Working with horses can aid people dealing with anxiety, depression, grief and low self-esteem. There’s no riding involved.
HILLIER, ONT.—Deb Tattersall watches in amazement as her usually taciturn daughter chats easily with someone she’s just met.
“She’s completely found her voice,” Tattersall marvels. “That is totally the horses.”
Horses are Suki Tattersall’s therapist. By working with them in guided interaction, the 17-year-old is learning to overcome anxiety disorders that make her fearful of social situations and even of leaving the house.
Suki is one of a small but growing number of Canadians who are discovering the healing power of horses. In an emerging field called equine-assisted therapy and learning, horse and human are brought together to tackle a long list of mental health issues including depression, anxiety, anger, ADHD, substance abuse, eating disorders, bullying, lack of self-esteem, grief, post-traumatic stress disorder and autism.
Why horses? The intuitive animals are able to read and mirror the emotions and energy of the people around them, according to facilitators. Clients, in turn, learn to make positive changes in their lives. No riding is involved.
“It is nothing short of a miracle,” declares one GTA healing farm on its website.
Suki started equine therapy last year after conventional methods proved ineffective. Twice a week she visits Heal With Horses, a farm in Prince Edward County, two hours east of Toronto, where owner Suzanne Latchford-Kulker guides her through a series of activities.
During a recent session, Suki teams up with another client, 19-year-old Amanda Domenic, to coax a horse around an obstacle course that represents a challenge they’re working on in life. Using body language and what Latchford-Kulker calls their “voice of power,” they gain the horse’s trust and co-operation in navigating the obstacles.
The exercise is “empowering,” Suki says. “It’s like, ‘Oh, someone does listen to me.’”
Horses, she continues, “teach you a lot of self-confidence and to not let people push you around. You have to be honest. You can’t pretend with horses like (you can with) people.”
The two teens finish their session by draping themselves over a horse’s back to reduce stress and amp up the feel-good hormone oxytocin.
Suki’s four-legged teachers have become a “door to everything,” observes the online-schooled student who says she now has somewhere to go where she’s not judged.
Her mother has also noticed steady progress. “The changes are subtle yet extremely powerful,” says Deb. “I’m seeing bigger and bigger changes in her all the time.”
With talk therapy, she says, “people look to the therapist to find answers. Here they’re forced to go deep inside to find their own answers.”
She charges clients, who range from youngsters to senior citizens, $50 an hour for individual, hands-on sessions. She also does group workshops and has added an autism program to her practice.
It was a horse that found and fixed the source of a Newmarket woman’s anxiety. Kym, an artist in her 50s with a lifelong fear of horses, stood a short distance from the animal during a session at the Healing With Horses Farm in Richmond Hill. As it moved toward her, she stepped back and the horse kept advancing. But if she stood her ground, the horse stopped, then walked away.
She realized her anxiety stemmed from her failure to set boundaries with a significant person in her life.
“It came to me in an instant. It was very powerful and a very positive experience,” recalls Kym, who requested anonymity, of her “equine healing” a year ago.
A personal note —
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