These Rhode Islanders are Overcoming Trauma With Help From Horses

An unconventional type of psychotherapy is helping people who struggle with PTSD, depression and other behavioral health challenges.

Diesel saunters closer, reaching his white and gray marbled head across the paddock’s fence. His hooves sink in the muddy terrain and his haunches quiver as his nose sniffs the air. His eyes are laser focused on the driveway as Tamara* approaches.

The twenty-year-old former ranch horse chortles a high-pitched whinny while tossing his cropped mane. Tamara puts her palm to his jowl, gently stroking his neck and giving him a kiss on the cheek. He wraps his head around her shoulders in as much of an embrace as a horse can offer.

The reunion is sweet, but brief. They did not come for caresses or a walk in the woods. Today they have work to do. For Tamara, there will be tears, anger and vulnerability as each of her equine therapy sessions with him have been. She shares feelings with the horse she didn’t know she had.

Like other clients, Tamara first approached equine therapy, and Diesel, with trepidation, insecurity, confusion, judgment. She knew nothing about this therapy, and at the time, wasn’t ready or able to deal with herself. This is what equine-assisted psychotherapy is about, however. It allows angry, hurt clients to connect in a safe space and deal with pain that is wreaking havoc on their lives — on their terms, in their own time.

“I was in a bad place for so long,” says Tamara, a thirty-year-old from the East Bay. “I bounced in and out of homelessness most of my life, endured abuse and abandonment. I doubted myself, didn’t think I was worthy. Some days I couldn’t even get out of bed, I was so depressed. And this barn is the only place where I feel comfortable letting my emotions out. It sounds so simple, but I just need to take a deep breath and get out of my head for a bit. Diesel knows that. He’ll be on the other side of the paddock and he’ll come over to me at the right moment. I just know that he’s telling me, ‘You know who you are, what you’ve overcome, and there is no reason to feel like this.’ This is affirmation.”

Diesel walks over to the gate, and looks back to her as if to say, “Let’s get to work.”

Equine-assisted therapy has gained traction since the 1990s as an alternate approach to care, connectivity and communication. However, with little research and data into its methods and effectiveness, this treatment is still considered unconventional. As a result, it is not covered by health insurance and is expensive for out-of-pocket care. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, “Small studies and anecdotal evidence have shown equine therapy can help reduce symptoms of anxiety, depression and impulsiveness common to many mental health conditions.” However, more research is needed to determine if and how it works.

Unlike traditional talk therapy between a client and their therapist in an office, equine therapy is experiential, occurring outside in nature or a barn. A certified equine therapist or equine coach moderates the interaction, and the horse becomes a conduit for the client’s emotional and/or physical release. Those seeking this type of therapy may be suffering on myriad levels, from adults coping with a loss or illness to young children tolerating neglect, unsafe living conditions or poor relationships. Being outside, without restriction or judgment, can have a calming effect that allows them to feel safe, and some people are more comfortable opening up here than in a conventional therapy setting.

To get through day to day life, people bury their feelings, says Elizabeth Winnes, who worked with Tamara as a certified equine gestalt coach at Release the Reins in Westport, Massachusetts. “We force inward the feelings and emotions that are too difficult and heavy on us,” she says, adding that some people repress their experiences and never find peace.

“When you stand with the horse, all the stuff you’ve buried is right there for them to see,” Winnes says. “They accept us whether we’re short, tall, skinny, fat; what they care about is ‘Who are you? Are you being who you really are meant to be? Are you being authentic? Is what you’re showing on the outside congruent with what you’re feeling on the inside?’ ”

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Jake Taraksian, a client at Yellow Horse, in Ashaway, with Twix and Joye Briggs, Yellow Horse founder. Photography by Bob O’Connor.

Depending on the client’s willingness and comfort level, some walk horses around the paddock or ride them, while others simply occupy the same space. Most clients don’t have to say a word to communicate with a horse. As fight or flight animals, they read body language, picking up on others’ fear, anger, openness and friendliness and mirroring back those emotions.

Winnes subtly directs Tamara during her session, setting up scenarios, offering props and asking questions as a passive guide. Diesel often will be nearby but not necessarily engaged, and when Tamara starts discussing or feeling hurtful emotions from her past, he comes over.

“It’s not good to hold things in, especially if you pile stuff on top of stuff — who knows what will happen,” says Tamara, who suffers from PTSD, anxiety and depression, resulting from years as a victim of domestic violence and homelessness.

