Equine therapy programs teach clients to take the reins in life
Two riders and their horses are silhouetted against the morning sunrise as they enter Woodbine's track for an early morning gallop on Thursday March 29, 2007 in Toronto. (CP / Michael Burns jr.)
Published Monday, December 24, 2012 11:34AM EST
GRAFTON, Ont. -- Brittany Rosenplot barely remembers the last time she was around horses.
What does she recall, quite clearly, is that she was terrified.
"I was really little," said 24-year-old woman. "It was at a campground and they brought out the horses. I was so nervous and the girl had to tether my horse to her horse in order for us to go."
So it was a leap of faith that she and her husband, Jason Rosenplot, signed up for an equine program at Ste. Anne's Spa in southeastern Ontario.
The program offers an opportunity for people to groom a horse or help out as a stable hand by mucking the stalls. Each session costs $45.
For Rosenplot, spending an hour brushing an 11-year-old mare named Tess gave her a chance to overcome her fear that the horse would hurt her, or even that she would hurt it.
"I didn't know what I was doing, right, but as you get going, you can see how the horse relaxes," said Rosenplot, who is a dental hygienist in Belleville, Ont.
"Even at the end, when I was done grooming, I was just petting her face and it reminded me of my dog, how you just pet her and she liked it."
Stable caretaker Kareylee White says since the spa began offering its equine therapy program last year with its seven horses, people have been signing up to get their "horse fix."
"I get the comment a lot from people that they don't get to do this in the city," said White, who owned her first horse when she was 17.
"They can get a massage in the city. They can get a facial in the city. They don't get to hang out with horses in the city. So I have a lot of guests who come down to get away and experience that."
Richard Capener who calls himself the "horse whisperer," has run a similar equine wisdom and trail riding program at Grail Springs, a spa in Bancroft, Ont., for the past two years.
Capener says there's a "grounded energy" to horses that can quickly put people at ease -- once they realize that the horses are prey animals and not predators.
"When you hang out with them, stroke them, brush them, you start feeling better," he said, adding that he's had clients who have burst into tears at the peaceful nature of the creatures.
"Horses can sense the energy of a person on their back. With our horses, they are very careful with guests who have phobias and help them work through them."
Using horses for therapy has been gaining in popularity in the last few years, says Sue McIntosh, who founded Healing Hooves, an animal-assisted counselling program near Cremona in northern Alberta 12 years ago.
The registered counsellor says she's worked with clients from age 3 up to adults. Many come in to her farm because traditional therapy did not help them deal with issues ranging from sexual abuse to the death of a loved one.
By learning to feel safe around the large animals, they also learn they can be safe in their lives, she said.
"Counselling doesn't have to mean sitting and talking about your issues or similar scary words," said McIntosh.
"I always share that as a teenager I had a horse and my horse was my counsellor. It kept me out of a lot of trouble and was someone I could talk to, cry with, shout with, felt safe with. Really, what I'm doing is sharing that with them."
The program includes seven horses, and even a handful of dogs, cats and bunnies.
She says often, while teaching clients to lead a horse, she can use it as a path into a discussion about their own boundaries, when the large animals are accidentally steered into their personal space.
Other times, the horse can be a metaphor for people to project their feelings onto.
"There is just that magical connection between people and horses that is different," said McIntosh.
Deborah Weiss with the charitable program Horses at Heart in Newmarket, Ont., says one of the largest elements to equine-assisted therapy is learning about using and becoming aware about body language.
"It's the linchpin, developing that awareness about themselves and others by working with the horses," she said.
"It works for all populations. From special needs kids to corporate employees, horses are prey animals and prey animals have an heightened sense of awareness of their environment to keep themselves safe and alive."
The program specializes in counselling for troubled children, but also runs team building workshops for corporate clients.
By being around the horses, people start to learn this hyper vigilance too, and use the same skills they use to lead a 1,200-pound horse in leading others in their lives, she said.
"Horses are vulnerable giants, particularly for kids," said Weiss.
"When they get on the back of these beautiful, huge animals, all of them have overcome fears to get on the horse to some degree and they tame the beast. This is one of the few if not the only times they feel in control of what's going on in their lives."