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.

Joye Briggs with Bonny.
Photography by Bob O’Connor.

Lily is a seventeen-year-old chestnut quarter horse mare that Taraksian has been riding since 2019 at Yellow Horse in Ashaway. When he arrives for his weekly, hour-long session, she shoulders up to her stall door and swings her tail, which trainer Emily Cournoyer says is common for horses who are comfortable with their riders. He brushes her, inspects her hooves, puts on her saddle and pink rhinestone browband, even rinsing off her bridle before easing it into her mouth. “She’s a princess, and can be ornery, but she’s my sweetheart,” he says.

Cournoyer, Yellow Horse co-founder and assistant executive director, explains that all horses have a different gait, a weight limit, energy level and mannerisms. “If we have a tense client, we put them on a horse with a rocking chair gait, a low tone to loosen up the client. Or if we have a relaxed client, we’ll put them on a faster gait horse, like Lily, to straighten them up. With Jake, it doesn’t matter, he could ride just about any horse. He has confidence and balance, and can use his techniques to ride her independently. Some clients, like our youth clients with autism, can’t do that, so we put them on a smaller, gentler horse.

“All horses go through training to do this. We trial a horse before we use them, to see how they fit,” Cournoyer adds. “We need a horse to not be reactive. They’re working with kids and adults who have autism, so we need a horse with a calm demeanor, who is willing to approach clients and isn’t dancing around excitedly.”

Being bomb-proof, however, has its price. For humans and horses to get into this business, it is its own lesson in commitment and compassion, and oftentimes, grief. Many horses that find their way to this line of work had their own history of illness or abuse, Maloof and Winnes say. Winnes’s mare, Eden, was destined for slaughter when Winnes rescued her. One of Maloof’s therapy horses lost an eye while others were abandoned and left for dead. In this shared loss, the clients bond with horses in a way no human therapist can.

“Once I became certified in the Gestalt method, I employed Diesel and other horses as my co-coaches. I chose the horses that I felt were most intuitive to be my healing herd,” Winnes explains. “It took time to develop a herd with the personalities needed for this work. Eden came into my life to save me during my own tough time. She is my healing partner.”

Clark has seen many worst-case scenarios resolve in Faith Hill Farm’s arena and, with Maloof, is committed to continuing the service for her clients. She has witnessed a decrease in anxiety and an improvement in moods in children and older clients who are in the darkest emotional places. Aside from the visual anecdotes, Clark says she is compiling data on the program’s effectiveness. “The largest reduction came from clients with the highest self-reported mood and anxiety concerns,” she says. “The more data we have, the more insurance comes on board, the more people we can help. This is huge.”

Diesel and Tamara have become close friends during her months of therapy, and she is finally starting to believe as much in herself as she does in him. Her time in the shelter and floating between friends’ couches with her three children and working multiple jobs has left its mark. Once broke, broken and in a dark place, she just wanted more for herself and her kids. With Diesel, she is slowly coming back into the light again.

“Tamara was very insecure, and consistency was nonexistent for her. She always needs to be loved because she had no one to care for her growing up. Now she knows she’s worthy of good things. She has higher self-esteem, and knows she deserves better,” Javid says. “Horses have a tremendous intuitive power on us, so this is a very important part of clients’ therapy. And I know it works, because I did it myself.”

As Tamara turns to leave after her therapy session, Diesel follows her, and as she drives away, he walks to the middle of the paddock, lies down and begins to wiggle and roll around on his back. Winnes says this is a common habit of horses, as it allows them to release all their clients’ energy so that they, too, can move on.

“I have learned through this that I am not all this stuff that has happened to me,” Tamara says. “My kids are happy, we have a roof over our heads, I’m not worried about all the other things. My whole family is now happier than we’ve ever been. There are days that will be on the other side, but it feels good to be on this side. This is the first time I feel like I have actual control over my life. And it’s all thanks to Diesel.”

*  Name has been changed.