These horses help trou­bled pa­tients with their ill­ne­ses

Equine ther­apy aids men­tal and emo­tional trauma

Baltimore Sun - - MARYLAND - By Laura Jane Wil­loughby

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.

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