Why Equine Therapy Works

Equine-assisted therapy (also sometimes referred to as “equine therapy”) is a form of experiential adventure therapy in which residents interact with horses under the guidance and supervision of qualified professionals.

By taking the therapeutic experience out of the traditional office environment, and interacting with a powerful yet sensitive animal, equine-assisted therapy allows residents to gain insight into emotions, relationships, and patterns of behavior. 

Learn more about Equine-assisted therapy
Kaylin Woods, M.S., CTRS | Jennifer England, LAC
Kaylin Woods is an Equine Therapist and a Certified Therapeutic Recreation Specialist from South Carolina. She received her undergraduate and master's degree in Recreational Therapy from Clemson University and specifically studied equine-assisted services for her master's thesis. Kaylin fell in love with equine therapy as a senior in high school and has been involved with numerous equine therapy programs since, and has been able to work with individuals of all ages, ability levels, diagnoses, and backgrounds. She believes strongly in the power of equine programs for every population and passionately works to incorporate evidence-based practices and goal-oriented activities to address resident's needs. In her spare time, Kaylin enjoys spending days on the water, loving on animals, and watching her Clemson Tigers play. 

Jennifer England is an Equine Therapist Supervisor and Licensed Associate Counselor. She received her Master’s Degree in Counseling from Northern Illinois University. Jennifer is certified through EAGALA in Mental Health and as an Equine Specialist. As an Equine Therapist, she works to create mindfulness, connection, and insight for residents in the process of recovery and develop skills to take on their life journey. Jennifer has worked with horses throughout her life and has been a therapeutic riding instructor for over 12 years.

Scott Webb: Equine-assisted therapy is a form of experiential adventure therapy in which residents interact with horses under the guidance and supervision of qualified professionals. By taking the therapeutic experience out of a traditional office environment and interacting with a powerful yet sensitive animal, equine-assisted therapy allows residents to gain insight into emotions, relationships, and patterns of behavior.

And on today's podcast, I'm joined by Jennifer England and Kaylin Woods, and they're here today to tell us more about equine-assisted therapy at Sierra Tucson.

This is Let's Talk: Mind, Body, Spirit by Sierra Tucson. Sierra Tucson, a leader in the field of behavioral healthcare since 1983. I'm Scott Webb. So, it's really awesome to have both of you on. We were joking a bit that unfortunately the horses can't join us today. The office just isn't quite big enough, even for maybe a small one. Maybe that's a separate podcast just with me and the horses. But for today, we're going to learn about those horses and the Equine Program. So, we'll start with you, Jennifer. Tell us about Sierra Tucson's Equine Program, the history of the program, and so on.

Jennifer England: Yeah. Our program here at Sierra Tucson has been around for 30 years. We have had horses on property. Currently, we have 10 horses. We have two little miniature horses, one pony and seven of, we call them our bigs, our big horses of different breeds. So, we have four mental health therapists and we have two what we call equine specialists that help us in our sessions and also help care for our horses. So again, one of the reasons I came to Sierra Tucson and moved across the country was because this program has been so well established and has a long, solid history of providing equine therapy services.

Scott Webb: Yeah, that's very cool. And I don't know why, but anytime I picture small horses, I don't know why it brings such a smile to my face. There's just something so adorable, you know? Yeah, the bigs are good, especially I'm 6'4", so I'd probably need a big. But the little ones, the little cute little miniature horses, they're just so cute. And Kaylin, what's been your experience with equine therapy or leading up to your experience at Sierra Tucson?

Kaylin Woods: Yeah. So, I actually am one of the rare equine therapists who didn't grow up with horses, kind of fell into it later in life when I was in high school and started volunteering at a barn. I really did just kind of put it on a college resume, right? And I absolutely fell in love with it. So, I went to school at Clemson and I went for my undergrad and graduate degree in recreational therapy. And then, my master's thesis was based around equine therapy and how that's being used.

So this, I would consider my first "big girl job" out here with Sierra Tucson, being an equine therapist. And I've absolutely fallen in love with it. It is one of the most amazing things to see work and to just be a part of, and to be able to hang out not only with humans, but with our horses as well, and see that relationship grow.

