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Horse-Assisted Therapy Can Rein in Problems, Aid Abused Steeds

Christy Petit
Equine specialist Christy Petit. Having evolved as prey animals, horses are astute empaths and extremely receptive to non-verbal communication. Photographer: Mike Di Paola/Bloomberg

I recently watched a horse turn a noisy gaggle of fourth-graders into an attentive flock of little angels.

I was in Carmel Valley, California, where an outfit called Horsepower uses the animals to teach relationship skills to schoolchildren. Adults are also benefiting from equine-assisted therapy. The horse’s impressive size and keen instincts seem almost magically to soothe humans.

“Horses are so big and so magnificent that working with them totally discombobulates the person,” says psychiatric nurse Nancy Magnelli. “It brings all the normal interactions to a standstill.”

Therapists use horses to treat depression, anxiety and attention-deficit and post-traumatic-stress disorders, among other maladies. Our equine friends are also assisting with marriage and parent counseling and corporate team-building. In California alone, there are about 170 programs certified under the Equine Assisted Growth and Learning Association, a nonprofit that brings therapists and the horse set together.

“You can’t work with a creature that large and maintain your normal facade of defenses,” says Magnelli, whose husband, Robert, is a psychologist and head of Horsepower.

Imposing size is only part of the story, however. Having evolved as prey animals, horses are extremely receptive to emotive signals from creatures near them. Since they are also intelligent herd animals, they know social relationships.

Path and Obstacles

In a typical session, a client (or patient) constructs within an outdoor arena a path and obstacles that together serve as a metaphor for goals. The client either walks alongside or leads the horse, in which case the rope is also a metaphor for something.

The horse will often pick up on a client’s nonverbal cues. Did the horse leave the path at the obstacle symbolizing “family,” for example? The therapist will later discuss with the client the implications of the horse’s behavior.

“Everything we do is designed to reflect something that’s going on in a client’s life,” says Lynn Thomas, co-founder and director of the Equine Assisted Growth and Learning Association. “The power of the therapy is in the meaning the client puts on it.”

The field is still young, but Magnelli says he has collected statistically significant data that demonstrate its efficacy.

Economy’s Impact

While the innovative therapy is taking off, some programs are stifled by a tepid economy. Sharon Pohl has a ranch in Soquel, California, with 23 acres of stables, paddocks and 14 horses. Her annual operating costs run around $100,000, and she has found that lately it’s been impossible to draw adequate funding, much of which comes from private donors.

“We started out as a horse-rescue and equine-assisted therapy program and mentoring program for kids,” says Pohl. That was 11 years ago. These days she has put the therapy on hold and is getting by offering traditional riding lessons.

Some of Pohl’s biggest donors were retired bankers and doctors; more than one of them lost fortunes thanks to Bernard Madoff.

Horse therapy can be more expensive than traditional methods. Among other things, it requires two professionals -- an equine practitioner and a mental-health specialist. Horses need space, lots of food, and health care that can be as expensive as that of humans.

The therapists I spoke with say the expenses are real but misleading. “It’s actually cheaper in the long run,” says Thomas. “I do it because it works, and it usually works faster than what we see in the office.”

Life After Racing

A sluggish economy notwithstanding, her group says that equine-assisted therapy and learning programs are growing. Within its network alone, there are more than 500 clinical treatment programs practiced by 35,000 members in 38 countries.

Thomas’s group coordinates with the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation, another nonprofit that rescues former race horses and gets them ready for adoption at places like the Magnellis’ or Pohl’s. There is opportunity for synergy here. Horses that outlive their usefulness on the track or fall victim to their owner’s hard times can have a second life on a ranch that practices horse-centered therapy or teaching.

“We provide a niche for horses,” says Thomas. “We let them be themselves.”

(Mike Di Paola writes on preservation and the environment for Muse, the arts and culture section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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