Healing with Horses
How horses are helping people's minds and bodies in New York
He approaches the large, brown, four-legged creature clutching an odd arrangement of leather straps. 'Put the bridle on the horse,' he thinks without a clue of how to do so. After several trials, he never did get the bridle on. But the horse showed him how he approaches other challenges in his life, which is an excercise psychologists use as part of one horse-assisted therapy.
Throughout history, horses have been helpful. People ride horses for transportation, amusement, sport, and labor. However, it may be surprising to learn that horses can help our minds and bodies, as well.
But for those with a strong bond with horses, it’s not surprising that horses can help therapeutically.
“Physically taking care of horses saved my life.”
“Yes, people will say animals teach responsibility they can’t eat without you,” says Cindy Kohlmaier, a resident of Pine Plains, N.Y. and life-long owner of horses. But they do so much more, she asserts.
From growing up around horses, Amy LaValley, owner of Adirondack Stable and Equestrian Center LLC in West Chazy, says there is a “mystical, special bond” between horses and humans.
“As a teenager, [horses] got me through a lot,” says LaValley, a therapeutic riding instructor certified by the North American Riding for the Handicapped Association (NARHA). “It’s amazing what horses do for people.”
And she’s not the only one who feels this way. Cindy Kohlmaier knows the healing power of horses, too.
“Physically taking care of horses saved my life,” Kohlmaier says. Personal and family tragedies plagued this mother of four, but her bond with horses helped her overcome and manage her emotional and physical pain.
Horses can help “physically, mentally, and cognitively,” LaValley states. Horses are like mirrors, she adds. “Calm self, calm horse.”
With horse-assisted therapies, horses are specially selected based on size (in height and width), age, and personality traits. An older horse that is patient, honest, kind, willing, and tolerant is ideal, according to LaValley and the staff of EBC Physical Therapy (EBCPT) and Registered Nurse Associates, PLLC in Berne, N.Y.
“They have no clue they are being treated therapeutically.”
According to LaValley, the best part is that it doesn’t look like therapy. “It happens naturally. And it’s a barn, not a doctor’s office,” she emphasizes.
And other professionals providing horse-assisted therapies agree with her.
“The kids are smiling. They have no clue they are being treated therapeutically,” says Elizabeth Chauvot, co-founder, and professional physical therapist who is certified in hippotherapy at EBCPT. “It’s different. It takes kids out of the clinic, and you can see a lot of really nice changes that you can’t get anywhere else.”
For children in therapeutic riding, horses allow them to learn control, LaValley explains, when they haven’t had it in their own lives. If they can learn to control a great big animal, they can learn to have a little control over other life situations, she says.
LaValley works with people aged five and older with autism, attention deficit disorder, Down syndrome, some forms of mental retardation, anxiety disorders, and depression. Other conditions are aided, as well.
Every student starts with grooming, so they can learn to trust the horse, LaValley says. This is where the bonding will occur. “It’s non-verbal talking,” she adds.
Like LaValley, Kohlmaier learned how to understand the expressions of horses.
“Horses use body language – their faces, twitching ears, tails, and small movements,” Kohlmaier explains.
This form of language seems more honest to LaValley. There is less of a chance of manipulation or deception with simple gestures, and because of this horses can appear to be more honest communicators. Horses seem to pay more attention to body language, which people sometimes ignore. For this, LaValley believes horses understand more than people sometimes.With plenty of pasture and indoor riding space available, LaValley structures the therapy sessions to those involved and their specific needs. Learning how to saddle a horse is the next step. Group activities, besides riding, include playing basketball and the game "red light/green light" on a horse.
LaValley says she’s received a lot of positive feedback from both the children and their parents. She remembers the day when one little boy with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder began sessions and was “zinging everywhere” and “literally climbing stalls.” But now, she says he knows the rules and is like a whole different child. His mom says he’s more respectful at home because of the therapy. It has given him calming experiences that have carried over into his kindergarten class.
Working with horses leaves individuals “calm, relaxed,” LaValley says. “It’s extremely beneficial. It’s the best therapy,” she adds. And it has been helping around 42,000 people since the early 1950s across the U.S. and Canada, according to NARHA.
This physical therapy uses a horse to benefit children and adults with mild to severe neuro-musculoskeletal dysfunction. According to the American Hippotherapy Association (AHA), enrollment into this therapy is on an individualized basis. In general, this therapy is used to help people with such conditions as Cerebral Palsy, Down syndrome, learning or language disabilities, Multiple Sclerosis, and traumatic brain injury.
Professional therapists certified in hippotherapy and several volunteers conduct one-on-one sessions. Here, the horse is a tool to foster improved body movement, thought processing, motor coordination, breathing, balance, speech, and strength. Hippotherapy makes use of the movement of the horse. It’s a medical use of a horse that is not called riding it’s hippotherapy, says Bonnie Cunningham, executive director of the AHA. And this is just one misconception.
