Improving Mental Health with Horses

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By Mary Chris Murray

Improving Mental Health with HorsesAlaqua Animal Refuge and Healing Hoof Steps have established a partnership to provide equine-assisted therapy to individuals struggling with mental health issues in our community. The partnership is an extension to Alaqua’s Equine Interactions program, which has been used to help children and adults with emotional traumas and developmental challenges to promote social and life skills in a supportive environment.

The Equine Interactions program is open to anyone with mental, emotional, behavioral or development struggles in our community, and serves individuals, couples, families, active-duty military personnel, veterans, first responders, at-risk youth, and other groups through an experiential approach to healing through powerful engagement with horses. Focusing on relationship building and coping mechanisms, the program’s goal is to foster positive change for individuals with anxiety or depression, autism, trauma such as PTSD, grief, ADHD or physical or developmental disabilities. Additionally, there are women and family services for foster parents, foster children, and domestic violence victims.

With mental health conditions increasing across our country, the collaboration between Alaqua Animal Refuge and Healing Hoof Steps is a small step to address this crisis. Interactions with animals have proven powerful effects on the human spirit and body. By working together with a common goal, the two organizations can serve an unmet need and make a more impactful mark on society and our local communities to improve the lives of both humans and animals.

Alaqua Founder Laurie Hood said, “We witness the healing powers that all animals have on the human spirit every day. Our Equine Interactions program takes it to the next level and provides a much-needed service to humans who have experienced trauma of some kind. It’s an honor to partner with such an amazing organization as Healing Hoof Steps on this venture so that we can offer sessions in multiple parts of the Panhandle.”

“We have found that with animals, people find the courage to begin their own journey of recovering to improve their emotional and physical well-being,” she said.

The Equine Interactions program can help reduce symptoms of anxiety, depression, PTSD, and relationship issues, leading to improved self-confidence, self-efficacy, and an overall better and healthier quality of life.

Healing Hoof Steps has a team of licensed mental health counselors who provide counseling services in conjunction with horse interactions at Alaqua’s original “Whitfield” campus at 914 Whitfield Road in Freeport. The peaceful environment offers a private and comfortable setting to conduct equine-assisted mental health counseling services. These sessions use the horses, barn and adjoining pastures to create a unique multi-sensory space for personal growth. Utilizing a hands-on clinical approach, these program sessions take individuals out of the office and immerse them into a large pasture of loose horses as a member of a working herd – creating an environment of learning, self-discovery, and healing.

The non-riding activities in these sessions are designed to create an introspective view that can assist in overcoming anxiety, depression, PTSD and relationship issues. As prey animals, horses possess a keen sense of their surroundings while maintaining the goal of living a peaceful existence. They are hard-wired to live in the moment. Specializing in non-verbal communication, horses can convey the awareness, emotions, connection, respect, and structure that exist within the herd dynamics for their survival.

Horses are not distracted by the past or future events which could prevent them from identifying the level of safety in their environment and being able to respond. Unfortunately, humans are notorious for dwelling on past events, which causes depression, or projecting into a future that hasn’t happened yet, which causes anxiety. Horses remind us of the importance of living in the moment, away from any anxiety or depression.
They are very sensitive to non-verbal communication and another’s energy, even when it is subconscious. As prey animals, horses must be constantly aware of every environmental cue in order to survive. These unique qualities and sensitivities give them a special capacity to read and respond to non-verbal symbols and cues, which can lead to powerful emotional interactions, breakthroughs, and life-changing insights.

Horses also naturally react accordingly to the ebbs and flows of the stimuli that exist in their surroundings. They conserve energy until it is needed, and they have shown the unique ability to help humans learn and practice those same survival traits. This approach to experiential learning is what makes equine assisted mental health counseling more effective than traditional talk-therapy sessions.

“It is an honor to collaborate with Laurie Hood and Alaqua in overlapping our missions to improve our communities for animals and humans,” said Narissa Jenkins, Healing Hoof Steps CEO and Founder. “Like Alaqua, the need we have uncovered within our community for our services has surpassed our expectations. It is our responsibility to continue any and all efforts to meet that need. Thanks to this collaboration, Healing Hoof Steps is able to extend our mental health services while engaging the horses rescued by Alaqua to serve an even bigger purpose – turning trauma into triumph.”

Prior horse knowledge or experience is not necessary to benefit from the Equine Interactions program. The only requirements are closed-toed shoes, the ability to walk throughout a pasture and communicate with a treatment team. Military individuals and families may qualify for grant funding, and some insurance and Gardiner Scholarship accepted. To learn more about the program or schedule an initial appointment, email EquineInteractions@Alaqua.org or call (850) 764-1005.