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A Happy Place: The Healing Power of Horses


VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. -- Equine therapy, also known as horse therapy, treats people with all kinds of mental and physical problems. It's been used in the United States for more than 50 years and goes back much further in Europe.

Horse therapy can strengthen bodies, improve communication, and help people confront their fears. Horses connect with people in a way no other human can. It's a bond that can even heal.

A Healing Ride

You might not know it by looking at them, but horses make excellent therapists for people with all kinds of issues, like the cerebral palsy that keeps people like Ivy Kennedy in her wheelchair.

Ivy's been partaking in horse therapy at Equi-Kids Therapeutic Riding Program in Virginia Beach, Virginia, for many years. Unlike when she's in her wheelchair where she's looking up at most people, when she's high atop her horse Hopper, people look up at Ivy for a change.

The difference makes her feel empowered. Even though Hopper's taking the steps, Ivy gets to experience the sensation of walking, something most of us take for granted.

Five-year-old Sophia also takes part in Equi-Kids. She suffers from weak core muscles because of her Down syndrome. Horseback riding strengthens them, which helps Sophia keep up in every day life. Plus, coming here makes her happy and more open to trying new things.

Chloe's severe back injury means she can't move around much on her own two feet. But horse therapy gives her the freedom to do the things she otherwise couldn't.

Her father, Ben Fitzpatrick, said coming to Equi-Kids has changed his daughter's life.

"She can't run and jump and so on," he explained. "So being on the horse gives her the activity without the impact on her spine."

According to Jill Haag, executive director of Equi-Kids, even autistic children come out of their shell.

"It's amazing to see a child who will not speak in any given week or reach out and hug their mother or hug their father," she said. "They will reach down and they will pat their horse. And when they get off that horse, they'll go an give their parent a hug."

Horse therapy is used for people with multiple sclerosis, Ausperger's syndrome, attention deficit disorder, the list goes on.

A Happy Place

It's become the most popular type of animal therapy because horses give immediate feedback to the rider's actions.

"They're warm, they're trusting, they don't judge," Haag points out. "They're silent, they don't constantly ask you to do certain types of things. You have to ask them."

Horses are intuitive and will behave according to the level of the rider.

In addition to children with disabilities, these horses also help soldiers who've been injured in the line of duty.

Kelly Eaton served five tours in the Middle East. He suffers from knee and back injuries as well as post-traumatic stress disorder, also known as PTSD.

"I still have flashbacks," he said. "I have issues with crowds, things of that nature, as well as I'm now considered chronically mentally depressed."

Equi-Kids also has another name: Equi-Vets. Kelly said Equi-Vets keeps him going.

"My happy place is on the back of a horse," he said. "Whether it's walking, trotting, whatever. I can clear everything out of my mind. Nothing matters any more. Nothing ever happened. Every bad thing that I've seen in my life is gone. I mean it's temporary, but this is my little bit of sanity."

A Calming Influence

Cathy Chitwood, program director at Equi-Kids and Equi-Vets, said the horses teach people to control their behavior by mirroring the way a human feels.

"So when they're calm, the horse will calm down and cooperate and participate with them," she explained. "And when they're nervous and anxious and hyper, the horse actually does the same thing. So it's very good for mental health patients to do some personal reflection on how their behavior affects other people and other things."

Kim Moss, director of development at Equi-Kids and Equi-Vets, said generous people who believe in the healing power of horses are the ones who make it possible for hundreds of veterans and children with disabilities to find hope.

"We don't have any government money that we're given," he explained. "Everything that we get is through donations from people, organizations and the community."

So no matter what people are dealing with, after being around these big animals, their problems tend to look smaller. 

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