Horses: A Partnership Embedded in Recovery.

For those of you that have been following me since I started this adventure of blogging, know my style is informal and full of grammar and punctuation no-no’s…but it’s me and it’s my comfort zone. I’ve had so much feedback on my writing over the last couple of years, I wanted to share even more with you – having taken on a masters program, I am entering a new world of wanting to share my stories, my knowledge and my experiences more and more each day, attempting to reach different audiences and hoping my rambling sentences may have impact on one, just one of you out there.

This blog will be a little different as it is being shared with my classmates and professor and therefore opening me up to a very different audience – sometimes my comfort comes in writing with not knowing who this blog is reaching and then when someone I know says something to me or writes me in private, I sometimes freeze and think – OMG they know this about me. It’s a very enlightening feeling this sharing and yet it’s led me to where I am today. Today as I write, I open myself and my adventures in horse therapy up for constructive criticism, for growth in my partnership with Te’sipow Therapeutic Services, for growth in my clinical practice and for growth in my own self, I submit this blog to my current course mates – yikes, exposure therapy!!

Horses…why horses…I sit back and think why in the world did I enter into this partnership with a girl, a stranger I’m glad I met…


I work as an occupational therapist on a community-based mental health and addictions program servicing clients with severe and persistent mental illness. The philosophy behind the team is based on the belief that clients are the center of their own care, are unique, and have the right to service that promotes independence. The team seeks to empower clients by promoting the use of the client’s natural supports in their own environment. It focuses on assisting clients to build their skills and supports within the client’s home and community. A common theme discussed regularly within this team’s client population is the difficulty experienced in identifying and engaging in meaningful and purposeful occupations, lack of self esteem, lack of communication skills, lack of purpose and feeling needed and lack of control. As occupational therapists, we have the ability and skills to foster therapeutic relationships, integrate clients into their communities and offer them creative options to explore meaningful activity that will empower them along their journey. For many of our clients, they experience daily symptoms and societal reaction to them; they experience limited access to participation, limited resources and overwhelming messages of what they cannot do.

With the growing research on service animals for individuals with severe and persistent mental illness and the shift to utilizing natural community based resources, I started exploring alternative programming for my clientele in November 2014. The majority of equine-assisted therapy (EAT) programs researched offer an opportunity for horse-minded individuals to bond with, care for and learn from the animal. I really wanted to move away from hospital based formal programming and get my clients reacquainted with the natural environment, as I believe that it is essential for recovery whether it be physical, mental, emotional or spiritual recovery.

The confidence, self-esteem, feeling of purpose and control of many people with severe and persistent mental illness are low, partly due to self-stigma, lack of choices and lack of meaning in one’s life. Such self-experiences result in poor occupational performance outcomes such as reduced independent functioning, community participation and integration and progress in their personal recovery journeys. The bond that forms between horse and human is unique. The horse in comparison to any other animal has an innate ability to pick up on human emotions, interactions and intention.

 Although there are many EAT programs across the country, this EAT program is unique in that it consists of an occupational therapist – as mental health practitioner, and a therapeutic recreation worker – as horse facilitator, and peer supporter with lived mental health experience. Vital to the operation is the partnership developed with Te’sipow Therapeutic Services, owner of the stable and horses. The collaborative approach with Te’sipow Therapeutic Services provides the optimal opportunity for clients to find meaning and purpose in their time spent with the horses. It is our goal that upon completion of the program, clients will demonstrate growth both in life and social skills and ultimately progression in their recovery journey. When asked what they want to get out of the program our clients state, they want “calmness”, they want “the voices to take a break”, they want their “abuser to hear their voice”, they want to “gain control” and they want “to believe that someone believes” in them.


The three programs offered are:

  1. Horse Time – includes grooming and feeding the horses, learning safety rules and basic control on the ground. In terms of skills learned, it focuses on physical activity, promoting independence, increasing awareness of activities of daily living, making choices, compassion, boundaries, and social, life and work skills.
  1. Spirit Horse – clients are guided through various experiences including: watching the dynamics of the horses and herd, identifying relationships and dynamics in the herd, entering the herd to catch a horse, trust exercises with the horses, learning to communicate with a horse, building symbolic obstacles to accomplish with the horse, individual and/or group tasks with the herd, and symbolic painting on the horses. Through my experience with the program I have come to believe that horses have an undeniable ability to bring about change in people; they mirror a situation and show us the best and worst of ourselves.
  1. Work Skills – a volunteer opportunity for clients whereby they are responsible for cleaning the stable stalls and grounds, collecting saw dust, gathering tools, spreading hay and filling water buckets. This program offers clients the opportunity to get volunteer hours, participate in a physical activity and build skills to better prepare for them for work. It is also be a great learning opportunity for them to gain knowledge about their own work readiness and a self-awareness of their own skills. From an occupational therapy perspective it allows assessment of a client’s work readiness, attention/concentration, overall endurance/activity tolerance, ability to follow direction, multi task and ability to work within a group as well as independently.

 Our clients come from a variety of backgrounds and upbringings, have a variety of mental health diagnoses and have varying goals that they are working on. What brings them together following the stable session is the bond that they develop with the horses. As soon as we walk into the stable and breath in that first breathe of sawdust, hay and horse smell, we hear the clients breathe a sigh of relief – some describe it as a “freedom from the chaotic world” they live in, a “release from all worries” and “a calmness in [their] head”. Several themes have emerged from the feedback from the programming. Clients used words such as “calm”, “loved”, “happy”, “peaceful”, “safe” and “makes me feel like I’m in control” when describing how the interaction with the horses made them feel. When asked about how the programming helped with recovery, most people responded it helped them socially “as it was great to meet new people”; the hands on experience with the horses was reported to help with mood – “they made me happy”; and a few people reported that they learned how to be assertive “in an appropriate way”. When asked what skills did the participants learn, the majority reported “confidence”, “knowing when to have fun”, “how to bond”, “how to develop trust”, “how to be creative”, “how to communicate”, “how to connect with horses”, and “overcoming my fear of horses”.

My own experience working with clients who experience fear, voices, trauma, fatigue, sleep deprivation and watching them caress an animal and hearing them say “thank you” not to me, not to the facilitator but to the horse encourages me as a therapist to continue the advocacy for EAT programming, further development of the Spirit Horse Hope Arena and Te’sipow Therapeutic Services.

Horses…why horses…because I could never mimic what happens in the round pen in an office setting. As an adjunct therapy intervention, it has been proven essential to recovery.

For more information on programming, please visit or like on Facebook – Spirit Horse with Te’sipow Therapeutic Services.



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