Horses Help Kids Recover From Adverse Childhood Experiences

By JoAnn Richi, MC, LPC

Baylie 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 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 children 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 gradually be introduced to forming a relationship with the horse. This ability to bond will then hopefully expand, allowing her to trust and connect with the wider world and to the people who exist within it.

March 23 – 25, 2015 experts from as far away as Finland are arriving 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 experienced 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 due to abandonment, or divorce or death. 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 the 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 uses a variety of unique approaches. “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.”

Equine-assisted psychotherapy has been widely used in Europe for decades. Nina Ekholm Fry, born and raised around horses in rural Finland was recruited by Prescott College in Arizona to develop one of the few equine-assisted psychotherapy graduate and post- graduate level counseling programs in the United States.

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 and is leading a day-long workshop at the conference.

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. She has added Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) to her work. At the conference, Jenkins will demonstrate how EMDR and equine-assisted psychotherapy work together to dissipate the emotional damage left by childhood trauma.

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, MC, LPC is a Master’s level, Licensed Professional Counselor and the Clinical Consultant for Vitae Seminars, LLC.