Scott Webb: Yeah. I'm sure, right? Beautiful weather, nice humans, nice horses, big girl job, you know, and all of that implies. That's awesome. So Jennifer, what's the purpose and mission of equine therapy? This is really interesting to me. The last one I did was on adventure sort of therapy, and that was something new to me. And of course, I think I'm sort of familiar with this, and I certainly love being around horses myself. But from your perspective, purpose, mission, and some of the foundational concepts.

Jennifer England: Sure. So in some ways, we definitely fall under that whole experiential broad area like adventure does. So again, that idea of being outside in a different environment. But really, the purpose and mission of equine therapy is really to work with our individual residents or in groups on some of their goals. We really focus on their clinical goals and really using-- It's so hard for me to describe this. I wish the minis were here so I could show you. But one of the things about the nature, we really use the nature of horses. And the nature of horses being prey animals versus humans who are predators brings a lot to a relationship that we can have with them. So, things like horses are really good at living in the present and being mindful. And a lot of times, that's one of the big goals for a lot of our residents, is to get regulated in that first 30 days. And so, the horses can really help with that, and that's just by their nature.

And also, I think the mission too, obviously, aside from the clinical goals, is that they have a good experience with some other living being in that setting and build trust in a thousand-pound animal, minis aren't quite that big, but they're horses, right? So, the purpose and mission falls in line a lot with the clinical goals of Sierra Tucson, but we're really going about it in a different way with our horses as partners in therapy and using the nature that they bring to help people to really work on those goals.

Kaylin Woods: Yeah, I think what you were talking about that, the nature of horses, them being prey animals, they're not like dogs, they're not going to sit there and lick your face. They are going to set boundaries. They are going to do self-care and what they need to do, so they can really model what do healthy relationships look like, how does that work. And so, to kind of see that reflection and for our residents to be able to be like, "Oh, okay. I'm watching it happen. I can practice this now too," is something really special that they bring just because of them being prey animals.

Jennifer England: We do all groundwork and we're really not here to teach them horsemanship or horse skills, but there's so much empowerment that goes along with being able to do activities and be successful, whether it's leading a horse or moving a horse, there's a lot of empowerment that residents gain from that.

Scott Webb: Yeah, it's really interesting. My mom, so my daughter's grandma, has a friend who has a horse and she used to go and hang out with the horse. And just seeing her, I really think that as a child, I think it really did help to empower her. She didn't know that's what we were trying to do. She just thought it was cool to hang out with horses, because it is, you know, undeniably cool. But you're so right in leading and feeding and riding horses, there's just something empowering and really therapeutic about that. So, I can connect to this just a little bit through the example of my daughter.

And thinking of examples, Kaylin, wondering, do you have some examples of the therapeutic experience, you know, resident life experience? Obviously, we want to keep it anonymous. But when you think about some folks that you've worked with and their work with the horses, maybe you can give us an example.

Kaylin Woods: Yeah, absolutely. So, I actually run a group for women who have survived sexual violence. So, that group is a specialty group that we run here. And one of the things that we work on a lot in that group is boundaries, right? When you survive a trauma like that, your boundaries are crossed, they're violated, so kind of empowering to reestablish those boundaries.

So, one of the activities that we actually do is I have my women create a representation of their safe space, kind of define that. What does that look like? What feels safe to you? How do you know that you're safe? And then, we actually end up using our little minis, when we hide treats and that gets them super excited, they run around and they try to come into what we just built as a safe space. And so, that's where that practice comes in of, "Okay, how do you set this boundary? How do you set a healthy boundary?" And we talk about, you know, does this feel okay? In some instances, it might be okay to let people in your safe space and others, not so much. So, that's just one example of how we can really work on kind of what they're going through in those real life things like boundaries and finding safety after a trauma, but kind of translate it into our world of equine and give them that real life practice before they do it with humans.

Jennifer England: I run the men's group for sexual trauma and abuse. And I agree with Kaylin, there is so much about, especially in regards to men, being able to feel safe to share their trauma. But being out and being out in a herd of eight horses and creating that safe space where things like guilt and shame can be discussed and worked through and, again, being able to have that safe experience with the horses is amazing.

Scott Webb: Yeah, I'm sure. And, you know, I'm assuming as intelligent as horses may be, they don't even realize the impact, the power that they have to help these folks, both men and women through a variety of things. Jennifer, are there any limitations for participants? You know, I mean, maybe it's a size thing line, "No, you're too big for the little one" or, you know, "You're too small for the big..." But besides those sort of obvious limitations, are there any others for participants?

