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4 “Teachers “Teachers Don’t Don’t Always Always ” Legs ” Lessons Lessons Learned Learned Through


“Teachers “Teachers Don’t Don’t Always Always

Legs ”

Lessons Lessons Learned Learned Through Through Equine Equine Therapy Therapy by Sara Ham, Kerry Lawrence
Lessons Lessons
Learned Learned
Through Through
Equine Equine
Therapy Therapy
by Sara Ham, Kerry Lawrence and Colleen Tucker

Have Two Legs

Have Two

FF or most of us, the term “equine therapy” conjures up images of summer riding camp — kids, horses, recreational riding and fun! Although

enjoyment is paramount to this program, the equine therapy program at Paint Rock Valley utilizes horses to provide an experiential atmosphere for participants. The setting is similar — a traditional riding stable, but the activities are very different. While there is some riding involved, it is not the primary focus. Participants can expect to experience challenging exercises that benefit people from all walks of life. Activities are designed to promote trust, communication, teamwork and problem-solving skills. A very important element of the program is the development of an understanding of equine behavior, using learned skills to adapt to the horse’s environment.

Horses have long been recognized as a valuable tool for mankind. The use of horses in a professional therapeutic setting, however, is fairly recent. There are currently several professional organizations nationwide devoted to the therapeutic use of horses, and they have achieved considerable success.

Benefits of Equine Therapy

Equine therapy provides a diverse range of opportunities. Each activity is designed with a specific objective and underlying theme. Participants don’t need to have experience handling horses to be active in the exercise

Paradigm Fall 1998

or benefit from it. Each session is unique due to group dynamics and individual horse and human characteristics. Dynamics brought out by the activity are discussed at the end of each session in the group debriefing.

Equine therapy offers many unique advantages:

• The opportunity to work with a live animal adds a valuable dynamic to group interaction.

• Participants can build confidence and self-esteem and learn responsibility while caring for an animal.

• The group learns to develop an awareness of equine body-language that relates to human body- language and communication.

Participants who come to the program with blunted sensitivity can benefit from the way the horse’s honesty reflects the actions and attitudes of the participant. If the participant projects an introverted or apathetic persona, the horse will respond in kind by forcing the participant to be self-disciplined in order gain the horse’s respect and form a partnership. Observing a horse’s reaction to human behavior assists participants with identifying their own issues including fear, anger, apathy and aggression.

Horses are honest teachers with personalities as varied as those of humans, and therefore they react differently to each person and each action. How the animal responds to the participant’s behavior offers

immediate feedback. This helps to develop and promote many qualities:

• Empathy.

• Assertiveness.

• Leadership.

• Open-mindedness.

• Thought.

• Endurance.

• Patience.

The group setting also promotes accountability, a sense

of belonging, as well as the importance of group effort

and group accomplishment.

Individual benefits within the group are substantial.

A withdrawn individual can form a relationship with a

horse he or she feels an affinity to, and may begin to work with that horse on a deeper level. Each horse has specific needs that must be addressed during a session. The participant works with the facilitator to identify the horse’s issues, and in doing so learns to respond proactively instead of reactively. The issues raised and the techniques used to manage the horse’s behavior help teach the participant the skills needed for his or her own practical life application. This translates to other areas of therapy, enabling the individual to relate more openly.

How the Group Works

The group’s initial session includes explanation of the rules for safety and stable standards. Instructors explain the importance of these standards and their relation to the group and the horses. Participants are provided a group notebook to be used for each session. A secretary selected by the group maintains the notebook and refers

to it during each session for guidance and a recorded

timeline for the group’s daily activities.

In addition to the secretary position, the group has several other appointed management positions,


• Stall manager.

• Tack room manager.

• First aid manager.

• Lesson manager.

• Aisle and arena manager.

• New resident sponsor.

Having the participants appoint these managers empowers the individuals and the group as a whole. After receiving group orientation, a 30/60/90-day plan is outlined by the group members. The activities in this plan progress from the most basic — group function and horsemanship — to more advanced levels. At the end of 90 days, the groups re-evaluate their goals and formulate

a new 30/60/90-day plan. The group is responsible for scheduling and achieving these long-term goals.

Each session begins with the group organizational huddle, in which the day’s goals and activities are outlined. The participants recite the “Full Value Contract,” which directs the group toward setting individual and group goals, following safety standards, giving and receiving feedback and changing behaviors. When individuals commit to each area, they agree to

receive the full value of the activity. The group sets goals alternating between individual and group goals. The goals must meet the requirements as outlined. Goals must be desirable, achievable, specific, measurable, immediate and must be broken down into small steps. All goals are stated publicly for accountability and are written on a dry-erase board for referral during the day. The group then delegates the daily horse-care chores, and the day’s activities begin, as outlined in the 30/60/90- day plan.

