Equine therapy programs provide confidence, healing through horses

by Laura Bednar

Horses have more to offer people than just a back to ride on. Their commanding presence and ability to read human body language has helped those with disabilities, those experiencing trauma or people suffering from a long-term illness. Equine therapy has become a popular method of healing at stables throughout Bath Township.

Victory Gallop

The idea of equine therapy blossomed in Bath in 1995 with Victory Gallop, a non-profit on Hametown Road. According to the organization’s website, the program was developed to support overlooked children with life-threatening illnesses or other impairments that are not visible.

Their program is for children ages 3-18 dealing with physical, cognitive or other types of challenges. Victory Gallop offers enrolled riders general riding lessons, a summer social skills camp and events outside the farm for children to carry the skills they learned into the community.

BHA Riding Academy

Bay Horse Acres on Everett Road has offered horse-riding lessons for over 30 years. When a special needs student wanted to ride a horse in the Special Olympics, lead instructor Julia Klarowski saw an opportunity for others with disabilities to grow through equine therapy. Thus BHA Riding Academy was born.

The academy, which began just a few years ago, offers different types of equine therapy depending on the individual’s skill and comfort level. Small classes help students build balance and motor skills while riding, and the lesson is also offered as a one-on-one instruction. If students are not ready to ride a horse or are intimidated by its size, they can participate in a sensory experience with the stable’s dog, mini-horse and other livestock animals.

Assistant instructor Jenny Loveland said before starting therapy, she and Klarowski have a meet-and-greet with potential students and their families to assess the student’s abilities and what they hope to accomplish through the program. A typical lesson begins with brushing the horse, giving the student a sensory experience. If they are physically able and willing, the student can walk next to the horse, put on the saddle and eventually ride the horse with volunteers walking next to them.

Loveland said she might also have the student perform stretches while on the horse to relax.

“It opens them up,” she said.

Assistant instructor Jenny Loveland (L) and lead instructor Julia Klarowski of BHA Riding Academy with student Sierra Carter (on horse). Photo courtesy of Julia Klarowski

She gave the example of autistic students who do not like to speak but must learn to be vocal because the horses are voice-trained. By speaking the words “walk,” “trot,” or “whoa,” the students begin to build confidence.

Loveland said the parents notice changes in their child’s confidence after lessons. “It translates into life,” Loveland said.

Most of the horses are older and quiet, making them suitable for this type of therapy. Loveland told of a student who did not want to leave his parents’ side, but after grooming the horse and growing closer to it, was able to ride alone.

“Our mission is to enrich the lives of people with physical and mental disabilities. Parents see the benefits in their children’s strength and independence,” Loveland said, noting that the program is open to adults with disabilities as well.

Klarowski added, “You feel like you are always paying it forward.”

Hope Meadows and Misty Acres

Hope Meadows is a nonprofit that operates out of three locations in Bath, Richfield and Columbia Station. The Bath location is Misty Acres Farm on North Hametown Road. Owner and caretaker of the acres Karen Priemer acquired the property and built an indoor arena, stables and loft. When the loft area was almost completed, Hope Meadows reached out to her looking for a space to use for its equine therapy program.

Priemer said she felt compelled “to build the loft to try and create a healing space,” noting that it was a “build it and they will come” moment.

Hope Meadows has been a partner with Misty Acres for almost three years and offers two types of therapies: psychotherapy and learning. The psychotherapy is similar to a traditional therapy session except the client is in the arena with the horses, a mental health practitioner and an equine specialist.

Co-founder of Hope Meadows Anne Kichurchak said it can be difficult for someone who experienced trauma to verbalize what they’ve gone through, but through a modality called “eagala,” they can use the horses as tools to explain what they’ve experienced. For example, a horse may be standing away from the herd and by asking the client why they think the horse is alone, it may tap into the client’s emotion of feeling abandoned or rejected.

“You are able to go deeper quicker in a non-directive way,” said Kichurchak.

In some cases, Kichurchak said a client participates in “natural lifemanship,” in which he or she regulates their body by riding the horse and moving rhythmically with their beat.

“A person with trauma can be deregulated, and they need to get their nervous system back to center,” she said.

Kichurchak and co-founder Michelle Togliatti both suffered from eating disorders. After experiencing equine therapy to help them, they felt there was a need for this healing in their area.

“We started [the program] because of personal pain we wanted to turn into purpose,” Kichurchak said.

The second form of therapy offered is learning, in which the horses can be part of corporate team building as well as learning programs for children. These are done on-the-ground and include activities like children painting the horses to connect with one another.

Priemer said the horses don’t need any training to be therapy animals, they just act naturally and people respond to their energy. She gave an example of a client who came to the stables while dealing with cancer. After focusing her attention on being present with the horse, the client said she didn’t feel any pain for the first time since her illness started.

Priemer said Misty Acres is in the process of having therapists come to the stables to familiarize themselves with the herd, with some of them training to become equine specialists. The goal is to have the therapists bring more clients to the stables to experience equine therapy.

Horse care

Debbie Jones is an Eden Energy Medicine clinical practitioner, Reiki master and animal communicator who works with the herd at Misty Acres. She explained that animals, like humans, can feel stressed, anxious and have low levels of patience at times. Jones taps into the energy of the horses when they may not be emotionally present.

The Reiki method helps bring the horses’ energy in good cadence, according to Jones. In this method, she works around the horses and will use the vibrations from tuning forks to bring the horse back in balance by holding the fork against its body. She will also tap its forehead between or next to its eyes to tap into its energy system.

“Horses are in tune to the energy around them, it is the strongest sense they have,” said Jones.

She said because horses are prey animals, they sense the energy around them to determine if they are in a safe environment. And because they are such large animals, when a person is in the stables or arena with them, it is nearly impossible to focus on anything else.

“[Equine therapy] is a powerful modality. Animals live in the moment, and it causes you to take pause,” she said. ∞