“When I manifested my abuser in a teddy bear, I threw the bear across the paddock, I dismissed him,” Tamara says. “When I did that, Diesel bumped up against the gate, he was encouraging me, telling me it was going to be okay.”

Tamara previously worked with a hula hoop, which for her represented her personal space. She wasn’t comfortable being inside it, because she wasn’t in control of her life, she says. Instead she walked around the bucolic property, along trails through the thick trees and down to the pond, holding on tightly to the hoop. When she reentered the paddock, and placed it on the ground next to her, Diesel came over and gently prodded her with his nose to stand inside. He walked away when she stood confidently in the space where she felt empowered. She knew then that’s what she needed to work on, she says — her inner power, confidence and strength.

“This is no holds barred. My goal is to let my clients be true to themselves, to allow them to be who they are in a place of non-judgment,” Winnes says. “That’s why the horses are so good at it, and especially Diesel. He pushes us past our comfort zone. To step into our true self, we need to feel safe. Horses allow that.”

This session allows Tamara to be next to Diesel, working together as friends, communicating non-verbally with no bridle or method of control in sight. That freedom allows them both to feel unrestricted.

“Most of our clients are in survival mode. They don’t think about feelings or emotions. Then when we give them the opportunity to open up and feel safe, the flood gates open,” says Martinha Javid, founder and CEO of the Mae Organization for the Homeless in Providence. She first met Tamara while offering expressive arts classes at the Warwick shelter where Tamara was living with her children in 2012. Javid helped Tamara find a home and furnishings, and brings her to the farm each month for her therapy session. “Equine therapy is her best method of release. She has no medication, no counsel. This is how she copes.”

Like the Gestalt method used by Winnes, the Eagala model of equine therapy employed by Faith Hill Farm in East Greenwich is non-mounted and unbridled; some horses even lie down in the arena as the client sits next to them. A certified mental health professional must be present for moderation. They offer little instruction, however, simply observing the horse’s behavior and translating to the client when needed.

To become Eagala certified, equine professionals must complete 6,000 hours of hands-on experience with horses and at least 100 hours of continuing equine education in addition to studying horse psychology and body language. The horses have been trained and tested to ensure they remain calm under pressure, don’t spook easily, are safe, sane and clean.

“Sometimes we give them direction, but most often we are not near them, so they don’t see us when they’re working with the horse. We are not part of their story book,” explains Eagala-certified practitioner and licensed social worker Jessica Clark, the assistant director of the outpatient department at St. Mary’s Home for Children in North Providence. The former orphanage offers a ten-week equine therapy program for its outpatient clients and juvenile residents as young as age four at Faith Hill Farm in East Greenwich. “This is solution-focused and client-led, so we don’t interfere; we let the horses do the work. Sometimes clients tell us what happens, sometimes they don’t. But for many, they do more work here than in ten weeks of talk therapy. It’s profound how well this works.”

One key consistency between models is that the horses are always present and are tuned into the mood of each client who steps into the ring, these specialists say. Each person is a blank slate, and it’s up to the horse to fully investigate or represent whatever the client feels, and react accordingly. More often than not, the horse can target the client’s needs in the first session.

“We had a teenage client who was hugely unsafe in her personal life, made poor relationship choices, had unstable family dynamics and couldn’t identify goals. She was always in chaos when she entered the arena,” says Pamela Steere Maloof, owner and Eagala equine specialist at Faith Hill Farm. “The horse stood in a corner when this client was so at odds with herself then moved in the same pattern: touched or knocked over the soccer net that represented happiness to the client; pawed at a riding helmet that represented safety to the client; knocked over a box of items identified as basic needs; and knocked over a bag of clipboards that represented school. These are incredible metaphors, and the client identified them as goals for her life and wellbeing. That would never have happened in talk therapy because she won’t talk to us there. I see the difference in her now, in her life.” Maloof says that having a mental health professional present is key to proving this treatment is not just about playing with horses.

Using horses for mental health is not limited to children or teens, the homeless or abused. Such programs have also been effective with veterans coping with post-traumatic stress disorder, and other mental and physical issues related to their service. “I love this equine therapy, it calms me down, gives me something to look forward to,” says Jake Taraksian, a Cranston resident and Vietnam War veteran. “I’ve taken medication for years to deal with my anger management and keep me from going to jail. But I was able to stop taking them when I started working with Lily. My anxiety and aggression calmed down. I learned to not be so aggressive with people who mistreated me. It has really helped me.”

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