It’s a blue gray day in the Southern Appalachian Mountains. Patches of green grass start to emerge on the gentle slope of a pasture, a promising sign that Spring has sprung. Horses hang their heads with contentment next to piles of hay, dozing in and out of rest next to a cherry red barn. Everything feels in balance.
This balance isn’t accidental, it’s intentional. I’ve just arrived at Harmony Through Horses, an equine assisted therapy and learning facility based in Swannanoa, NC, that emphasizes positive horse and human relationships which can bring much needed change, perspective, and confidence into an individual’s life. The facility is managed by lead counselor and equine professional Terri Wilson as well as founder Andrea Burgess. Wilson, who I am meeting with today, is a licensed clinical social worker associate (LCSWA), a licensed clinical addiction specialist associate (LCASA), and has her masters in Social Work. Burgess is a licensed clinical social worker (LCSW) and licensed clinical addiction specialist (LCAS), and has worked in the social work field for 20 years. In addition to decades of clinical experience, both are adept horsewomen.
When I arrive at Harmony Through Horses, I’m warmly greeted not only by Wilson, but also Thumper, a 23-year old stout bay and white paint horse – a once roping champion in Montana now turned therapy horse. Terri has graciously allowed me to partake in a mini Equine Assisted Learning (EAL) activity, to mimic what our North Carolina SOAR campers get to experience during our summer programs. Thumper and I go through a series of exercises together, every movement a balance of pressure and release, as well as requests and consent. This is a mutually beneficial experience.
When we start, Thumper is “invited” into the arena. I do not catch him with a traditional halter and lead rope but instead by using my own body language and being mindful of his, I ask him to follow me around the arena. He complies, we make the exercise more challenging by adding obstacles, a part of the SOAR course the instructors refer to as “Mountains and Rivers.” He follows me over a jump (a mountain), and then we snake across the arena (a river). When he becomes distracted (or when I do), I don’t “force” him to follow me, I take a moment and relax my energy and ask again. It works.
These skills are incredibly transferable to a person’s everyday life, finding that sweet spot between being direct and confident yet still kind, observant and empathetic. With the SOAR campers the class progresses from halterless movements, to more advanced movements with a halter and lead, and eventually (if they’ve earned it) a ride on the horse’s back. EAL harnesses the power and enjoyment of experiential learning to aid with the development of life skills. It’s powerful and requires patience, relaxation, and being aware of your surroundings. All helpful tools for our SOAR population.
The use of horses in therapeutic or educational settings goes back millennia with ancient Greeks, including Hippocrates, praising the psychological benefits of equine companionship. More recently, hippotherapy became more popularized throughout Europe in the 20th century, and equine therapy was used in 1946 in Scandinavia to assist with polio patients. Its modern day relevance has continued with the creation of established and well-respected programs like the Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship (PATH) in 1969 and Equine Assisted Growth and Learning Association (EAGALA) in 1999, as well as countless riding programs that emphasize natural horsemanship.
We sat down with Terri Wilson to learn more about this fascinating field, its growing popularity, and the positive impacts it can have with the ADHD/LD community.
What is your background?
Andrea Burgess (the founder of Harmony Through Horses) came into equine assisted learning and equine assisted psychotherapy through mental health, where I came into mental health through equine. I was a pre-vet major, I worked in the veterinary field as a vet assistant for a mobile equine veterinary unit. I got a lot of experience working with horse behavior and co-regulation from that perspective. At the same time I also volunteered with some mounted programs that supported those with developmental disabilities.
When I was at the University of Tennessee my dog was a therapy dog with the HABIT program, so I got into the animal assisted intervention with canines. Working in the mobile unit I started noticing more about the relationship piece between horses and humans, and the healing power in that. I shifted gears and went to grad school at East Tennessee State University and got my masters in social work and became a certified substance abuse counselor.
How would you describe Equine Assisted Learning?
It’s basically teaching learning principles. A lot of what we do here is more relational learning. Like, how do I show up in relationships? The horses give us opportunities to practice some of the principles and see what comes up. For example questions like, How hard is it for me to not put on too much pressure when it’s not necessary? How hard is it for me to increase my pressure when I am making a request?
The horses authentically reflect back what I am asking. If I’m not being clear or assertive, or setting a boundary, they are going to reflect that. It gives more of an experiential opportunity to learn some of those basic relationship principles of forming connection with another being.
How do you differentiate Equine Assisted Learning from Equine Assisted Therapy?
Equine Assisted Learning, is about paying attention to how you are setting boundaries like, are you keeping yourself safe? Are you being safe for the horse? What are your levels of pressure? Do you come into the room at a zero or a five? It’s self-awareness, we look at those things.
Equine Assisted Therapy would be what’s happened in your life that’s causing you to show up this way? And for a lot of people we work with it has been some form of trauma. Whether early childhood, or for some substance use disorder. We do a lot of co-occurring treatment. The therapeutic part is let’s unpack why.
We offer both programs at Harmony through Horses, but we only use Equine Assisted Learning with the SOAR campers.
Can you elaborate on what kind of relationships EAL can be helpful for?
The model we use operates under the concept that wherever you go there you are. So how I show up and try to form connections and relationships with a horse is probably how I am going to show up and try to form connections with people. So what we see that might be places where I get stuck forming connections in the arena is probably where I get stuck forming connections outside of the arena.
It’s so transferable
It’s very transferable. What’s really cool too is to talk about that safety piece. Where kids might think ‘they just don’t like me.’ These kids, that’s the message they’ve gotten with some of their struggles. With the horses it’s not about like or dislike it’s about safe or unsafe. And how many people do you like that may not be safe for you? So there is a lot of talk about safety and what safety looks like, and we try to create that space here, to provide the kids with emotional safety. We mirror that with what is going on with the group and translate it to what is going on with the horses.
