Horses help kids recover from adverse childhood experiences

ChildWithHorseBackToCamera1Baylie is eight years old. Born to a mother addicted to cocaine and an alcoholic father, removed from her parents at six months and covered with bruises and cigarette burns, Baylie (not her real name) has spent her childhood shuffled from one foster home to another. She rarely speaks, makes little eye contact with adults, shows no interest in playing with kids her age, and recoils from any attempt at physical affection.

Baylie’s ability to connect with anyone, or anything, seemed impossible until the day she met a horse named Steady.

Baylie is very lucky. Her court-appointed therapist has found a way to combine her own love of horses with the rapidly evolving field of equine-assisted psychotherapy.

Once a week Baylie goes to the stables, holds out an apple for Steady to nibble from her hand, pats, brushes and talks quietly to him about the things she does not want anyone else to hear.

For children like Baylie who have never been able to trust people, a horse can become a beacon of light in an otherwise dark world. Suddenly something big and powerful leans in, nuzzles you and looks you right in the eye. There is nothing to fear; this animal will not leave you, he will not betray you. With a trained equine-assisted therapist, a child like Baylie can be gradually introduced to forming a relationship with the horse. This ability to bond, perhaps for the first time in her young life, will then hopefully expand, allowing her to trust and connect with the wider world and to the people who exist within it.

This February, 25 experts from as far away as Finland will arrive at Saguaro Lake Ranch, a 1940s dude ranch near Scottsdale, AZ, for a four-day conference: Human Resiliency, Horses & Healing: An Integrated Approach to the Treatment of Trauma.

Surrounded by the majestic beauty of the Tonto National Forest, this conference provides the opportunity for the therapists to explore the world of adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) and the process of recovering from childhood trauma, largely through the equine-assisted psychotherapy.

Jamie Vinck, a counselor and horsewoman who shows Arabian horses throughout the U.S., is one of the keynote speakers.

Vinck uses these ‘‘1000-pound gentle giants,” as she affectionately calls them, in treating trauma in patients struggling with substance abuse in her private practice in Scottsdale, and at Sierra Tucson, a substance-abuse treatment center where she is the chief clinical officer.

Equine therapy is big in Arizona and therapists like Vinck are adamant that horses can sooth the pain and heal the damage from the accumulated effects of childhood trauma.

“Fear, anxiety and resentment are rife in individuals with substance-abuse issues,” Vinck says. “Often these feelings stem from abuses in childhood, so they have trust issues, and their defenses are way up. Horses are very grounding and centering. This is exactly what people who have experienced trauma need.”

According to Dr. Vincent Felitti, co-founder of the CDC-Kaiser Adverse Childhood Experiences Study, a person who experienced six types of childhood adversity has a 4,600% increase in the likelihood of becoming an IV drug user when compared to a person who experienced no childhood adversity.

Baylie’s ACE score is 7, which means that during her brief formative years she experience seven of the following types of trauma: physical, sexual or emotional abuse; physical or emotional neglect; a family member addicted to alcohol or some other substance; a family member with a mental illness or incarcerated; witnessing her mother being abused; losing a parent to abandonment, separation or divorce. These traumatic experiences  flooded her developing body and nervous system with toxic stress hormones, and set in motion a propensity for a lifetime of physical, emotional and psychological difficulties.

The ACE Study identified alcoholism and drug abuse as two of a myriad of issues associated with multiple traumas in childhood. Diabetes, arthritis, and even cancer and heart disease have also emerged as potential medical ramifications of intense and chronic exposure to adverse experiences in childhood.

Vinck is highly aware of the effects of a high ACE score on the individuals and screens clients to assess their score. She uses a variety of unique approaches, including photography in which clients receive an image of themselves reflected in the horse’s eyes. She also has clients draw pictures of their issues on the horses with water-based paint and then lovingly wash it off. Vinck explains: “It is a symbolic representation of self-forgiveness, and it is good practice in the art of letting things go.”

“Horses are intuitive and expressive,” she says. “When someone looks into the eyes of a horse they see themselves reflected back. This is what we call a mirroring; an instant rapport, a bonding. It opens people up, and brings barriers down, and sometimes the outcomes, the successful breakthroughs are sheer magic.”

TeenWithHorseHeadToHead1Equine-assisted psychotherapy has been widely used in Europe for decades. Nina Ekholm Fry, born and raised around horses in rural Finland, is a warm, friendly woman who merged her interest in psychology with her love of horses. Fry was recruited by Prescott College in Arizona to develop and lead one of the few equine-assisted psychotherapy graduate and post-graduate level counseling programs in the United States.

Fry is leading a day-long workshop at the conference. “In working with individuals who have experienced trauma, who have a high ACE score, trust and control are significant issues,” she says. “Equine-assisted therapy expands the therapeutic environment. Suddenly the client is taken out of the usual confines of an office. When we bring a horse into the picture, we have more treatment options; we are outdoors, we interact with the physical world, we utilize the body in an active rather than passive manner, it opens up an array of treatment possibilities.”

