Horse Sense: Equine Assisted Therapy Part I

equine therapyWhen I’m on a horse, the world disappears.

Unless, I’m trail riding when travelling – then the scenery around me intensifies. There’s no better way to be in the moment. When riding, it’s about you, your horse, staying balanced (literally) and breathing. Frequently.

Horses are intuitive animals. As herd members, they are highly in-tuned to the actions and reactions of those around them. As prey animals, their instincts make them sensitive to changes in energy.

And this is the basis for equine assisted therapy, or FEEL ® that pairs people and horses with a trained facilitator to promote physical, occupational and emotional growth. It purports to assist a variety of issues including anxiety, addiction, autism, lack of confidence and post-traumatic stress disorder. For some this sounds too, well, touchy feely. For others, it makes perfect sense.

If you’re reading this, you’re likely in group two.Dante and Flora horses FEEL

Equine assisted therapies capitalize on the horse’s nature and our reaction to it. Size is important. Horses are imposing and no one is indifferent – love or fear them, you have a reaction. And this powerful reaction is the starting point, particularly for FEEL® (Facilitated Equine Experiential Learning) a specific therapy training program certifying a number of facilitators, including Bernadette Sibley from Phoenix Rising (named after her horse) and Brenda Elking from Red Horse Sense.

Many facilitators are also traditional therapists or from social service backgrounds. Sibley worked for Corrections Canada for decades so now runs a FEEL® program at Sandy Lane Stables near Brantford, Ontario.

pot belly pig FEELSandy Lane Stables is privately owned farm with several paddocks and a large stable that is also home to rescued bunnies and two potbellied pigs who sometimes roam free in the barn. It’s also home to horses Phoenix, Dante, Abby, Flora, Corey and Mikey, a dressage horse. Some are ridden by owners and in lessons, but others aren’t sound enough to ride so participate in the FEEL® program.

Equine assisted therapies like FEEL® don’t involve riding, but can including leading horses through obstacles. Recently added to this barn are two rescued miniature horses, Trig and Charlotte, who will work with kids too intimidated by full-sized horses.

Horses in any FEEL® program choose to work with a person, and it’s one of the first steps in the process. Once horse and participant are paired, the horse naturally takes over the role of therapist and leads the participant to face his or her own … truth. Horses are non-judgmental and completely authentic in their reactions.

According to Sibley, “horses will mirror your feelings and help you open up and ring out emotions you’ve been pushing down. You can disclosure things to horses that you wouldn’t disclose to others …. you can trust horses and reveal things you sometimes can’t tell a therapist.”

The process is emotionally intense, regardless of reason the participant of any age is there.

Pheonix FEEL

It’s emotional for the horse too. “The horse can also take emotional energy from you and keep it with them, ” Sibley says. “I’ve seem horses lie down after a session because the experience is so emotional. We have to clear horses often to allow them to let go of the emotions they’ve internalized.”

The idea, Sibley says, is to create a tranquil, peaceful place at Sandy Lane Stables. “It’s about letting go of a busy mind, being grounded and acknowledging emotions.”

Who might benefit from this form of learning? According to Horse Spirit Connections (that owns the registered trademark FEEL®) targets are organizations interested in unique team building and leadership activities and individuals wanting to build self-confidence, nurture emotional growth, manage stress, and improve well-being.

minature pony-FEELPhoenix Rising will run Equine Assisted Learning programs for kids during March Break 2016 for $350 per week, or $70 per day. Adult sessions are $125 each or $350 for five, although sessions are flexible according to individual need. 905-537-5110 or info@phoenixrisingeal.ca

There are many books written about horses and healing including Riding Home: The Power of Horses to Heal by Tim Hayes available on Amazon.

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61 comments

  1. Great article on great horses and people. As a life-long horse person I truly believe that horses can make a difference in people’s lives.

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  2. There is a program near us that teaches special needs kids how to ride. This seems like a great program as well!

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    1. Yes, programs that combine horses and special needs children can be really amazing. Unfortunately, the one that was running for decades in my area is currently suspended due to lack of funding. It’s a non-profit.

      Liked by 2 people

  3. TossedCookie · · Reply

    Are there other programs like this in other parts of the country? I know several people that would benefit from something like this (as would I)!

