Watching Horses Heal Trauma
I am the Early Education Specialist at Verner Center for Early Learning. Roughly 85% of the children we serve come from poverty. Unfortunately, poverty often brings trauma. Our goal is to make a big enough difference in the lives of the children and families we serve by changing lives and ultimately breaking the cycle of poverty and the trauma in which they live.
Several months ago, I was introduced to Shannon Knapp, Executive Director of Heart of Horse Sense, a non-profit that supports Equine Therapy for At-Risk Youth and Veterans in Western North Carolina. She is also a trainer for Trauma-Focused Equine Assisted Psychotherapy (TF-EAP), a model of intervention for working with trauma. Shannon invited me to an introductory training about TF-EAP, where I was re-introduced to Dr. Bruce Perry’s hand-brain model and the neuro-science behind trauma. Principles associated with trauma-informed care, resiliency, and horses were being implemented at Heart of Horse Sense to successfully treat children and veterans with trauma, and many others.
I then volunteered with the Heart of Horse Sense youth programs to see TF-EAP in action. And when I did, I was sold! During every session, I saw the “magic” happen. I saw trauma being healed right before my eyes. I saw sullen, angry children smile. I saw scared, abused children feel success and self-confidence for the first time. I saw sad, neglected children make connections and build relationships that were respectful, thoughtful and meaningful.
The healing happened through a program called Natural Lifemanship, the organization that created Trauma-Focused Equine Assisted Psychotherapy (www.NaturalLifemanship.com). It is based on two main components: Relationship Logic and Rhythmic Riding.
Relationship Logic teaches science-based principles for building connected relationships with horses in ways readily transferrable to human relationships. Rhythmic Riding re-trains the brain through rhythmic, patterned, repetitive movement to create new neuro-pathways that are regulated and healthy. Horses are utilized so people can experience the principles at work in the context of a real relationship with the immediate and honest feedback that horses uniquely give. Unlike traditional “talk” or “play” therapy, horses do not judge or enable.
Throughout the time I have spent with Heart of Horse Sense, I have observed more of this “magic.” One child, who witnessed several family members being killed, actually fell asleep on the back of her horse during a Rhythmic Riding session. Another child, who had lost his mother only months before said that without the relationship with “his horse,” he didn’t know where he would be. A third child, who was so terrified of horses, looked at me after several minutes of support and said I could let go, she “had it now” with an air of confidence and pride. Every youth experience has been heart-tugging, eye-opening and rewarding.
My hope is to bring TF-EAP to the young children I work with and start the healing process as early as possible. When children are empowered with healthier, more regulated neuro-pathways, decision making skills, problem-solving abilities, self-confidence and tools to use when traumatic events occur, they will be more ably navigate life successfully. It will decrease the number of children who turn to crime, drugs, alcohol, and poor choices.
Renowned developmental psychologist Dr. Uri Bronfenbrenner said, “Every child needs one person who is crazy about him or her.” I believe that we could also say “…one person or one horse….”
I grew up riding horses and lived through my own childhood trauma. I have always said my horse saved my life. Now I know it is true and why it is so. In my 30 years of working with traumatized children, TF-EAP, done with the principles of Natural Lifemanship is one of the most successful programs I have seen. It works when other therapies don’t. It truly changes lives and teaches children principles they can use throughout life. Natural Lifemanship isn’t “magic,” but it is close.
Christine Tucker has a degree in Child Development. She does training, presentations, and consulting nationally and has written numerous curriculum guides, articles and manuscripts. Email comments and inquiries to: firstname.lastname@example.org.