Seeing a counselor doesn’t always mean sitting on a couch in a sterile doctor’s office. Some are taking their sessions to local horse stables. Equine assisted psychotherapy utilizes activities with horses as a way to work through emotional issues. It’s therapy with a whole new perspective.
A black horse named Princess is let out of her stall by Steven Marchal, a stable hand at Mended Hearts in rural Metamora. He brushes her shiny coat and gently fits her saddle.
Princess towers over him. Her heavy hooves click across the stable’s cement floors as she’s lead into the small indoor arena. She’s a show horse, and a certified therapy horse…one of seven out here at Mended Hearts, a not-for-profit organization specializing in equine assisted therapy.
“The issues just come out naturally when you’re in this type of work with a horse as co-therapist. I’ll say the horse is actually a co-therapist,” says Director Julie Sellner. She and her small staff see over 300 clients a year, mainly adolescents and teens suffering from a variety of issues.
“From anxiety to depression to autistic kids, kids that are just going through divorce, kids that are being bullied, developmental issues, just across the whole spectrum,” he says.
She says sessions begin when clients choose the horse they’d like to take care of.
“You learn to brush the horse, you learn to pick out their hooves which is a challenge, and you give to the horse first,” Sellner says.
Then you saddle up and ride. Sellner says these horses keep her clients honest, making equine therapy so effective.
“They’re very in tune to our emotions because they’re a herd animal,” she says. “So they react to your emotions. Whether it’s anger or sadness whatever it is, they react.”
She slides open the stable door to the outside paddock to meet Jenteel…Jenny for short. She’s the matriarch of the heard, playing a motherly role at the stable.
“I’ve had kids that have been going through emotional things that are actually crying and she’ll come up with her lips and just nuzzle and wipe the tears. They know! They know where you’re at often before you know where you’re at,” she says.
“Having an animal like that, where there’s contact and rhythmic movements, there’s an added level of connection,” Patel says.
Dr. Ryan Patel is a Psychiatrist at BroMenn Advocate Medical Group in Normal. He says our bodies undergo chemical changes when we interact with animals like the release of oxytocin, the bond and befriend hormone.
“That hormone is the opposite side of the fear hormone, which is cortisol,” he says.
And Patel says Cortisol is involved in a variety of anxiety disorders.
“The theory goes, that individuals that are interacting with animals are finding their levels of cortisol dropping because of oxytocin being higher,” he says.
And as a result:
“The stress response, the fight or flight response, the fear response is less. Lower blood pressure, less anxiety, so that’s how the whole process is being modified by working with a variety of animals,” says Patel.
With such beneficial effects, he says equine assisted psychotherapy is a relatively recent practice that’s gaining momentum.
“There’s a tremendous interest with counselors, ‘What is this?’ ‘How Do I Start Doing it?’ It’s one of the up-and-coming counseling modalities.”
That’s Dr. Kay Trotter, a counselor in Flower Mound, Texas and author of the book, “Harnessing the Power of Equine Assisted Counseling.”
“It’s still in its infancy stages,” she says. “My research was some of the first empirical data published.”
That makes Mended Hearts part of an international network of organizations on the cutting edge of a breakthrough technique. Back in Metamora, Rachel Pence has arrived for her afternoon session.
“There’s a saying that horses give us the wings that we lack,” says Pence. “And I mean, that basically sums it up for me.”
She’s greeted affectionately by a brown and white horse named Apache, known for his different colored eyes, one brown, and the other icy blue. Pence says being on Apache is like flying.
“All their strength underneath you. And they’re willing to let you sit on their back and take you for this amazing ride.”
For Sellner, she says this type of interaction is what makes her job so rewarding.
“You go into it because it’s a calling and because you love what you do,” she says. “And I am lucky that way because I do love what I do”
At Mended Hearts, the animals seem happy here, too. They keep a close eye on their human companions, who in return learn to take care of them. Because sometimes the best listener is a 1,200 pound horse.