When Christine Valeri suffered a brain aneurysm followed by a stroke in her mid-60s, she lost strength in her right hand and had difficulty speaking. Now, 18 months later at age 67, she’s riding horses.
“She has to use both hands on the reins and greet and speak to the instructor,” says Christine’s son, John Valeri. “It’s like physical, occupational, and speech therapy rolled into one, in a fun way. She’s giving the horse commands, like ‘walk’ and ‘trot,’ and she’s even posting.” Christine Valeri rides once a week at Manes & Motions Therapeutic Riding center in Middletown.
Affiliated with the Hospital for Special Care in New Britain, the program offers equine therapy for people with a variety of physical and emotional diagnoses, including cerebral palsy, autism, Down Syndrome and traumatic brain injury. Participants are assisted by volunteer leaders and side-walkers as they ride a horse, play games and perform exercises on horseback in a heated indoor ring, or go out on trail rides. Riders who are unable to mount the horse on their own are placed into a lift.
Riding a horse helps to build core strength and loosen tight muscles. Each horse is unique, with a long stride or shorter one, and riders are paired up with one of 11 horses in the herd that will meet their needs, says Jeanna Pellino, the program coordinator at Manes & Motions.
Equine therapy can also help veterans suffering from PTSD, teens battling eating disorders, kids with ADHD or behavior problems, neglected and abused children, or people with anxiety, to name a few applications. Connecticut is home to a number of equine therapy programs, many of which are certified by the Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship International (PATH) or the Equine Assisted Growth and Learning Association (EAGALA). Many programs take children ages four and up, as well as adults.
“The lessons we can learn from horses are unlimited. A horse is a great equalizer,” says Kitty Stalsburg, executive director at High Hopes Therapeutic Riding in Old Lyme. “He [a horse] will give you unconditional acceptance as long as you treat him with respect.”
Many of the student riders at High Hopes have autism, Stalsburg says. Working with horses helps quell the repetitive motions often associated with the disorder and teaches them fine and gross motor movements, social and emotional skills and teamwork. In grooming or tacking a horse, riders learn to follow instructions and complete the task in the assigned order.
Horses have a highly sensitive fight-or-flight instinct, making them ideal for working with veterans and others suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, who may also be unable to shake the hyper-vigilance that served them well on the battlefield, Stalsburg says.
High Hopes offers the Equus Effect program, combining exercise, mindfulness meditation, and herding the horses, under the guidance of a veterans’ counselor.
Mark, who appears in a marketing video for High Hopes and is identified only by his first name, a 30-year veteran of the Air Force and diagnosed with PTSD, credits his relationship with Latino, a thoroughbred/shire horse mix, with saving him from the depths of depression. “Looking back, I think he [Latino] knew what I needed before I did,” Mark says in a video about his experience with equine therapy. He’s now a volunteer at High Hopes.
Dylan and Ethan Richmond of Madison, both 16, volunteered last summer at High Hopes as side-walkers in the summer camp. “It made me feel good to help other kids who would not normally be able to ride a horse. Then they ride and realize they are just as capable as anyone else,” says Ethan Richmond, who also mucked stalls, groomed horses and took photos for the website.
“It was a great opportunity,” says Dylan Richmond. “When do you get a chance to be that close to a horse? I felt very excited and in awe, because horses are very majestic beings.”
Some 650 people volunteer at High Hopes annually for 28,000 hours, according to Stalsburg. The 120-acre farm is home to a herd of 24 working horses serving 230 riders per week. High Hopes is also a leading facility for teacher training in equine therapy, with students from all over the world.
Mary Acri, an associate professor of social work at Southern Connecticut State University, says there has been too little research into the effectiveness of equine therapy for children with anxiety and other mental health issues. In a 2016 paper in the journal “Applied Developmental Science,” she and colleagues reviewed studies of animal-assisted therapies for kids at risk for, or diagnosed with, mental health problems.
Acri hopes to work with area stables to test various interventions and conduct research. She also plans to write a curriculum about using equine therapy to treat children with anxiety.
“There’s a lot of variability in animal-assisted therapy,” Acri says. “It’s not always run by a psychotherapist, and we want to look at who the therapist is and what are the activities. Otherwise, it’s hard to draw firm conclusions. We want to move the field forward and create rigorous research.”
Nestled in Hartford’s Keney Park, Ebony Horsewomen, Inc. Equestrian & Agricultural Center has been offering equine therapy and equestrian activities since 1984. Among its many programs, the junior mounted patrol is comprised of young African-American and Latino men, ages 10 to 18, who meet on Sundays under the guidance of adult mentors to encourage them to become productive leaders in their communities and eventually patrol the park.
“In Hartford, there’s a shortage of positive male role models,” says Patricia E. Kelly, described on Ebony’s website as “a former U.S. marine, award-winning community leader and equestrian trailblazer with a storied history as a Black cowgirl” who has headed the non-profit youth organization for more than 30 years.
“Boys tend to imitate whatever thing they think a man should be doing – like being loud and boisterous and fathering a bunch of kids. You can’t control a horse, but he is hardwired to be in a herd and is looking for a leader. We are teaching that young man to let go of that macho stereotype and think of the horse as a partner. You get the horse to trust you by leading in a positive manner, not a threatening manner. You become the stallion with compassion.”
Ebony Horsewomen has three licensed social workers on staff as well as a nurse, and provides equine-assisted psychotherapy. For example, one middle-school-age boy came to the stable to talk about being bullied in school. He role played what he would say the next time the bully approached. This new skill broke the aggression, and his schoolwork improved.
“Nobody can change the mess in your life, but you can change how you approach it,” Kelly says.
For girls, Kelly runs a dressage program. “It’s not about hair and make-up, but whether you can sit to the trot,” she says.
The psychotherapy is done under the EAGALA model, in which a therapist, an equine specialist and a horse come together in an arena. Client and horse interact, which creates an environment for the client to reflect on issues in their life. The horse is not ridden during this particular type of therapy.
In addition to horses, the farm has chickens and rabbits that are also used for therapy. Kids learn about horse anatomy in a science classroom, read horse books in the on-site library and eat healthy meals including produce grown on the farm.
All of the kids involved graduate from high school and 82 percent graduate from college, Kelly says.
Feeding, stabling and providing veterinary care for horses is an expensive endeavor. Ebony Horsewomen, High Hopes and Manes & Motions are all nonprofits that rely on fee-for-service, grants and donations to fund programs. If a child is referred for equine therapy from a social service agency, often the agency will pick up the tab.
Niki Cogliano, the owner and operator of Red Skye Farm in Bethany, has participated in equine-assisted psychotherapy sessions as the specialist in charge of the horse, is certified by EAGALA, and seen the impact firsthand.
“Horses are intuitive prey animals. Their instinct is to be aware of their surroundings. If you’re angry, or sad, the horse will sense that vibe,” Cogliano says. “The horse stands relaxed so a person can just lay their head on him. I’ve seen tears; people just get overwhelmed with emotion. We can harness that to use in a therapeutic setting.”
Currently, the barn is no longer offering this service because the therapist needed to stop due to other commitments. Red Skye still offers lessons, birthday parties and other activities.
“The adult clients who take lessons have said they feel better after riding and their relationships at home are better,” Cogliano says. “It’s their therapy, informally, an hour away from the job or the kids, and time to be mindful and just think about what you are doing on the horse.”