The Healing Power of the Horse

Published on: September 20th, 2010

Over the history of civilization, the horse has played a momentous role. In war, for travel and through work, equus caballus was once the backbone of society. Harnessed and saddled, these animals carried knights in shining armor, lugged explorers and pulled plows, mail coaches and covered wagons.

Today, the horse’s role has also become transformative as—for lack of a more sensitive term—a tool for therapy.

Over the years, riding therapy, equine therapy and hippotherapy have gained in popularity and acceptance, especially for treatment of autistic children. Using horses for therapeutic purposes has been around for decades, if not centuries, but both research and pop culture—including a recently released movie called Horse Boy—are helping it gain momentum, according to those in the field.

In Boulder County, therapeutic riding is used to treat countless issues, disorders, disabilities and afflictions: autism, cerebral palsy, Down syndrome, multiple sclerosis, stroke, depression, eating disorders and trauma. From cognitive and psychological benefits to motor skill, confidence and body awareness improvements, there is feasibly very little that equine therapy cannot accomplish.

“Sometimes, people say that it feels like it’s magic,” said Calyn Acebes, founder of Contact with Horses, a local business that offers equine-assisted psychotherapy to kids and adults with emotional and psychological problems. “But I want to make it very clear: There is nothing woo-woo about this. The results are very real. This is very real.”

Acebes and others have various reasoning for the tremendous results of equine therapy. Some say it’s the horse’s power to intuit people’s emotions and to reflect their energy. Other says it’s the calming or physical capabilities of the horse, and others tend to think it’s really the natural human response to being around animals, to learn from them and to react to them.

Here, we look at three ways that equine therapy is helping locals.

Equine-Assisted Psychotherapy
Calyn Acebes was 16 when a horse saved her life.

“As a teenager I suffered from severe depression and anxiety,” she says. “When I was 16, my parents got me a horse. I believe that the horse was the reason I didn’t get deeper into it. That’s to say, I didn’t commit suicide or I didn’t fall further into depression.”

Now with a bachelor’s degree in psychology and master’s degree in wilderness therapy, Acebes has focused on equine-assisted psychotherapy to help those with emotional or life skills problems; she also works with veterans and girls with eating disorders. The process, she says, is a lot about interaction and relationships.

“We bring our wounds from our relationships—behavior patterns with people from our past or present—to the horse,” she says. Issues like trust, communication abandonment, confidence and so on. “The client can work experientially through the horse. …New behavior can be experimented with, and change can be made in the therapy hour.”

Often that means her clients can experience new behaviors and become aware of old ones by working with the horse. For people with trauma, depression, anxiety or life skills issues, relating to the horse can build awareness, help them connect with their bodies and allow for exploration of different actions and reactions.

“In my mind, when we go into a session, anything could happen. It’s a trust in the client, in the horses and the process,” she says. “I trust the nature of the horses.”

The results have been, at times, amazing. The horses so often know exactly what to do; they know how to relate to each person. Acebes believes that’s because horses are incredibly sensitive and social animals.

“They pick up on our emotions. Lot’s of people say, ‘You can’t lie to a horse.’ That’s because they can truly feel our energy and they reflect that energy,” she said.

Autism and Riding Therapy
Sitting in her windowed office in the Children’s Hospital, Robin Gabriels is preparing for her next phase of research. Gabriels, program director of neuropsychiatric special care at the Children’s Hospital, is working on a ground-breaking project on the impacts of therapeutic horseback-riding on kids with autism spectrum disorder, as well as the reasoning behind the changes seen from exposing kids with autism to riding therapy.

Her upcoming four-year study, likely funded by a $1.5 million grant from the National Institute of Nursing Research, which is part of the National Institutes of Health, will look at why horses cause positive change in kids with autism; she’ll focus on visual cues, motor skills and self regulation issues, like lethargy or hyperactivity. Her work will begin in spring of next year at Longmont’s Colorado Therapeutic Riding Center. Autistic kids, ages 6 to 16, will be randomly assigned to two groups. One will be in the 10-week group that receives riding lessons and the others (the control group) will spend those 10 weeks of sessions hanging out in the barn and learning about horses.

“We want to see what it is about horses that helps kids with autism,” she said. She has her theories. She says it has to do with the soothing experience of being with the animal, the language aspect (“The kids see that when you say, ‘Woah,’ the horses stop,” Gabriels says) and the motor skills involved in riding, among other things.

This study comes after Gabriels’ pilot study, which focused on seeing how the subjects—again, kids with autism—are affected by horseback riding therapy. Her research showed that the kids partaking in riding therapy had improved in numerous areas, including motor skills, verbal motor imitation, adaptive behavior, communication, irritability and alertness.

Gabriels is seeking volunteers for her upcoming study on horseback riding therapy for children with autism spectrum disorder. Email her at Gabriels.Robin@tchden.org.

Therapeutic Riding and Disabilities
The volunteers and employees at the Colorado Therapeutic Riding Center have seen tremendous things.

“I’ve seen kids say their first word. I’ve seen someone take their first step. There was a man, who had a stroke, who wanted to walk his daughter down the aisle for her wedding. He did it, and he attributes that to riding,” says Mary Mitten, program coordinator at CTRC. She’s seen a 19-year-old with a spinal chord injury go from barely being able to sit up on the horse, clutching the saddle so she wouldn’t fall, to riding completely independently; she also went back to school and got her GED. “It didn’t just help her with riding skills. It helped her with her entire life.”

The large, picturesque ranch on highway 52 is pristine and lovely. It’s the oldest and largest therapeutic riding center in the state, and they host up to 180 riders a week with 25 horses and more than 250 volunteers on hand. For decades, the nonprofit has been working with adults and children with disabilities in therapeutic riding and hippotherapy, which uses the movement of the horse as a treatment strategy, rather than focusing on the riding skills, and involves working with an occupational therapist.

Much of the work at CTRC is based on the 3-dimensional stride of the horse. Riders with movement disabilities can take in the feel and the patterns of the horse’s gait. Mitten says the horse’s stride facilitates normal human walking, helping riders to progress physically and cognitively toward movement goals. Riding can also help balance, muscle control and tone, hand-eye coordination, control and body awareness.

“Plus, there are amazing emotional benefits,” Mitten says. “When you have someone in a wheelchair, there’s a self confidence that comes when you are in control of this huge animal. Sometimes, they don’t even feel in control of their own life.”

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