series of pack trips aboard their assigned equine partners.
“We put veterans through a long, intense process with these horses and that really becomes the bond to the soul between these two,” Micah Fink, the program’s founder and executive director, said. “They are relying on each other for everything, going over very rough terrain in the back country and they just become a team.”
Veterans who have gone through the program have been able to replace negative memories of war with positive ones, and are finding restoration and hope, rather than turning to negative patterns to cope with difficulties.
“One of the greatest benefits the program offers is, through the unpeeling of the layers of self, they start to identify who they are, what they want to do and how they want to re-forge their path forward,” Mackenzie sai
For More Info
BraveHearts Therapeutic Riding & Educational Center – braveheartsriding.org
Ben Richey Boys Ranch & Family Program – benrichey.org
Horse Empower – horseempower.com
Girard Training Stables – girardtrainingstables.com
Heroes and Horses – heroesandhorses.org
This is an excerpt from the full article—get the whole story in the Fall 2017 Chrome magazine, which is sent to all current APHA members. Not a member? Join or renew at apha.com/join.