Jennifer England: There really are not limitations. What we do is our equine specialists provide information about safety to all the residents before they engage with the horses. Personally, for about 12 years, I was a therapeutic riding instructor, so I have a lot of knowledge and comfort around making adaptations as needed and our horses are trained for that, for things like a scooter maybe or a walking stick, something like that. So other than, I would say, a more serious diagnosis of something that would have involved harm to animals, there are really no limitations. We provide safety and support.

Kaylin Woods: And I think one of the other things that we really try to do is empower residents to know that they always have a choice. We're never going to force them to engage with the animals if they don't want to. And so, we really kind of put that back in their hands of like, "Okay, if you need an adaptation, if you need some extra support, let us know. Advocate for yourself." And that really kind of allows them to, again, feel that sense of empowerment as they're going through this experience.

Scott Webb: Yeah, I'm sure. And having done some horseback riding myself, you know, especially with some of the bigger horses. Yeah, I mean, horses too are like people, they have good days and bad days. And sometimes, you know, a really big horse that seems like they're having a bad day, you think, "Yeah, maybe that's not the one for me today." So, I'm sure you consider all of that. And my experience has just been that it's just so important both for the horses and for the riders to sort of trust each other, you know, and know that you were on the same page, at least, you know, for that day.

And wondering, Kaylin, when we think about goals and goals setting and working with residents, how does that work? Is that a collaborative experience between everybody setting those goals or they come with them and then you say, "Okay, yeah, I think we can check some of these off the list, working with the horses"? How does that work?

Kaylin Woods: Yeah, that's a great question. So before every session, every group session, we kind of do a check-in. And during that time we ask residents, you know, "What do you want to accomplish in this next, you know, two hours with the horses? What are you working on in your recovery?" And that kind of allows us to set trajectory on like where we're going to go with that session, right? So if someone comes in and says, "Hey, I'm working on, you know, finding a better coping skill than using alcohol," that's where we can kind of as therapist be like, "Okay, we have this idea planned and we can address that goal through talking about temptations or practicing coping skills with the horses." So, we really try to have a plan when we go in, but we are always flexible in being able to adapt to whatever they're bringing to group that day, because the reality is this treatment is for them. We're here to provide support for what they're working on. So, that's a big part of our job, is just being flexible and adaptable and kind of shifting gears where we need to so that they can work on those identified goals.

Scott Webb: Yeah. And we were talking about how, you know, horses, like people have good days and bad days and horses like people can sometimes be unpredictable, right? So, you always go into it with the best intentions. "Okay, this is what we think we're going to do, we're hoping to do today." But you know, sometimes a horse may not cooperate or might need a little coaxing, or maybe even the human might need a little bit of coaxing as well, and maybe that's really what this is all about.

And Jennifer, I learned in adventure therapy that, you know, one of the most important things is, you know, resident, patients, clients, is them being able to take this back into their lives to the "real world." So, how do you help them do that, carry the goals and experiences in working with the horses and all that therapy? How do you help them to take that back with them when they leave Sierra Tucson?

Jennifer England: So certainly, that's a big goal and that's something, as we wind down a session, that we really ask straightforward in terms of "What is your specific takeaway? How will you apply what you've learned here in this session or practiced in this session to your life?" So for example, we do some groundwork around moving horses, getting their feet to move on the ground and talk about, relate that to different issues around how they might get their feet moving in recovery, whether they're feeling depressed, whether they're feeling anxious.

And so by doing the practice of moving the horse's feet, identifying really what worked for you and really visualizing, "I did this with the horse. Now, how can I do this when I leave Sierra Tucson and I don't want to get out of bed in the morning?" Right? "I could go back to that practice that I did and realize it just might be one step." Or they might have got the horse to really move their feet. We also use movement like that to practice things around relationships and communication. Like you said, sometimes a thousand pounds doesn't feel like moving its feet. And we know sometimes in communication and building healthy relationships and things like that, those things come up. And so again, we provide space, we provide opportunities to have an experience that relates to their goals. And then at the end of session when we wrap up, we really ask them to identify what that takeaway is going to look like in their life after Sierra Tucson.

Kaylin Woods: Yeah. And I think asking them to really tap into that metaphorical side of their brain too of "Why in the world are we asking you to lead a horse with your eyes closed? What does this have to do with your recovery?" And kind of asking them, if they're willing and able, to pull those metaphors out up there, like, "Oh, okay. This is more than just about asking a horse's feet to move. There's something deeper going on here that I can tap into."

