OPINION: Betting on horses to help women heal

An instructor provides therapeutic riding lessons at Chastain Horse Park, where women and girls who have survived sex trafficking and exploration learn heal trauma through working with horses. Courtesy of Boehringer Ingelheim Animal Health USA.
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An instructor provides therapeutic riding lessons at Chastain Horse Park, where women and girls who have survived sex trafficking and exploration learn heal trauma through working with horses. Courtesy of Boehringer Ingelheim Animal Health USA.

Credit: handout

Credit: handout

Standing next to horses in the covered ring at Chastain Horse Park, a small group of women focus on drawing imaginary rectangles around themselves and the animals by their sides. The shapes, explains the instructor, create boundary lines that are not to be crossed by woman or by animal, until an invitation is offered.

The women practice holding those boundaries, telling the horse to stay out of their space or moving the horse’s muzzle away. At the same time, the women learn that if the horse is rubbing them, they may be encroaching on the horse’s space. These are lessons that would be good for anyone to learn, but for these women — survivors of domestic sex trafficking and exploitation — it offers life-changing skills to help them cope in real life scenarios.

“They learn healthy emotional management and coping skills,” said Kelcy Rainer, therapeutic program director at the Atlanta horse park. “They learn to replace irrational thought with rational beliefs, develop healthy, morally respectful relationships and maintain healthy boundaries for themselves and others.”

In 2019, the horse park began working in conjunction with Wellspring Living, a nonprofit that provides domestic sex trafficking survivors and those at risk with specialized recovery services. Rainer has used equine assisted therapy with the women and girls from the program to help them improve their self-esteem and move toward a healthier lifestyle.

Caption
Kelcy Rainer, therapeutic program director at Chastain Horse Park, helps survivors of sex trafficking and exploitation recover thorough therapeutic riding lessons. Photo courtesy of Boehringer Ingelheim Animal Health USA Inc.

Credit: handout

Kelcy Rainer, therapeutic program director  at Chastain Horse Park, helps survivors of sex trafficking and exploitation recover thorough therapeutic riding lessons. Photo courtesy of Boehringer Ingelheim Animal Health USA Inc.
Caption
Kelcy Rainer, therapeutic program director at Chastain Horse Park, helps survivors of sex trafficking and exploitation recover thorough therapeutic riding lessons. Photo courtesy of Boehringer Ingelheim Animal Health USA Inc.

Credit: handout

Credit: handout

Equine assisted therapy is one of the fastest growing segments in the U.S. equine industry, drawing about $311.7 million in annual revenue, according to sources from the American Horse Council. There are more than 1,000 certified facilities in the country that offer equine assisted therapy. Georgia’s horse industry is small, but equine experts at the University of Georgia Extension said the state is nationally recognized for its quality horses and horse facilities.

Wellspring Living uses a range of therapies — including art, dance, running and yoga — to help the women and girls enrolled in the year-long program, which is supported by the philanthropic foundation of Duluth-based, Boehringer Ingelheim Animal Health USA, Inc.

Mary Frances Bowley, founder of Wellspring Living, said the organization first explored equine assisted therapy several years ago. At the time, she wasn’t sure exactly how horses could help women overcome trauma, she said.

Therapists explained how the horses would mimic the women — their moods, their actions — serving as a mirror to help the women explore their own suppressed feelings and experiences. Bowley watched as a shy, withdrawn girl approached a horse, which then mimicked her behavior. When a more boisterous girl with a big voice approached, the same horse copied her behavior.

“I said, oh my goodness, it is true,” Bowley said. “There is a protective shell over them because of what happened to them, but as they care for the horse … it opens them up for more opportunities to work with the trauma.”

For the 340 women and youth served each year by Wellspring Living, the impact of various therapies, including equine assisted therapy, can be measured in improved school performance, a return to families and in many cases, a life that is more normalized.

Chastain has been offering therapeutic horse riding and programs since 1999, helping a range of individuals with disabilities — attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, cerebral palsy, traumatic brain injury and more — develop new coping skills, Rainer said. For the survivors of sex trafficking, they developed a targeted curriculum in collaboration with mental health experts to work on areas of emotional development including assertiveness, empathy, grief and independence, all of which can be accomplished working with the horses.

“Horses are just living minute by minute in survival mode,” Rainer said. “The women really connect with that because they have spent so much of their time in the same survival mode.”

Caption
A rider a Chastain Horse Park which has partnered with Wellspring Living to provide equine assisted therapy to women and girls who have survived sex trafficking. Photo courtesy of Boehringer Ingelheim Animal Health USA.

Credit: Handout

A rider a Chastain Horse Park which has partnered with Wellspring Living to provide equine assisted therapy to women and girls who have survived sex trafficking. Photo courtesy of Boehringer Ingelheim Animal Health USA.
Caption
A rider a Chastain Horse Park which has partnered with Wellspring Living to provide equine assisted therapy to women and girls who have survived sex trafficking. Photo courtesy of Boehringer Ingelheim Animal Health USA.

Credit: Handout

Credit: Handout

Many of the lessons the women learn from horses are intuitive. Much of that learning is accomplished on the ground, but over time they also mount and ride the horses, Rainer said.

Once, a program participant pulled the reins to stop a horse while simultaneously digging her heels into the horse’s side, which tells the horse to go. The moment became an opportunity to discuss what it means to send mixed signals and how the woman might feel if she received similar mixed signals from the people in her life.

With a team of counselors and psychologists, the women are able to build and reflect on the lessons they have learned in each session. Ideally, the participants are in the program for the entire year but some of the women do not attend every session, Rainer said. Even that has the potential to become an exercise in growth and learning, empowering the more experienced women in the sessions to act as trainers for their peers on skills that have already been covered.

“We have had a wonderful impact working with groups that have endured a lot of trauma,” Rainer said. “Being able to have them work with horses improves future decision making. The last thing we want is for at risk individuals to go right back into being trafficked.”

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