Equine therapy is helping young people with behavioral health issues in many different ways.
By Lisa Cesarano
Sometimes a solution, or even the problem itself, can lie beyond the reach of words.
This can be especially true of young people struggling with behavioral health issues. But thanks to a new program sponsored by the Benedictine Health Foundation and the HealthAlliance Adolescent Partial Hospitalization Program at HealthAlliance Hospital: Mary’s Avenue Campus, a member of the Westchester Medical Center Health Network (WMCHealth), participants can engage in Equine Assisted Psychotherapy (EAP), a modality that helps them access and resolve complex and hard-to-reach emotions.
EAP is an evidenced-based therapy that brings individuals, families and groups together with a mental-healthcare provider, an equine specialist and horses, to bring about improved social, behavioral or other positive changes.
During the treatment sessions, the horses act as “mirrors” to the participants, reflecting and revealing specific issues, such as poor communication, relationship issues and problematic thought processes. The therapy is provided in collaboration with the Hudson Valley HorsePlay program at Nichols Field Riding Club in Kerhonkson.
“These kids have been through it all,” says Cori Nichols, certified equine therapist and director of HorsePlay (pictured above left, with Rosemary Rouhana, a mental-health professional at HorsePlay). “Then, when they’re interacting with the horses, all of a sudden they’re happy and laughing, and the weight of the world is off their shoulders.”
No riding takes place during sessions. Instead, clients are assigned specific activities with the horses. These can include interacting with or touching the horse, trying to enlist the horse’s cooperation or simply observing herd behavior and dynamics. Surprisingly, this interaction is often the key to unlocking patients who have been difficult to reach, to help them more easily identify and resolve their own communication patterns and relationship conflicts, and make meaningful connections.
“For example,” says Nichols, “observing the herd clearly shows a pecking order and can teach kids lessons about authority. They’re also able to identify bullying or other aggressive behavior among the animals.” Then, either during or after the session, the participant will discuss and further process their experience with a mental-health professional.
After each class, participants are also asked to complete “Horse Selfies,” questionnaires that help them to analyze their encounter. “The ‘a-ha’ moments often come after the session,” notes Nichols.
Soon after HorsePlay was established in 2015, Kimberly Addesso, LCSW, Manager of Partial Hospitalization Programs at HealthAlliance Hospital: Mary’s Avenue Campus, was thrilled to see an opportunity to share this adjunct therapy with the patients in her program. But before referring participants, Addesso and her team went to experience EAP for themselves.
“We engaged in many different exercises,” recalls Addesso, “like trying to determine what emotion the horse was feeling or trying to get a horse to go from one place to another within the field.”
There’s a growing body of evidence supporting the effectiveness of EAP. A 2014 study published in the journal Psychiatric Services in Advance found that EAP resulted in the largest decrease in violent behavior versus more conventional types of therapies. In addition, a 2013 study published in the Journal of Family and Child Studies showed that adolescent survivors of sexual abuse and trauma found “significant improvements in functioning after the equine intervention.”
This data comes as no surprise to Nichols. “Watching participants interact with the horses is very powerful. It’s amazing to see the calming effect it has on them, as well as the sense of empowerment and confidence they gain from this experience.”