“The biggest misconception of hippotherapy is that it is appropriate for all levels of impairment. Using an animal is always a risk. If using horses is not a right match [for the patient] it’s not doing [them] any good,” Cunningham states.
Four therapists, including one occupational therapist and three physical therapists, one nurse and around 20 volunteers at EBCPT help over 50 patients a week. The volunteers walk along the side of the horse while the patient is riding. Bubbles, sticks and string fly over the top of the horse's head during certain exercises. Eventually, the patient gains the strength to hold themselves upright, twist their upper bodies, and hold their heads up like anybody else.
“It’s amazing what horses do for people.”
Sometimes on the way to achieve physical goals other improvements happen unexpectedly. Cunningham remembers a five-year-old boy with autism who did not speak at all. His first word was spoken on a horse during hippotherapy after about three weeks of sessions. “I assume it was the horse-human bond,” Cunningham speculates.
“The bond with horses is incredible,” Martelle says. The patient bonds emotionally and physically while talking with words or eyes or making a move to pet the horse, she explains.
A five-year-old girl with autism at EBCPT spoke her first words on a horse, as well. Chauvot says individuals with autism tend to talk more on horses because of the feeling of the horse’s movement.
The parents of another little girl had a few more goals in mind when they got their daughter involved in hippotherapy. They wanted to give her a half-hour activity without a wheel-chair – to give her a little freedom. Chauvot says they were thrilled she can do more independently. She emphasized that no one was holding their daughter on the horse. “She was holding herself up like anybody,” Chauvot says.
Overall, those at EBCPT feel they've made a difference.
“We’ve made a difference in balance [granting a] better quality of life for patients,” Martelle says.
Attaining a better quality of life for patients is the goal. And these are just some of the success stories. Both Chauvot and LaValley say there is a high demand for this type of therapy. Within the next five years, Chauvot hopes to add equine-assisted psychotherapy to the list of horse-assisted therapies offered at EBCPT. LaValley hopes for expansion in the future, as well.
Equine-assisted psychotherapy (EAP)
Many psychologists describe this form of therapy using Freudian thought. The horse represents the id, the simple functionary part of one’s self - the part that is true and natural. The therapist represents the super-ego, the judging capacity that determines if and why an action should be done. This leaves the patient to be the ego - the self-absorbed, compulsory part of a person’s thinking capacity.
Psychologists have noted that unconditional acceptance is vital to any psychotherapeutic process. A patient must feel accepted in order to expose and overcome their problems. Horses can be a beneficial tool in psychiatry because they are nonjudgmental.
For example, a patient is given the task to approach the horse, but they are untrusting. The horse might take a step back. This individual may believe that the horse “hates them,” but the therapist will discuss alternative reasons that could have made the horse want to take a step back. The therapist might suggest that it may simply not know them yet. And this discussion will go on until the patient realizes that if they change their behavior, the horse will change its behavior as well.
In these ways, horse-assisted therapies can make a difference in a child or adult’s mental, physical, and emotional life. But the patients aren’t the only ones benefiting.
“I’ve been a horse person all my life. It’s nice to help [the horse] help someone else,” Chauvot says.
Video presentation created and narrated by Lena Kohlmaier
Adirondack Stable and Equestrian Center LLC in West Chazy, N.Y.
In 2006, Amy LaValley bought over 32-acres next to Adirondack Paint and Quarter Horses owned by her father.
LaValley formerly worked at Wyeth Pharmaceuticals. With the plant’s closing, she looked for job alternatives. At first she had thought about teaching, she says, but ultimately she found therapeutic riding. Horses are her passion, she says. With the severance from Wyeth and an associate’s degree in business from Clinton County Community College, she decided to open Adirondack Stables. “Why not?” she asked.
Since 2006, LaValley's business has grown. She employs four and receives the help of many volunteers, including SUNY Plattsburgh students. She uses seven horses for therapeutic means. She also boards horses and provides traditional riding lessons, as well.
Martelle and Chauvot had differing past experiences working with horses, and they came to learn this about each other after meeting while walking their dogs. Then, they met Britta Lovegrove, a nurse with experience working with troubled adolescent males. Out of these meeting erupted the idea to open their own horse-assisted therapy business. EBC Physical Therapy (EBCPT) became a reality with the purchase of land in August 2004. The indoor arena was constructed in 2005. They continue to grow, Chauvot says.
Using 80 acres and an indoor arena, (EBCPT) offers year-round help using horses. Sessions are cancelled only when the temperature is below 20 degrees Fahrenheit. The center was only closed three days due to weather last year, Chauvot says. And they’re open six days a week, with Sunday as their day of rest.
Cost of the therapy
Hippotherapy: $45 per ½ hour (insurance accepted)
Therapeutic riding: $35 per ½ hour (not covered by insurance)
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