These horses help troubled patients with their illneses
Equine therapy aids mental and emotional trauma
On a 10-acre Harford County farm, horses are helping heal mental illness and emotional trauma.
For the past two years, Horsepower Equine Assisted Services has used horses to help clients work through anxiety, depression, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, traumatic brain injuries and adjustment disorders. The client never rides the horse; instead, the horse is a tool the therapists use.
“A lot of the things we’re setting up are life scenarios,” says Jennifer Kraus, Horsepower’s founder and a certified life coach. “We’ll have them set up a path or an obstacle and [tell them] it represents ‘x’ in your life, or this difficulty or something you’re anxious about. It’s transferable.”
On a recent Saturday, 10-year-old Korinna Sieracki arrives at the Aberdeen farm for her first session. She stares up at a brown quarter-horse gelding standing on the other side of a fence.
As though the horse is picking up on Korinna’s own spunky and outspoken personality, he puts his head over the fence, his ears alert. They are locked in a gaze.
“You can get as close or as far as you’d like,” says Erin Tancemore, Horsepower’s psychotherapist.
Still, Korinna doesn’t move any closer than 6 feet.
Tancemore and Kraus work in concert before, during and after each session, Kraus focusing on the horse’s body language and behavior, and Tancemore focusing on the client’s needs.
Each session is tailored to the client, based on therapeutic goals and strategy. Any one session could use one or more of the farm’s five horses. All interactions and work with the horse are ground-based.
Tancemore and Kraus may pick one of several activities, from setting up obstacle courses with the foam noodles, cones and metal bars in the farm’s paddock, to grooming the horses.
Horsepower clients have ranged from age 6 through their late 50s. The farm has also hosted family and support groups, leading participants through sessions designed to teach cooperation, teamwork and communication.
The Equine Assisted Growth and Learning Association is the training and certification arm for what’s termed equineassisted psychotherapy and equine-assisted learning.
The group points to a growing body of research that shows it is an effective treatment for hard-to-treat disorders and behaviors.
“Not everybody responds to traditional office space therapy, where it’s talk therapy,” Tancemore says. “Equine therapy is experiential. Instead of talking about, ‘What should I be doing?’ we’re actually practicing, ‘What do I need to be doing?’ reflecting upon it, and then assessing how that could carry over into daily life. And I think that’s much more of a powerful modality for people.”
That was the case with Korinna, who is working through the thing that makes her different and the frustrations it brings. She has cystic fibrosis, an inherited disorder that affects the body’s mucous membranes in the lungs and gastrointestinal system.
Her parents brought her to Horsepower to begin working through some of the feelings and thoughts that fill her life as she navigates a complex medical diagnosis.
“She loves animals. So I figured this would be a great outlet for her because she doesn’t like to just sit and talk,” her mother, Kristi Sieracki, says.
Tancemore leads Korinna through the barn, introducing her to the horses. She points to a syringe that will soon deliver medicine to a horse, relating it to Korinna’s own experiences in the hospital.
At the end of the session, Tancemore leads the horse out of the ring and hands Korinna the horse’s rope. Korinna pets him and lets him graze as Tancemore asks Korinna gently probing questions.
“In your life do you always feel in control?” Tancemore asks her.
“No,” Korinna answers, before sharing an experience from that recent hospital stay.
“So, [the horse] is now out of the hospital and needs to go to his home. Will you take him on this path towards his house?” Tancemore asks, pointing toward the horse’s stall.
Korinna starts walking toward the barn, telling him no and giving the horse a gentle tug when he stops to graze on grass. Tancemore designed this scenario to give Korinna a feeling of control, a counterbalance to what she may otherwise feel during hospital stays.
She walks the horse, unassisted, into his stable. She is confident and at ease. “How do you feel?” Tancemore asks her. “Good,” Korinna answers.