Hold your horses: Equine therapy a game-changer for those in need

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Participants at Envision Therapeutic Horsemanship often paint words on the horses that relate to their experiences. (Photo by Perry Cohen/Cronkite News) Participants at Envision Therapeutic Horsemanship often paint words on the horses that relate to their experiences. (Photo by Perry Cohen/Cronkite News)
Since being diagnosed with autism, Jack Mills, 6, has benefited from equine therapy. (Photo by Perry Cohen/Cronkite News) Since being diagnosed with autism, Jack Mills, 6, has benefited from equine therapy. (Photo by Perry Cohen/Cronkite News)

By PERRY COHEN, Cronkite News

PHOENIX — Jack Mills lived in a world of his own as an infant, unable to connect on a social or emotional level.

“Jack was a very hard baby,” his mother, Jeni Mills, said. “He cried 24/7 for his first two years of life. At 15 months, he didn’t make much eye contacted and didn’t like to be held, he was on the watch list for markers of autism.

“At 18 months, he was diagnosed.”

She searched for something that would help her son grow as an individual. That’s when she learn about Envision Therapeutic Horsemanship, one of approximately 20 horsemanship rehabilitation centers across Arizona.

Envision’s main focus is to help those with physical, cognitive and developmental disabilities. Its clients include returning veterans and their families, abuse victims and others who have suffered trauma in their lives.

[RELATED: Miracle Kids: Horse therapy helps 10-year-old boy gain his stride]

The nonprofit organization uses a combination of psychological practices and horse-assisted therapeutic activities to help heal.

“We do equine-assisted learning and therapeutic riding,” said Lisa Pewe, the organization’s president and executive director. “The benefits the clients receive are extremely therapeutic on the physical, cognitive and relational level. We use the emotional, relational, and physical dynamics of the horses to do it.”

Clients participate in small group or solo sessions. These sessions can be mounted or unmounted. The activities that are incorporated during the unmounted sessions include grooming, horse panting and verbal communication with the horses and Envision staff.

If was just what Jack Mills, now 6, needed. Jeni said Jack was initially put into early intervention services, a process that helps young children with developmental delays or disabilities. She and her husband weren’t sure if he could hear because he didn’t respond to his name. He never cared if mom or dad was around, she said, and he seemed content on his own.

[READ MORE: Veterans Resource Center providing equine therapy for area veterans]

 Despite Jack’s early struggles, he has made significant progress.

He is enthusiastic about riding each week and more comfortable speaking to people, Jeni said. His three seasons with Envision have also helped take the place of his occupational therapy.

“His first day of developmental preschool he was scared to go in. We literally sat in front of the classroom for an hour because he was scared,” Jeni said. “It’s been a slow progression of standing a little taller, talking a little more, and he’s willing to engage with new people. When he comes here he can talk to people without being scared or shy.”

Jack’s progression through his therapy has helped bring their family closer, Jeni said.

Envision’s approach is to dive deeper into the healing process. Although many clients show progress through what they’ve gained, others have shown progress from being able to let go.

Brandi Powell, who has been ministering to abuse survivors since 2011, knows this well.

“I’m an abuse survivor and have experienced levels of healing over the years and knew it was my calling to go out and help women find that same level of healing,” Powell said. “That’s how I got here at Envision.”

[RELATED: Noon Notebook: Refuge Services specializes in equine therapy]

Powell has tried small support groups and counseling in the past but hasn’t experienced anything like working with the horses.

“Because I offer my story to others, that’s a lot of unloading of myself,” she said. “You really need to do a lot of self-care to refuel you so you can keep going.  This place was just for me to do that.”

Powell said she was awed by the supportive atmosphere but initially terrified of the animals.

“I was overwhelmed with fear because I have a background that’s fear-based due to a lot of trauma that I’ve faced,” she said.

However, after three years of working with the animals, Powell can find peace being around them.

“When we’re in a session and let’s say Belle the donkey comes up or Monte, the enormous white horse comes up, there is this solidarity with you and your pain and an affirmation that you’re not alone,” Powell said. “I’ve experienced new levels of healing with the animals that I didn’t know I needed to have – new parts of my heart I needed to have healed.”

The horses have had such an impact on Brandi’s life she tattooed two of them on her arm so they will be with her forever.

Powell’s daughter, Bella, also participates in activities and said making the decision to work with the horses was a changing point in her life and had a bigger influence on her than traditional therapy.

“While that helped, it didn’t completely get rid of my anxiety,” Bella said. “I felt so comfortable and relaxed when I came here, it was a complete different type of activity. They (the horses) can feel your emotion when sometimes it’s hard to express verbally how your feeling. The horse has a whole different sense of when you’re sad and can comfort you.”

 The center started five years ago and has helped nearly 200 people navigate the struggles of their everyday lives. Each week four organizations, led by Envision, come together to host an equine-assisted therapy session at Bridge United Methodist Church for minors in residential placement.

The youth congregate at the church and participate in a number of activities such as grooming the horses and group speaking sessions.

Pewe moderates the activities, speaking with each person about their thoughts and emotions.

The activities are set up in a way for the participants to let go of their dark past, which often includes abuse, anger and fear.

“Working with these girls every week brings tears to my eyes,” Pewe said. “The changes that they made, the shifts they made. I can’t put one word on it and that’s powerful.”

[READ MORE: Horse therapy program facing eviction from Scottsdale ranch]

While the horses have an impact on people, Pewe believes the people have just as great an impact on the horses.

“The horse gets to have its emotional system validated,” she said. “The interaction also gives them a job. Horses, like people, need to have purpose.”

Each horse goes through a rigorous background check to be sure it is compatible for the type of work that is done at Envision. Pewe said she does not typically integrate rescue or abused horses into the program.

“I will pick horses who have a good history with humans,” Pewe said. “Horses, like people, can go through PTSD and I don’t want to put one of our clients at risk to discover a horse has some kind of fear trigger that we didn’t know about.”

Envision has 10 horses and use six at each therapy session.

Pewe’s wish is that the organization continues to grow and impact the lives of people who need help.

Because it is a nonprofit organization, its relies solely on volunteers and donations to keep running.

Donations aren’t only monetary. The organization has been given an array of equipment, supplies, and feed to help keep the horses healthy and the satellite bases in order, she said.

“We hope one day someone will donate a five-acre plot of land for a home base,” Pewe said. “For now, we are happy that we can work at all of these satellite bases.”

Pewe said therapeutic horsemanship is in high demand and although there is a price for this form of therapy, her goal is to keep costs down so that they can continue to help those in need.

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