The spectacular sight of horses is a familiar one around Monmouth County. New Jersey’s romance with the horse is so strong and long-lived that the horse is the official state animal of New Jersey.
Anyone who has spent time with horses can tell you that special bonds are formed with these animals, despite their imposing size and power. Now it seems that what people have instinctively known for years is backed up by science.
Horses play an important role as therapy animals, helping people of all ages with a broad variety of conditions to find calmness, stabilized moods and improved outlooks.
According to WebMD, “Caring for horses requires concentration, selflessness and teamwork. Equine-assisted therapy programs can help people improve self-esteem, self-awareness and empathy, and can benefit those dealing with relationship issues, grief, anxiety, depression, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, addiction and eating disorders.”
People who need physical therapy or occupational therapy also work with specially trained horses as they build strength, balance and improve spatial awareness. Some of the conditions benefitted include autism, cerebral palsy, Down syndrome, neuromuscular diseases, paralysis, spinal cord damage and traumatic brain injuries. There are even specialized programs that help veterans, especially those with PTSD, learn to reintegrate into civilian life, build communication skills, emotional regulation and trust.
Sally Nilsson is an ex-corporate lawyer from London, who is now a professional life coach and Equine Assisted Learning facilitator in Costa Rica. She co-owns Tula Vida, a sanctuary in the rainforest providing transformational horse experiences and retreats. Gretchen Morgan, LCSW and owner of Lighthouse Counseling & Sand Play Training Center in Eatontown, has been working with Sally in Costa Rica offering therapeutic workshops with horses for the last six years.
Nilsson explained, “Horses have spent the last 56 million years on Earth evolving an incredible capacity to sense their environment and the intention of other beings, and to work together as a herd – essential survival skills for prey animals. Horses have partnered with humans throughout our history, changing the nature of hunting, travelling, farming, war, sport and, most recently, healing and emotional intelligence. Horses’ natural sensing abilities, together with our special relationship with them, leave them uniquely qualified to perform this therapeutic role.”
One such modality, known as Equine Assisted Learning, involves exercises where horses interact with humans to help people learn about themselves and their relationships. There is a growing body of published scientific studies and data showing that not only do horses help us with our emotions, interacting with them has a beneficial physiological effect on heart rate variability, blood pressure, overall cardiovascular health and on the nervous system.
“In my 25 years of clinical work, I have never seen such a powerful modality – I have seen clients get regulated at warp-speed and leave feeling restored, hopeful and ready to embrace daily life,” Morgan said.
Nilsson added, “Horses have an incredible capacity to sense what is going on inside us and to react accordingly. They don’t judge us and so we get to refine our own presence and approach until the connection feels good for both of us. Experiencing this is a powerful way of improving human connections too.”
Most recently, Nilsson and Morgan created a program called “Heal the Healers” to address the needs of frontline workers from around the world who have experienced compassion fatigue and burnout due to the stresses of the COVID-19 pandemic. Participants spend a week immersed in nature in the vibrant Costa Rican rainforest, partnering with a herd of horses in a range of facilitated activities like painting, leading, breathing, connecting, yoga, journaling, etc. – all designed to calm their system and bring back a feeling of balance and peace. Participants describe this as “a transformational mental, physical and spiritual healing experience.”
“You don’t need any experience with horses to benefit,” Nilsson said. “In fact, many people have some fear of horses when they arrive but leave feeling like horses are their new best friends!”
For more information about experiences and retreats, or to find these types of experiences near you, visit TulaVida.com.
Donna Lombardi, a master horsewoman with 35 years of experience and manager of Whispering Pines Farm, shared a personal and deeper insight into what an equine-assisted therapy experience is like. Lombardi explained that her husband and her horses are her family. She has owned most of them for more than 10 years and knows each of their stories and their specialties. Many of these horses are currently competing national champions who quickly shift from the show ring to therapy. She explained that the person seeking therapy is blindfolded, and the horse selects the person.
“It’s stunning to watch,” she said. “Sometimes a person will attract one horse, some people attract multiple horses. The horses instinctively sense a person needs and match themselves based on that. Then the person just spends time with the horse. It’s easy for people to accept that dogs and cats can make you feel better and given a horse’s size you get many multiples of that healing energy.”
Inna Danieli, LCSW, MBA, is a psychotherapist with numerous specialties who also utilizes equine-assisted therapy at Whispering Pines Farm. She said horses communicate with electromagnetic fields generated through their circulatory system; the same goes with the human heart and the non-verbal communication starts immediately. They are natural bio-feedback monitors. Even people who are afraid of horses are transformed in a few hours.
Lombardi continued, “I am so proud of these horses and always amazed at how supernatural the experience is. Some people find their answers and peace after a single two- or four-hour session. Others drive to the farm weekly, and others book weekends at hotels just to spend time with the horses. Each client says they consider their hours with the horses a very healing and spiritual time.” To learn more, visit WhisperingPinesHorse.Wixsite.com/WhisperingPinesFarm.
Locally, working in conjunction with the Monmouth County Park System, Special People United to Ride (SPUR), is a nonprofit 501(c)3 organization that provides individuals with disabilities the opportunity to achieve personal goals through therapeutic horsemanship. It began in the late 1970s as a grassroots movement for therapeutic horseback riding began to grow. In 1978, the Monmouth County Park System became involved, and after several moves, SPUR now resides at Sunnyside Recreation Area in Lincroft. SPUR offers eight-week children and adults therapeutic horsemanship programs and equine environment for learning programs. SPUR also offers veterans and active duty military specially tailored Horses for Heroes workshops, including Equine Harmony for Heroes, Equine Psychology Programs and Group and Individual Horsemanship Workshops. All programs are run by PATH International Certified Therapeutic Riding Instructors and Equine Specialists.
Take time to learn about the many horse farms in our area, and stop for a restorative moment whenever you see one of these majestic animals pass by.
O15ALL (1): Donna Lombardi with her horses
O15ALL (6), (7): Photos courtesy of Donna Lombardi, Whispering Pines Farms