What does the programming look like when the SOAR campers are here?
When they arrive, we have the horses in the pasture. We try to give the horses as much choice as possible, we ask for consent, and we make requests. When the kids arrive we show them how to introduce themselves to the horses, and we ask them to go around and introduce themselves to each horse, and just make observations about each horse. They all have their own personalities. We will come back together and they’ll share their observations.
Then we ask the horses to come to the arena. We usually get the kids to watch how we do that, because we do not halter them and lead them in, we ask them to come in. That’s all about pressure and release. So we go ahead and give them an example on the front end, this is what it looks like to communicate with the horses. Because again, putting the halter and lead rope on, kind of removes the horse’s choice. So we’ll ask the horses to come into the arena. Then we’ll do some processing around what they saw, and we will do some exercises in the arena. The kids will break up into groups, and we will have a group work with a horse, and we will have a jump set up, and we will say, with what you saw from pressure and release, let’s see if you can get your horse to go over the jump. Or over the “mountains and rivers.”
That gives us an opportunity to watch how the kids interact with each other, where there are some underlying issues and possible conflicts. It gives us an opportunity to observe which kids step up and take on leadership roles, which ones drop to the back. It gives us a good chance to check out the group dynamics.
Then we move into the individual relationship work. So they pair off and each pair has a horse, and we try to fit them with the right horse that’s going to meet them where they’re at. Then we do some of that relationship work like: How do you ask for connection? How do you ask for consent to put on the halter? Once they have them haltered that’s when we get into some of the Parelli (a horsemanship method) games. It’s still pressure and release, and it’s still communication, and how subtle can we be in our communication requests.
After the kids have improved their ability to communicate through the halter and their own energy, we start asking more of the relationship with their horse, by having them move through obstacles and navigate barriers. We ask them to look at how obstacles and barriers might influence their relationship and what is required of them to work through that within themselves and with their horse. Again, the focus is always on the relationship. Our goal isn’t to give them a riding experience, it’s to give them a relationship experience.
How long does the program last?
They typically get here at 9:30 and leave at 3:00 pm. We break for about 45 mins for lunch.
What is one of your favorite moments working with EAL?
A lot of these kids have been labeled with these acronyms where people have preconceptions of them. Oh, you have ADHD? There are already these predetermined: This is how you’re going to show up. I think that influences some of their confidence. So watching them work on some of those things they struggle with, but having it reflected back to them in a way that allows them to get a sense of how they show up in relationships and how they can monitor and gauge their approach and their reactions, instills confidence.
That’s the neatest thing to watch the transformation from the beginning of the morning to the end of the day. There is just more authentic connection and communication, and a little bit of vulnerability. A lot of these kids are afraid to be vulnerable because they get targeted. And then the confidence of what they have been able to accomplish. It kind of changes how they see how we work with horses. Even though they might not get any mounted time. The connection feels more authentic.
For somebody who’s interested in pursuing a career in Equine Assisted Therapy (EAT) or Equine Assisted Learning (EAL), what kind of advice would you give them?
Those are two separate trajectories. If you do Equine Assisted Therapy you can offer EAL, but if you are certified in EAL you can’t offer EAT.
For EAL, building your horse experience, whatever that looks like. Handling, and understanding horse behavior, and horse communication. Reading those nuances in how horses respond to people and to each other. There are lots of programs these days that help build [that skillset] like PATH, and Eagala. We use the Natural Lifemanship approach.
To take that to the next level of equine assisted psychotherapy it does require a masters degree in some form of mental health profession. It could be psychology, we chose social work. That gives the opportunity to do more of the deep trauma work and psychotherapy around it.
What is PATH and Eagala Programs?
PATH and EAGALA are certification programs. Both PATH originally centered a lot with mounted work for developmental disabilities. However, both programs offer the equine assisted learning, and psychotherapy element. Natural Lifemanship is more rooted in equine assisted psychotherapy. It is trauma focused and operates from the driving principle that relationships are the vehicles for change. That is their niche.
But the other programs are a great resource for different activities, or mounted activities, or activities you can do with the horses to work on the underlying principles. All the basic principles of pressure and release, connection, relationship, communication, are all foundational to all of those programs. They each have different ways of applying them.
What are some resources or books that you recommend or enjoy if people are interested in this work or horse behavior?
A lot of these Natural Horsemanship trainers have some really great resources, videos, and trainings. They teach you how to monitor and gauge behavior, and how horses are responding. Really, a lot of the natural horsemanship programs are good options, including Pat Parelli, Ray Hunt, Buck Brannman, and Monty Roberts.
Anything else you’d like to share?
We take in the safety of the people, but also the horses too. Are the horses safe? What are they getting from the program? We do staff development where we staff the horses. We check in to make sure they still like their job. I remember one morning, Andrea and I came together before the kids arrived. We were talking ‘I don’t know, Sam might be over it. He might need a break.’ So we talked about what was going on with him. The van pulls up, in the midst of that, and the horses are out in the pasture just roaming around. All the kids get out of the van, and they are standing outside of it gathering their stuff. Sam walks right over and plants himself in the middle of the group and just stands there. And Andrea and I looked at each other and said ‘Okay. He’s wanting to work.’
I always enjoy seeing the horses enjoying the interactions. They know they will be treated with trust and respect.
You can learn more about Terri Wilson and “Harmony Through Horses” at https://www.harmonythroughhorses.com/