Equine therapy offers unique intervention to emotional, mental challenges

by Sara Hill

There’s a line in the 1995 novel-turned-movie, “The Horse Whisperer,” that resonates with the mission and theme of Hope Meadows, a local equine-assisted psychotherapy program: “I guess that’s all forever is. Just one long trail of nows. And I guess all you can do is try and live one now at a time without getting too worked up about the last now or the next now.”

The novel, which was quickly adapted into an award-winning film directed by and starring Robert Redford, explores how intersections between human and animal communication can impart lessons about compassion and well-being. Those intersections are something Michelle Togliatti, Anne Kichurchak and Tiffany Ingersoll understand very well.

The trio founded the Hope Meadows Foundation, which provides equine-assisted therapy with programs for first responders, healthcare workers, at-risk youth and those affected by trauma and grief.

Rather than sitting down in a traditional counseling office, Hope Meadows brings clients into a horse arena, connecting them with nature and the quiet grandeur of horses and where there’s little time to focus on anything else but the “now” that’s right in front of them.

Togliatti said mental health service advocacy and increased usage over the last two yeas has reduced the stigma of getting help.

“What we’re finding is that we’re able to go deeper faster. What would take six to eight sessions in traditional therapy, we’re seeing in the first session,” she said of equine assisted therapy, later adding, “You can’t lie to a horse.”

In the arena, clients, together with their assigned horses, work with a mental health specialist and equine specialist to complete activities that support treatment goals. Equine Assisted Psychotherapy (EAP) has been shown to help treat conditions such as depression, anxiety, eating disorders, addictions, substance abuse, ADD/ADHD, trauma, grief/loss and mood disorders. Horses are skilled at mirroring attitudes and behaviors of the humans around them, giving a treatment team ample opportunity to observe and identify emotions and patterns. Clients show improvements in areas like assertiveness, empathy, stress tolerance, impulse control and problem-solving.

“For example, an individual with addiction would participate in the ‘temptation alley’ activity in which they walk the horse through an obstacle course of treats without the horse grabbing any treats,” Togliatti said. “It’s a simple yet deep way for clients to clearly see their obstacles.”

Clients also learn healthy and appropriate ways to address their emotional and behavioral challenges.

“Horses and humans have always had a very unique, supportive relationship,” Togliatti said. “Horses are prey animals, so they’re always scanning their environment to understand what is safe to be around; there’s a trust there that’s built between the horse and client.”

Hope Meadows honored May, mental health awareness month, by offering free sessions for healthcare workers. With donations to The Guardian’s Gift Scholarship Fund, they plan to continue doing so at little to no cost. Learn more at hopemeadowsoh.org.