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Equine Assisted Therapy Opens Doors for Healing

For many children with disabilities, mental or physical, local equine services offer a golden opportunity to be in the healing presence of horses. Known as “adaptive/therapeutic horsemanship” and “equine assisted therapy,” this novel approach can make a world of difference for young people who need special support.

“Horses, by their majestic nature, touch our spirits with their beauty, freedom, power and grace. Just being in their presence creates healing opportunities,” says licensed clinical social worker and psychotherapist Laura Forest. 

click to enlarge NATALIE STEPHENSON
  • Natalie Stephenson

By partnering with professional horse trainers and instructors, Forest has created a holistic therapeutic horsemanship program called Discovery with Horses, which will expand to include teenagers this fall. 

Forest utilizes "natural horsemanship,” which is a very respectful way of working with horses in a nonviolent manner. It’s understanding their language and how horses think and operate, based on connection and relationship. “All of our programs are not about using the horse as an object but seeing the horse as a living being,” she explains.

According to Forest, horses by their very nature can help people with emotional self-regulation and well-being. “Horses are the perfect mirrors, reflecting back everything we put out to the world. Because horses are so adept at reading our behaviors, they easily pick up on the incongruities between our emotions and actions.”   

There are many other ways horses can be used as partners in the healing process. Physical therapists and occupational therapists, for example, can work with the unique walking patterns of a horse to improve a child’s core strength, balance or functional daily living skills.

Other local services may focus on horsemanship skills specifically, such as grooming, tacking and riding, to teach life skills and work with horses in a safe and supported environment. These adaptive horsemanship classes are individually tailored for learners of all ages and abilities to meet their unique needs during weekly caretaking and riding lessons.

Specialized equipment may include state-of-the art lifts that can elevate a child in a wheelchair to bring them atop a horse or life-sized, horse-shaped dolls that children can practice sitting on before they are ready to ride. Depending on their individual situation, some participants may not ride horses per se, but do “ground classes” working alongside the horse as a partner in their treatment plan. “Adaptive horsemanship is a powerful outlet for children, teenagers and adults with a wide variety of cognitive, emotional, physical and developmental challenges. These challenges range from autism to PTSD, depression to cerebral palsy and everything in between,” says Ali Burke, development director at Healing Reins riding center. “Our services are designed to help create a therapeutic environment for all participants and to create a movement towards health and wholeness that lasts long past their class-time each week.”


Founded in 1999 by Pam White and Penny Campbell, Healing Reins is the only program east of the Cascades that offers professionally accredited horse-centered therapies and activities to support people ages two through 90 with disabilities and special needs. Their instructors have been certified by the Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship and all their horses have been specifically selected and trained to ensure participant safety. 

Located on 20 acres of beautiful pastureland in southeast Bend, Healing Reins provides a special sanctuary for horse lovers from all walks of life. Its clean, airy barn smells of sweet hay and leather riding tack. Children enter in small groups, laughing and smiling joyfully as they prepare for their weekly lesson. Volunteers chat warmly with one another as they help each child participate safely and skillfully in the experience. Parents choose either to watch from the viewing room or take a stroll around the property for a little quiet time. 

Five-year-old Lyza Armstrong has been riding with Healing Reins for over a year. She has multiple diagnoses that affect her ability to function in the world without lots of support. According to her mom, Jessie Armstrong, she tends to be very anxious, struggles to control her emotions, lacks spatial awareness and has trouble following directions, among other challenges. 

Yet, coming to Healing Reins has been transformative. 

“I was hoping that riding horses would be beneficial for her. Little did I know just how life changing this would be for Lyza,” she explains. “This is an activity that she looks forward to every week. She has zero anxiety about going—only pure excitement! We have seen Lyza grow in her confidence and riding abilities. She has learned so much.”

click to enlarge NATALIE STEPHENSON
  • Natalie Stephenson

 Giving children with disabilities this opportunity also has a profound impact on the whole family. For some folks, horsemanship lessons may be the only time their child leaves the house during the week. As a 501c3 non-profit organization, Healing Reins can provide their services to low-income families and families who too often are isolated or marginalized due to their children’s special needs. 

In addition to its adaptive horsemanship lessons, Healing Reins also offers therapy services that partner licensed mental health professionals alongside credentialed equine specialists to help clients address their psychotherapy goals. Working collaboratively, the team can provide a unique, interactive approach that can help treat a wide range of mental health issues.

“Equine Assisted Mental Health is a holistic, experiential and highly specialized form of therapy that involves working in collaboration with a horse, a therapist and an equine specialist. This groundbreaking model is being used globally as a dynamic, powerful tool in mental health therapy,” says Burke. “Horses use mostly non-vocal communication, relying on body language and social cues, and are in tune with human behavior. This can help participants to better understand and learn how non-verbal communication might be impacting or influencing others in their lives.”

Healing Reins’ certified instructor and services manager Anvia Hampton describes the program as “taking a traditional talk therapy session in a clinic and office setting out into the pasture. You have a therapist focusing on the human interaction and an equine specialist focusing on horse safety so they can work together symbiotically to create a great therapeutic environment for that client.” 

Sadly, anxiety, depression and suicidal ideation are on the rise among young people with the pandemic only exacerbating adverse childhood experiences and trauma.

That’s where working with horses can nurture the protective factors shown to reduce the impacts of childhood trauma and mental health challenges. 

Since larger horses can be intimidating, Healing Reins even utilizes special miniature horses for some of its mental health clients. The children can simply talk to their horse, even if they don’t want to speak to a grown up, and therapists can role-play family situations using the horses, such as asking children how a horse might feel when another horse gets too close. 

click to enlarge NATALIE STEPHENSON
  • Natalie Stephenson

“Healing Reins in particular offers a unique opportunity for young people to connect with an animal, an experience many do not have in today’s fast-paced world of automation and technology,” says Burke. “Participants gain self-confidence, emotional awareness, social skills, stress tolerance, problem solving and independence skills through the relationships with their horse, equine specialist, therapeutic riding instructor and/or therapist.” 

We are so fortunate to live in horse country, where the outskirts of our city limits are rife with ranches and barns. Using horses as partners in healing can help young people from diverse backgrounds to learn, grow, develop and experience healing and hope for a brighter future. 

Healing Reins is reliant on 80+ volunteers on a weekly basis to help provide services to 190 participants each week. To learn more about these
services or to volunteer at Healing Reins, please contact Ali Burke at
alib@healingreins.org or visit healingreins.org/volunteer

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