Equine therapy a practical way to help clients deal with challenges
Rhonda Fiander, mental health therapist and owner and operator of Equi-Assist, an equine-assisted growth and learning program located in Conception Bay South, gets ready to take 14-year-old Monty out for exercise. — Photo by Rhonda Hayward/The Telegram
When Pride the horse’s job as therapist is mentioned, he strolls the short distance to the group and waits patiently as the conversation continues.
“Horses are very much herd animals, social. They mirror family, society, communities, hierarchies,” says Rhonda Fiander, who is part of a team operating Equi-Assist, a private-practice treatment program operated at the Avalon Equestrian Centre which she owns in Conception Bay South.
Fiander and Sharon Barnes are social workers qualified in the therapy and the team includes an equine specialist. The program is certified by the international non-profit Equine Assisted Growth and Learning Association. It’s covered by some health insurance programs, according to Fiander.
Equine therapy helps people address trauma, addictions, anger, social anxiety and other mental health challenges. Its also includes life coping, couples and family counselling. The therapy doesn’t involve riding, but the clients work with the horses through various tasks and, in the course of the interaction, deal with their issues. The outcome can be more swift than conventional counselling, Barnes and Fiander say.
Fiander tells the story of a youth who had been given up by his birth parents, as well as adoptive parents and went through a series of group homes.
She said when the youth’s birth mother reached out to him and then never showed up, he ended up in trouble with the law.
Through the corrections system, he became a participant in the equine therapy program. In one exercise designed to work on trust, relationship and self esteem, he had no luck.
“He was doing everything right and the horse just wasn’t going there,” Fiander recalled.
“Finally at one point, he threw his hands up in the air and said ‘What am I doing wrong?’ It’s a perfect metaphor for when things go wrong in life — (people ask) ‘What am I doing wrong?’ Sometimes you are doing everything right in life, but life just sucks.”
Another young man learned to connect with his mother after forming a bond with the therapy horse.
“Those are the miracles you see happen,” Fiander said.
This reporter sampled the therapy by tackling the task of putting a rope halter on Pride, the objective of which being to lead him around the ring.
After several attempts to figure out how the various loops worked, the halter was indeed attached to the accommodating horse. Though it worked, it was clearly not the right configuration as the halter was draped over one of Pride’s ears.
Fiander and Barnes assured that if it works, then it’s not wrong.
“We would ask, ‘What was it like? Are you happy with that?'” Fiander explained.
“There is no right or wrong way. … The bottom line is if it worked and you are happy.”
They noted that different configurations were tried, rather than the same one over and over again.
“Oftentimes people get caught up on something and try the same thing that is not working, like in life,” Barnes said.
Though the task was accomplished, this reporter insisted on knowing how exactly the halter is supposed to be fitted and they obliged.
“If you were here for a session, we would really explore why that is important for you,” Barnes said.