The activities fall into two categories: group activities and horsemanship. The group activities focus on group dynamics and issues within the group. “Blind Man’s Trust” is a specific activity used with most groups to foster trust and communication. Each person in the group takes turns being either a rider or leader of the horse. The rider is blindfolded and uses no saddle or bridle. The leader is responsible for helping the rider equip and mount safely while blindfolded. The group surrounds the horse and the leader and takes them through a series of obstacles while communicating verbally with the rider. If the rider loses balance or


confidence, he or she must not touch the horse but

a horse’s

communicate to the group on the ground his or her need for support. In addition to providing verbal support, the


group members have their hands raised ready to physically support the blindfolded rider. When the

to human

exercise is finished, the leader helps the rider dismount and then removes the blindfold.



Issues that arise during this exercise lead to questions of different types of trust, including trusting


others with physical safety versus emotional risk-taking. The differences between being responsible for the rider’s

with identifying

safety and being the vulnerable rider are also discussed.

their own

There are many parallels within the exercise that relate to family issues.


The horsemanship activities are geared toward

The actual riding activities begin with balancing

including fear,

individual issues. Horsemanship exercises begin with

anger, apathy

groundwork, which includes grooming, tacking up and general horse handling. The mounted activities begin


with bareback riding and progress to saddle work. Each


participant chooses his or her own riding equipment to allow discovery of personal preferences. The objectives are the same regardless of the type of equipment used (i.e., western vs. English styles of riding). The decision regarding what equipment to use is based on personal experience instead of relying on pre-conceived stereotypes.

exercises that teach self-control on horseback and build confidence and trust of the horse. Emphasis is placed on working at a slow and even pace. When the riders are comfortable with this stage, they progress to obstacles such as walking over logs and low jumps. Safety issues and the importance of gaining an understanding of the complexity of horsemanship while trail riding are taught before the group ever leaves the arena. This often leads

Continued on

to issues such as impatience and recognizing the dif-

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Continued from page 5

ferences between healthy and unhealthy risk-taking. After the arena work is completed by each individual within the group, trail riding may begin.

At the end of each session, an evaluation is performed — primarily by the group, but with the instructors input. The participants review their goals and either agree or disagree on the level of attainment. The instructor reviews the group’s findings and goals. The next week’s goals are discussed based on constructive feedback from the group and instructors. The group then discusses any unresolved issues from the day and how they apply to daily life. The group and instructor affirm what was done well that week, and the session ends on a positive note.

Challenges in Creating an Equine Therapy Program

Clinicians creating this type of program face three kinds


challenges — horses, people and systems challenges.

in order to aid in the decision-making process for each individual’s progress. Management of the daily operations of the facility is critical to the success of the program. Consistency in the care and maintenance of the grounds provides a safe environment for all parties involved. Unforeseen events may occur, and the ability to address emergency situations in an efficient manner is essential.

The equine services department at Paint Rock Valley works with other equine therapy programs around the country to maintain a high level of creativity and resources. Instructors are certified under Equine Assisted Psychotherapy (EAP) which gives the necessary background for blending therapeutic skills with horsemanship. The program is designed to meet or exceed the horse-care standards set by the Certified Horsemanship Association (CHA). The instructors are certified at appropriate levels through CHA and abide by CHA’s safety and instructional standards for mounted activities.

Sara Ham is the director of equine services at Three Springs of Paint Rock Valley. She has a bachelor’s degree in Psychology, and has been involved with horses for 14 years. What began as a hobby turned into a professional past time. Sara’s love of children and horses has been the driving force in creating this successful program at Paint Rock Valley. For more information about Equine Therapy call 256/776-2503.

Kerry Lawrence is the Assistant Director of Equine Services. Kerry is the mother of two children and has 35 years of experience with horses. She has studied many years with nationally renowned horse professionals and adds her vast knowledge and creativity to all aspects of the program.

Colleen Tucker has 15 years experience as a professional horse trainer. She currently works as
Colleen Tucker has 15 years experience as a professional
horse trainer. She currently works as a freelance writer.

The challenges with regard to horses include maintaining consistency in their daily care and feeding as well as handling. Horses are creatures of habit, therefore their behavior is a direct reflection of the last person to handle them. Another challenge faced with the horses is to constantly monitor their mental attitude and adjust their work environment accordingly.

The challenges involving people in this type


with horse knowledge who are unwilling to expand upon their prior experience. These individuals are taught to realize that horse knowledge is a never-ending learning process. Another type of challenge concerns people with the mindset that horses are simply tools instead of living, breathing, feeling creatures.

program include those presented by individuals

The system challenges mainly deal with the actual

mechanics of operation. The complexity of running such


between all parties involved. The feedback generated during each session is provided to other treatment staff

program demands organization and communication

Paradigm Fall 1998