The Healing Horses of Equine Therapy
The technique offers a range of benefits
The wind of heaven is that which blows between a horse’s ears, says an Arabian proverb, and at The Carriage Barn Therapeutic Riding Center in Kensington, the steeds are equine angels incarnate.
The kindhearted and intelligent Merlin, a 17-year-old Haflinger mare, is but one of the specially trained horses and ponies that help create magical results by partnering with human volunteers and certified therapists.
“Horses are healers,” says Dr. Ann Miles, the nonprofit organization’s founder and executive director. Miles, who is also a consummate horsewoman, adds that horses and people make excellent companions: “The two species really do relate to each other.”
The program’s intent is to maximize the abilities of each challenged individual rather than dwell on his or her disabilities. Miles defines the goals for each participant, and then, using a team approach, the staff and horses work together to provide assistive programs for children, teens, adults and veterans dealing with a myriad of physical, emotional, mental and cognitive disabilities and challenges.
“I’ve been doing this for 20 years and right now, what I have coming in the door, which is putting me to my knees, is young teens who are suicidal. I have been overwhelmed in the last 12 months. I can’t believe what we are seeing,” says Miles, who is recognized by the industry’s gold standard, the Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship (PATH), as an innovative expert in her field.
Since the time of the ancient Greeks, horses have been utilized as therapists for people with incurable illnesses. Evidence of the practice is found in the writings of the great Hippocrates (460-370 BC), but these days equine therapy is not designed to replace more commonly employed methods. Rather, it enhances them as a complementary or adjunct treatment.
Equine therapy often involves riding horses, which can be of any breed, as long as they are calm, even-tempered, gentle, physically sound, and well-trained under saddle and on the ground. But even grooming, feeding or simply petting them can work wonders.
Nomo, a 20-year-old Haflinger gelding (castrated male), is a willing hard worker who understands his job. He does it well.
“The clients Nomo had when he was a very young horse are now coming back as young adults. He knows every single one of them. He puts his head in their lap if they are in a wheelchair. Nomo just stands there and allows them to pet him so these clients can reunite with him,” says Miles. “The intensity of what happens is astounding.”
Among the recognized physical benefits of equine therapy are muscle stimulation, strength and conditioning, flexibility, balance, coordination, postural alignment and range of motion. The emotional plusses include self-confidence, self-esteem, self-worth, better communication, relaxation, recreation, socialization, improved cognitive abilities and empowerment.
“You can’t do this kind of therapy on a wooden horse, or in a gym, because it’s so multilayered,” Miles says.
At The Carriage Barn, as the name implies, Miles also incorporates carriage driving, which involves controlling a horse while holding reins and driving from a carriage seat. At the Trundle Bed Farm location (also in Kensington), clients can drive from a wheelchair in a specially modified carriage.
“A woman who is a quadriplegic absolutely felt she had nothing left after her accident, but now she comes here every Wednesday and does carriage driving because that makes her whole again,” says Miles. “It’s exquisitely beautiful to watch. The inter-species connection is very profound. It’s beyond any kind of simple definition. What are we here? We are a sanctuary.”