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How Horses Heal

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A look at several organizations helping people heal through horses.

Mental health and wellbeing have been a topic of concern for several years. In 2020, when COVID-19 forced many to shelter at home and isolate away from family and friends, there was an uptick in mental illness prevalence according to Mental Health America, www.ahanational.org.

Mississippi was the second highest state for prevalence of mental health concerns. In 2020, 19% of Americans, equivalent to 47 million individuals, were struggling with some form of mental illness. About 5% of those were struggling from severe mental illness. According to SAMHSA, ìAny Mental Illness (AMI) is defined as having a diagnosable mental, behavioral, or emotional disorder other than a developmental or substance use disorder. Any mental illness includes persons who have mild, moderate, or serious mental illness.”

Today, MHA’s research reports, “Suicidal ideation continues to increase among adults in the U.S. Today, 4.58% of adults report having serious thoughts of suicide, an increase of 664,000 people from 2021 dataset. The national rate of suicidal ideation among adults has increased every year since 2011. There was a larger increase seen in last year’s report and is a concerning trend to see following the COVID-19 pandemic.”

One of the major concerns MHA sees is a growing percentage of youth who are developing and living with major depression. They note “15.08% of youth experienced a major depressive episode in the past year, a 1.24% increase from last year’s dataset. In the bottom-ranked states, up to 19% of youth ages 12-17 experienced major depression.”

Mental health therapies have carried a stigma for many years. Traditional therapy has not been well received by past generations. Whether it has been a societal stigma, or self- stigma, the idea of clinical therapy for youth and adults can carry shame, which causes individuals to not seek help.

Equine therapy dates back to times horses were used for therapeutic riding in ancient Greek literature. In recent history the practice of companion animals showed improvement in well-being, quality of life, trust, self-efficacy, self-esteem, and a sense of accomplishment.

According to the National Library of Medicine The University of Arizona School of Medicine used horses in 2000 when a neurosurgery professor taught communication skills to healthcare clinicians (Walsh & Blakeney, 2013). Kane (2007), followed with a course titled, “Medicine and Horsemanship: Transforming the Doctor–Patient Relationship with Equine Assisted Learning at Stanford University School of Medicine.” She described increased awareness of the incongruence of intention versus behavior, confronting fear, mindfulness, focus and assertiveness. Today, Equine Assisted Therapy (EAT) as an intervention is increasing in popularity with significant positive results (White Lewis et al., 2017).
 

Here in the Mid-South there are many organizations and non-profits who educate and serve individuals and families through equine assisted therapies ranging from physical and occupational therapy to mounted and unmounted equine mental therapies.

Southern Reins Center for Equine
Therapy:

Southern Reins Center for Equine Therapy was founded in 2015. Their facility in Collierville, Tenn., sits on 35 acres and includes a 12-stall barn, attached covered riding arena, six turn out pastures, a Learning Center and an administrative building.
Since Southern Reins was founded, the organization has enhanced the quality of life for children and individuals with disabilities and hardships including Down syndrome, autism, multiple sclerosis, traumatic brain injury, cerebral palsy, amputation, cognitive and physical disabilities, trauma and more.

How do horses help individuals with these types of hardships? According to Southern Rein’s website, “working with horses can spark change in people with special needs. Horses encourage goal achievement and personal growth. Individuals who are involved with equine-assisted therapies are able to build confidence, enhance their physical activity, and improve cognitive function and communication by working and forming bonds with horses.”

Southern Reins have PATH Intl. certified riding instructors, AHA certified therapists and mental health professionals who lead mounted and unmounted sessions. Volunteers are the core of Southern Reins’ program. Since 2015 the organization has trained over 1,000 volunteers.That dedication of time, talent and encouragement is a treasured resource that contributes to the success of every participant.

According to Jill Haag, Executive Director, “everyone can make a difference. It doesn’t matter if you give a dollar or an hour of time.Everyone can help change a life.” And that is what Southern Reins is committed to do: change lives for the better by offering therapies to those with physical disabilities and mental health hardships.

Panther Creek Health:

Panther Creek Health in Nesbit, Miss. is actively growing their mental health and sensory therapy programs. An Occupational Therapist recently joined the two licensed Mental Health Therapists and Panther Creek wants to add even more support for the mental health program.Panther Creek’s Executive Director, Mylissa Horrocks, learned through her own personal experiences how horses have an incredible impact on mental health. Horrock’s daughter is a pediatric cancer survivor. When her daughter was going through cancer treatment she started to ride. The bond her daughter formed with Jasmine, her horse, gave them both some sense of control during a time when so much was out of their control. The bond they formed with Jasmine helped them both through the tough days and the uncertainty of cancer.

Working with horses has shown how the whole body connects with the mind and spirit. What sets Panther Creek apart with their therapy program is their focus on treating and serving individuals who have experienced trauma. According to Horrocks, “To heal from trauma one must activate healing in the body and the brain. Spending time outdoors and with animals connects the body to the mind by experiencing all the senses.”