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    1. From what I understand, there are programs based on the FEEL technique (or one similar) all over North America, and it’s just starting to catch on as an option for therapy – especially for those who don’t traditionally do well with ‘talk’ therapy such as military personal and even convicts. (The latter having trust issues with people). I plan to write about more people who do this kind of work … as I locate them.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. That sounds like an amazing program! Animals are so wonderful and I know that hanging out with my dogs definitely makes me feel better! It’s awesome that these sorts of programs are available! I would love to participate in something like this with horses!

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    1. I think when it works, it really works. I’m researching a few others too.

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  5. Oh interesting. I would have thought horse therapy would all involve riding. I’m more familiar with dog therapy. We have the kids do obstacle courses with the dogs as well.

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    1. I thought there would be riding too… So I riding horses for me it is?

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  6. All animals make great listeners and confidants – this sounds like a great program for those with a love of horses.

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    1. Yes. True. I think horse therapy might work best with those new to horses.

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  7. What a totally amazing program! Horses are beautiful, glorious, spiritual creatures – thank you for sharing!

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    1. Thanks. I hope to get out there again this summer – maybe to participate in a program but I’m not sure. I interact with horses often that I’m not sure I’ll have the same experience as some.

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    2. Thanks. I hope to get out there again this summer – maybe to participate in a program but I’m not sure. I interact with horses often that I’m not sure I’ll have the same experience as some.

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  8. I think it’s really important to talk about the emotional energy the horse takes from you – it’s the exact same thing with dogs, I love reading your posts as I’m a huge fan of horses, they’re amazing creatures.

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    1. That surprised me a bit… that they have to in a way smug the horse if the energy, or session, is too much.

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    2. That surprised me a bit… that they have to in a way smug the horse if the energy, or session, is too much.

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  9. I used to work with special-ed children and horse therapy was used extensively with several of them. They really light up on a horse. ☺

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I would like to write about a number of those programs too – unfortunately, the non-profit near me that worked with physically challenged kids had to shut down due to lack of funding. They say it’s temporary, but…

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    2. I would like to write about a number of those programs too – unfortunately, the non-profit near me that worked with physically challenged kids had to shut down due to lack of funding. They say it’s temporary, but…

      Like

  10. pawprintpetblog · · Reply

    Great post! I haven’t had a lot of opportunities to spend time with horses but can certainly understand the unique bond and healing energy that can come from spending time with animals.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Once I got back into riding, I started to notice how many horses where around and where… so far, I’ve found them all over the world. At least where I’ve been.

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  11. Golden Daily Scoop · · Reply

    This sounds like a great program! It’s amazing the effect horses and animals have on the human spirit!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, I’m sure we’ve just scratched the surface of animal assisted therapy.

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  12. I’ve never been around horses much, but I love them and think they’re beautiful. I would love to get to spend more time with horses. They sound like wonderful creatures. A therapy program with horses sounds like such a great idea.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I got back into riding primarily because I moved to an area surrounded by horses and for some reason I knew several friends with them, or acquiring them. My instructor says, “girls give up riding when they discover boys.. then get back into it when they’re sick of them.”

      Liked by 1 person

    2. I got back into riding primarily because I moved to an area surrounded by horses and for some reason I knew several friends with them, or acquiring them. My instructor says, “girls give up riding when they discover boys.. then get back into it when they’re sick of them.”

      Like

  13. Animal assisted therapy can definitely be beneficial. It’s true – it is often easier to open up to an animal companion than it is to open up to a human, even to a nonjudgmental therapist.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I feel that way everyday when I talk to my pets.

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  14. rosadoodle · · Reply

    One of my students went to horse therapy weekly. It was so wonderful for her and her anxiety.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Once a week? That’s frequent. It’s good to hear someone benefiting. When I was there, the next client coming to the barn was a young girl there for that reason.

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  15. I haven’t really been around horses, although i grew up on a farm we had Donkeys. But living in the horse capital of the world you would think i would actually get a chance to ride one. Maybe I should finally do that this summer….a little horse therapy sounds great!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m surprise growing up rural you didn’t have more access to horses. But I love donkeys and have written about them on this blog too. I’m curious = where is the horse capital of the world?

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Lexington Kentucky

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      2. That’s what I suspected. It’s been on my travel list for ages – maybe this summer.