Jennifer England: And it's interesting sometimes that we have residents, and I'm looking at Kaylin, we're now laughing because we have residents that come out to equine therapy and think, "This is going to be a lot about petting horses," and then we therapize them and then they laugh. They always joke with us, "Oh, you got me," right? Because it's like you said, they're enjoying that moment, they're maybe not realizing through that experiential process what's happening.

Scott Webb: Yeah. As we say, we were talking about literally like that a thousand-pound animal may or may not want to move their feet when you want them to. That happens of course, as you say. But it's more the what it takes to get a thousand-pound animal to do what you want them to do. So, sometimes it's literal and maybe metaphorical. Yeah, it's so cool. This is so interesting to me. Like I said, maybe in the future we'll actually speak with the horses.

Jennifer England: Get their take on it.

Scott Webb: If they only knew the power that they have, I mean, you know, and I know they're in it for the treats and the petting and the care that you give them. If you've got some carrots, you got a happy horse, right?

Jennifer England: Absolutely.

Scott Webb: Yeah. I just want to give you both an opportunity as we close up here, to just talk a little bit about the relationship that you have with the residents and working through things like trauma, anxiety and so on, and bringing in the horses and the equine therapy and all this really cool stuff. Maybe just a chance for you to just sort of share your side of things. Maybe start with you, Kaylin.

Kaylin Woods: Yeah, I think one of the reasons I love equine therapy so much is it's such a unique experience. We get residents all the time who have never touched a horse before. And so, to be able to walk with someone through potentially that fear, that anxiety, "I don't know what to do," that teaching moment, it really creates a very different therapist-patient bond. That kind of allows us to dig into stuff right away. Whereas in the office, that might take a little bit more time. So, we really get this amazing opportunity to help people go outside their comfort zone, help them realize their potential with these amazing, beautiful four-legged therapists as we call them, and to just have that experience where they can be like, "Okay, I've done this. Now, I can do the hard stuff in recovery as well."

So, I feel very blessed to be able to be a part in that. And just also, you know, being at the barn's a different experience. We get to be a little bit more casual. When you have a resident that you're hanging out with and talking to and they're like, "Hey, I really want to come help you. Can I just like shovel poop with you in the morning?" You definitely get a different experience with them. And also, just to be a human being and to have that relationship and to be building that in a very different way.

Jennifer England: I agree with Kaylin, yeah, in terms of being human in this process. So much about our work just looks so much different than any therapy session, right? We have cowboy boots on, not dress shoes. We are outside and it's cold.

Kaylin Woods: We're covered in horse slobber.

Jennifer England: Yeah. So, I think that helps to create that really human connection, that we're all human in this process, and the work that we're doing and support. And really, I don't know that I could go back to doing office therapy after having done this kind of work for so long. Because, like Kaylin said too, I feel like with the horse there in that situation, I've had residents just put their hand on the horse, start to regulate and just be able to tap in, maybe it's tears, maybe it's anger, whatever it is, but be able to tap into that so much more quickly, and I can step back and just be a safe way to hold that space for them to go to that, that work that they need to do and they can lean in on the horse. So yeah, I think there's so much about just being a human in the process with our four-legged friends.

Scott Webb: Yeah, the four-legged friends, therapists. You know, in my experience with horses, they're just such beautiful, majestic and usually calm beings. And there's just something about them, just being near them, being around them, touching them, maybe hugging them if they'll allow it that day, you know. This has been so fun, so lovely. I just want to thank you both for telling us more about equine therapy. It makes me want to do it myself. I'm outside Chicago and it's freezing here, so there's no horseback riding today for sure.

Jennifer England: Fly to Arizona. We'll take care of you.

Scott Webb: Oh my, God. I would love to do that. I'll talk to my wife. But in the meantime, great meeting you both, learning more, and you both stay well.

Kaylin Woods: Thank you.

Jennifer England: Thank you so much.

Scott Webb: And to learn more about equine-assisted therapy, go to sierratucson.com/therapies/integrative/equine. And if you find this podcast to be helpful, please share it on your social channels. And be sure to check out the full podcast library for additional topics of interest. This is Let's Talk: Mind, Body, Spirit from Sierra Tucson. I'm Scott Webb. Stay well.