Panther Creek utilizes their entire farm for therapy sessions. Walking outside, moving the body, feeling the breeze and environment on one’s face activates mindfulness. While one experiences that level of mindfulness, working with horses and other animals helps elevate that full body and mind connection. The horses help individuals with relationship building and communication. Individuals who have experienced trauma struggle with trust and relationships. Working with horses forces people to engage and communicate with the animal.

Through this engagement people are able to start building trust with the horse. This trust will then translate to building trust and relationships with people.

Horrocks believes that traditional, clinical therapies may keep some people from seeking help or going to therapy because of the stigma mental health carries. At Panther Creek they see the outdoor, equine and eco therapy structure as a way to reach people who are not comfortable with traditional talk therapy. In a peaceful environment people who have suffered from trauma are able to let their guard down and take full advantage of outdoor and sensory therapies offered through equine assisted therapy programs.

Horrocks believes that taking care of your mental health should be like taking your vitamins. People understand how important it is to be physically healthy and she is hopeful that people practice taking care of their mind and spirit just as much as taking care of their body.

WarHorses for Heroes:

There are many causes of trauma in today’s world. Equine assisted therapies are showing high success rates in treating trauma. This is why WarHorses for Heroes in Olive Branch, Miss. launched their program in 2015. Two lifelong friends, Trey Lawson of Oak View Stables, and Pearson Allen, both had grandfathers who served in WWII. When Lawson’s college roommate, Sean, returned from the Iraq war he realized how difficult it was for him to transition back into civilian life, especially while experiencing post traumatic stress disorder.

Lawson welcomed Sean to his farm, and he started noticing a difference in him after grooming and being around horses. Oak View Stables allowed Sean time to escape, relax and connect with horses. He started to heal and transition back to a non-military life. This fueled Lawson and Allen to launch the non-profit, WarHorses for Heroes.

Since 2015, more than 450 veterans have come through their program. Some of their volunteers are also veterans.Lawson feels veterans may decide to volunteer because some are unsure about the therapy process; but even volunteering is therapeutic.

Warhorses for Heroes partners with the Veterans Administration to help bring veterans into the program. Veterans have ranged in age from 18 to 70 years old. Most veterans in their program are mid to late 30 years old. Lawson is always looking for good horses to use in their certified programs. They currently have four therapy horses and are working to train more for future sessions.

One of the main goals of WarHorses for Heroes is to introduce horses and the horse lifestyle to their participants. They don’t want veterans to experience their eight to ten week sessions and then move on. They want to surround their veterans with horses for the rest of their lives and give them the opportunity to be a part of a larger horse community. They ultimately want veterans to become part of their farm family and not just a place they came for therapy to treat PTSD.

WarHorses for Heroes is currently working on a First Responder program as well. One message Lawson and his team at want to convey is that no one is alone in their journey. Everyone struggles and there are many men and women who experience hardships in life. The program is more than a place that offers therapy, it is a place to connect with people, other veterans, horses and an entire community.

Meadowthorpe Farms:

Meadowthorpe Farms in Collierville, Tenn. has recently opened their farm to Monday Meditation Art Sessions. These sessions allow individuals to wind down and relax while they enjoy being around horses, a garden and open outdoor spaces. Lili Rostig leads Monday Mediation Mandela art sessions for attendees. Rostig has a background in Psychology and Geography and a Master of Arts degree in Earth Sciences.

Rostig partnered with Meadowthorpe to have in-person sessions. Rostig said, “It’s healthy for the mind and spirit to let the creative/right side of the brain take over for a bit. Many people are so busy with jobs and families that they don’t get enough time for themselves to do something that helps them completely zen out and use their creative side. The Monday sessions are a great way for people to start the week off with a sense of calm and confidence in themselves.

It’s a chance for people to connect and socialize in a small group. It’s mostly adult women but we have had a few husbands and kids join in. The main goals are to get people thinking about their own lives from a creative perspective, to give them the tools to create a mandala that reflects how they are feeling, and hold a safe space for people to be fully comfortable making art in.”

Combining art in a farm setting allows participants to enjoy being outdoors while learning more about natural horse behavior and gardening. Rostig said, “Many people don’t value time in nature, or aren’t able to enjoy nature because there are barriers preventing them.In this fast- paced society and as youth become addicted to screens, it is more important than ever to get outside and be creative in nature. From a Psychology perspective I was able to understand how experiencing nature impacts the brain’s neurotransmitters and how critical it is for mental health.”

Research is showing how the outdoors and horses help ignite change in those who participate in equine assisted therapies. As mental health stigmas lessen and more people put their overall health first, the mid-south equestrian communities are helping many people, from all walks of life, heal through horses. Traditional talk therapy may not be the structure a child, adult or veteran needs to help work through physical and mental health hardships. However, equine therapies can be life changing for people of all ages, from all backgrounds. To learn more about these equine assisted therapies visit their websites:

Southern Reins: https://www.southernreins.org
Panther Creek Health: https://www.facebook.com/panthercreekhealth/
WarHorses for Heroes: https://www.facebook.com/panthercreekhealth/
Meadowthorpe Farms: https://www.meadowthorpefarm.com.

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