        Liked by 1 person

  16. fivesibesmom · · Reply

    I absolutely love this! Before Huskies, I was an equestrian for many years and was just in love with my horses. Equine-human bonding was something I always engaged in, and FEEL, had it been around, would be something I would surely love to learn and do. Great post!

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    1. I love riding as a sport only because it’s with a horse and not human. Love to hear you rode … seems like people are all in with horses, or not at all. (Even pet people).

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  17. As a teenager, I was lucky enough to take horseback riding for a few years. I think this program makes perfect sense!

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    1. That’s when I started. But I gave is up in my 20s (exactly when you physically should be riding) to go to school and then get my life together. When I finally realized it’s not all (or at all) about career and money – the stable doors opened again.

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  18. This subject fascinates me. Thank you for sharing this post.

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  19. I loved riding horses when I was younger. It’s been a very long time, but I still think they are beautiful animals.

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  20. I love horses and grew up obsessed with riding (British style but adapted). I have no doubt about the difference animals can make, especially horses, dogs and cats. I have seen great examples of all and always happy to share.

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    1. I ride English too – in lessons. On trails, Western saddles are more comfortable.

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  21. “When I’m on a horse, the world disappears.” Amen to that.
    And you know what else disappears? My crowsfeet, laugh lines and starting-to-not-be-as-taut neck skin. I was just thinking about that today as I opened the gate to enter the property where I keep my horse. 🙂 These creatures–they’re dreamy. I wish more people could befriend a horse once in their lifetime. I know it’s hard based on time, geography, and $ sometimes. Ira Glass did an episode (actual TV show) based on This American Life several years ago. There was a city somewhere that was considered “inner city” (might have been Philly). Long story short, there were horses in a neighborhood near a troubled neighborhood. They showed a group of teen boys who were becoming avid horsemen–not typical for their surroundings. It was a very touching segment about how horses can bring out the best in all of us. http://www.thisamericanlife.org/tv-archives/season-two/escape

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    1. When I step into a barn, either for lessons or casual riding outside, anything that happened that day disappears. It’s left outside the barn. They are amazing animals who are also powerful enough to demand respect, and I think that’s a big part of what keeps us at our best.

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  22. Very interesting and great program. I’ve never rode a horse before…maybe I should one of these days 🙂

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    1. Where is important. The best places are where the horse is respected and the barn has rules regarding how people ride – even trailriding – rather than places who see the animals only as dollar generators. If you’re going to Blogpaws conference, you can ride from the hotel. I will be.

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  23. spencerthegoldendoodle · · Reply

    Wonderful post! I don’t know much about horse, but they are amazing animals for those with special needs.

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    1. Thanks! I plan to learn more about this too.

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  24. The FEEL program sounds wonderful! I love the idea of using horses as therapy animals. There is a program not too far from me that uses horses to help troubled youth learn to cope with life (along with a number of other therapies too). It is amazing how many of the kids in that program glow when they talk about how the horses helped them.

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    1. There’s a lot of potential for the specific place I wrote about too. Teens would be ideal but as with everything funding is the issue. The agencies she’s approached like the idea, but are scrambling for $$ to support programs. (This barn isn’t far from a city that could use more social programs).

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  25. What an incredible program, horses are so amazing! Thank you for sharing this.
    Love & biscuits,
    Dogs Luv Us and We Luv Them

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  26. My daughter would love this. She’s always insisting we do trail rides wherever we go on holiday. Of course, we comply!

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    1. One of the reasons I picked this theme is because I met a number of people who said the only ride on vacation and almost always ride where ever they go – even if it means getting up at 6am to ride on the beach in Bermuda.

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  27. interesting blog. In my limited riding experience, my main focused was always on the horse I was paired with, more than the ride itself. Seeking to feel out it’s disposition and temperment. Always felt a bond forming by the end of the trail ride. Great experience

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    1. That is very intuitive of you. And thanks for the kind words.

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  28. I’ve been around horses all my life and they are my escape, my stress relief. So I can certainly see why they would be therapeutic for all sorts of conditions. When everything else seems doom and gloom, a visit down the yard and spending time with my horse takes that all away.
    And to follow the point that you can reveal things to horses that sometimes can’t tell a therapist – everyone down the yard can be heard having their own conversions with their horses. If you actually stopped and listened … it would probably be quite fascinating!

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    1. Thank you for your insight … Well said. I’ve resolved to spend more down time with horses this summer for much the same reasons.

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