Horse Therapy Helps People Surmount Personal Obstacles
HORSES ARE HEALERS ~DECLAN
Horse therapy helps people surmount personal obstacles
Working with horses can aid people dealing with anxiety, depression, grief and low self-esteem. There’s no riding involved
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CAROLA VYHNAK FOR THE TORONTO STAR
Suki Tattersall, 17, has made such progress using horses to overcome her anxiety that she acquired her own horse, Teddy, in the spring. While she hopes to ride him one day, all her therapy sessions take place on the ground.
By:Carola Vyhnak,Staff Reporter.,Published on Tue Jul 30 2013 As posted on the star.com
HILLIER, ONT.—Deb Tattersall watches in amazement as her usually taciturn daughter chats easily with someone she’s just met.
“She’s completely found her voice,” Tattersall marvels. “That is totally the horses.”
Horses are Suki Tattersall’s therapist. By working with them in guided interaction, the 17-year-old is learning to overcome anxiety disorders that make her fearful of social situations and even of leaving the house.
Suki is one of a small but growing number of Canadians who are discovering the healing power of horses. In an emerging field called equine-assisted therapy and learning, horse and human are brought together to tackle a long list of mental health issues including depression, anxiety, anger, ADHD, substance abuse, eating disorders, bullying, lack of self-esteem, grief, post-traumatic stress disorder and autism.
Why horses? The intuitive animals are able to read and mirror the emotions and energy of the people around them, according to facilitators. Clients, in turn, learn to make positive changes in their lives. No riding is involved.
“It is nothing short of a miracle,” declares one GTA healing farm on its website.
Suki started equine therapy last year after conventional methods proved ineffective. Twice a week she visits Heal With Horses, a farm in Prince Edward County, two hours east of Toronto, where owner Suzanne Latchford-Kulker guides her through a series of activities.
During a recent session, Suki teams up with another client, 19-year-old Amanda Domenic, to coax a horse around an obstacle course that represents a challenge they’re working on in life. Using body language and what Latchford-Kulker calls their “voice of power,” they gain the horse’s trust and co-operation in navigating the obstacles.
The exercise is “empowering,” Suki says. “It’s like, ‘Oh, someone does listen to me.’”
Horses, she continues, “teach you a lot of self-confidence and to not let people push you around. You have to be honest. You can’t pretend with horses like (you can with) people.”
The two teens finish their session by draping themselves over a horse’s back to reduce stress and amp up the feel-good hormone oxytocin.
Suki’s four-legged teachers have become a “door to everything,” observes the online-schooled student who says she now has somewhere to go where she’s not judged.
Her mother has also noticed steady progress. “The changes are subtle yet extremely powerful,” says Deb. “I’m seeing bigger and bigger changes in her all the time.”
Latchford-Kulker, a lifelong horsewoman who’s certified as an equine-facilitated learning practitioner, explains that “the horse acts as a conduit to the authentic self.”
With talk therapy, she says, “people look to the therapist to find answers. Here they’re forced to go deep inside to find their own answers.”
She charges clients, who range from youngsters to senior citizens, $50 an hour for individual, hands-on sessions. She also does group workshops and has added an autism program to her practice.
It was a horse that found and fixed the source of a Newmarket woman’s anxiety. Kym, an artist in her 50s with a lifelong fear of horses, stood a short distance from the animal during a session at the Healing With Horses Farm in Richmond Hill. As it moved toward her, she stepped back and the horse kept advancing. But if she stood her ground, the horse stopped, then walked away.
She realized her anxiety stemmed from her failure to set boundaries with a significant person in her life.
“It came to me in an instant. It was very powerful and a very positive experience,” recalls Kym, who requested anonymity, of her “equine healing” a year ago.
Even if clients don’t know what’s troubling them, horses can bring it out, agrees therapist Michele Mihalik. She describes an interaction between a horse and a woman who hadn’t grieved her mother’s death five years earlier. Horses don’t usually cry, she notes, “but the horse actually shed three tears. The woman got clarity and came to terms with the grieving process.”
She and Janine Castelane, both practitioners with 20 years’ experience in the healing arts, added horses to their tool box with the creation of the Richmond Hill farm three years ago. Their fee schedule includes 90-minute sessions for $125.
Castelane says their herd of 12 was chosen for their “loving, gentle” nature. Even so, when you’re face to face with a big animal, “you can’t skirt around anything,” Mihalik says. “You have to deal with it.”
But if the whole idea gives rise to a “whoa” in some people’s minds, “I totally understand that,” says Lynn Thomas, executive director of Utah-based EAGALA (Equine Assisted Growth and Learning Association), a professional organization she founded in 1999 that now boasts 4,100 members in more than 40 countries, including a Canadian chapter. As a mental health professional with no background in horses, Thomas became a convert after watching how equine intervention spurred “even the most resistant adolescents” to make positive changes in their life.
As a relatively new discipline that’s still in flux, equine-assisted therapy invites skepticism, concurs Sarah Schlote, a Guelph psychotherapist who’s done extensiveresearch into the field. It doesn’t help that the occupation is “exploding like popcorn,” with practitioners who vary greatly in approach, therapeutic and horsemanship skills, credentials and training, she adds.