As a former Red Cross crisis-response team member in Finland, Fry has witnessed severe trauma in children and adults and is highly sensitive to its effects. Citing ACEs research that shows a direct correlation between traumatic experiences in childhood and significant health issues in adulthood, Fry often cites the neurological trails cut deep into the human psyche by the devastating experience of trauma.

“Trauma causes a disruption in the way a memory is encoded neurologically,” she explains. “It creates a kind of a ‘time warp’, an endless loop where whatever happened plays out mentally over and over again, forcing the person to relive the event as if it is happening in the present. It is a painful, vicious cycle that must be interrupted, and reinterpreted in order for the individual to fully recover.”

But, how exactly do horses play into that process of healing?

“Many of my students say: ‘Oh, this does not feel like I am doing therapy’, but I assure them that they are!” says Fry. “No one ever said that therapy had to be done in an office with the client sitting here and the therapist sitting there, the client asking the question, the therapist having all the answers.

“When we are out in the field with the horse, we are interacting relationally, we are doing things together; we can brush the horse together, groom it, and feed it. All of this heightens and enhances the therapeutic alliance, the connection to and the relationship between the therapist and the client. No matter what type of therapy is done, that rapport, that alliance is the bedrock, and an absolutely essential aspect of, effective psychotherapy.

“When we do trauma work there has to be a sense of safety; in the body, in the setting before we can move ahead to revisiting, rather than reliving, traumatic events. And that’s the goal. When someone can remember a terrible occurrence without re-experiencing it, when it can be recalled as something unpleasant that occurred in the past, not something that is repeatedly happening in the present, then the narratives shifts and that terrible memory becomes a neutral part of the person’s life experiences. It is the difference between being trapped in a time warp of a nightmare’s endless loop and pure liberation. That is the goal: to be able to revisit a memory, without reliving it.

Fry thinks back to a case in Finland in which a colleague, also an equine therapist, treated a four-year-old girl.

“The child had been in foster care almost all her life. Every week she would get up on the horse, her therapist would cover her with a blanket and she would sleep for the first 20 minutes of the session.”

Fry smiles. “That little girl had experienced so much trauma — her ACE score was a 7 — yet laying on top of that big, soft animal, she felt so safe she could release completely. That is the power, and the beauty, of equine-assisted psychotherapy.”

Like so many equine therapists, Sarah Jenkins grew up around horses. Jenkins’ family owned a therapeutic riding facility on 200 acres in the little village of Abergele in North Wales. Her mother worked with physically disabled clients to strengthen motor skills. “I have always been with horses,” says Jenkins, “and they are an integral part of the therapy I do in treating the devastating effects of trauma.”

Jenkins has added Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR), used for treating post traumatic stress, to her work.

The nightmares, insomnia, generalized anxiety, chronic tension and sudden frightening images triggered by associations of the original trauma can occur in children and adults who witnessed or experienced abuse.

But how does EMDR, which generally involves having a client follow moving lights while allowing the mind to form new associations to entrenched memories fit in with equine assisted therapy?

Sarah explains: “It is really an integrated model in which the use of the horse is combined in the overall treatment process. Both equine-assisted psychotherapy and EMDR facilitate the process of neurologically reinterpreting trauma. Some equine therapists talk in terms of metaphors — how a horse represents something significant on a symbolic level and that somehow mitigates the effects of trauma. I view it differently. As I see it, the connection to the animal is physical. Those physical sensations of touch, which occur when petting or grooming the animal, or the rhythmical movement of riding, and direct body contact between the client and the horse, all work directly on a neurological level.”

At the conference, Jenkins will demonstrate how EMDR and equine-assisted psychotherapy work together to dissipate the long trail of the emotional damage left by childhood trauma. “Equine-assisted psychotherapy is now where EMDR was two decades ago,” she says. “Not too many people knew about it, and those who did were not sure how it helped. I think it will have a similar trajectory as EMDR. It will become more main-stream; it will be taught in more colleges and universities as part of their psychology and counseling programs. National licensure will soon follow as the research shows just how effective it can be.”

Eight-year-old Baylie still has trouble looking at people, but she is learning to gaze directly at a being that seems to respond warmly to her. By seeing her own refection mirrored back in the big, welcoming eyes of her therapy horse, Baylie is developing a sense of rapport, not only with the animal, but also with her therapist.

Baylie now looks forward to counseling sessions she used to resist, and has begun the long, slow process of transferring the trust she has for Steady to a therapist who tried something a little different to reach, and to heal, a damaged child.


JoAnn Richi is a clinical consultant, author, artist and licensed professional counselor.


    • Thank you Teresa. The seminar I described in the article has been set back to March 22-26, 2015. Join us if you can, I am not sure where you are, but we are out here in sunny, warm Phoenix, AZ and looking forward to a week on an authentic Dude Ranch; horses, therapists and 20 CEUs (and I’ll do a book signing). Time for a little vacation? Come on out and join us. And thanks again for your kind words about my article. JoAnn Richi


  1. I tend to see the connection for the child as both physical and psychological. To the touch the horse is soft and warm something she lacked at a time where her life should of been filled with hand holding and cuddles. In her mind she experiences large, quiet and strong – an Alpha she could have used in her earlier years. Even the name of the horse – Steady – is so perfect and represents her present day needs. Love this article !!!


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