Horses bring help, healing in therapy program

By Larry Hendricks

Arizona Daily Sun

Published: Thursday, Aug. 30 2012 3:05 a.m. MDT

In this photo taken Aug. 24 2012, Lisa Sifling, program manager at South West Behavioral Health Services in Flagstaff, Ariz. demonstrates a new equine therapy program.

Arizona Daily Sun, Jake Bacon, Associated Press

Enlarge photo»

FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. — She has found a way to diminish the crushing anxiety that keeps her from full participation in life.

Heidi, 47, whose last name is being withheld to protect her privacy, is bipolar and also suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder along with her anxiety. She spent many years trying to take care of her mental illness by herself by drinking alcohol and smoking crack cocaine and meth.

She spent time in prison for a DUI conviction, and she is now receiving disability and living at the Royal Inn as a guest of the organization's transitional housing program.

She credits horses for bringing her back into life.

"I've come a long way because of these horses," Heidi said. "I'm finding my voice. I'm finding out who I am. Those horses, they know everything."

Heidi, a client for Southwest Behavioral Health Services, is a participant in a new equine-assisted therapy program run by local therapist Libby Smith.

"Each client goes through six sessions," said Smith, who is certified in the therapy. And the therapy is particularly effective with clients who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety and depression.

"Horses mirror," Smith said, quoting Winston Churchill, "'There is nothing as good for the inside of a man as the outside of a horse.'"

She went on, "All I can tell you is the mirror us. You have to be real. In six seconds, a horse can do what it takes me a year to do with a client as a therapist. Horses keep us honest with our feelings. The horses, truly, I have to say, are the therapists."

Lisa Sifling, program coordinator for SWBHS, said that the horses and the property on Elden Lookout Road are leased from John and Sharan Winnicki. The only other expense for the program is the therapist time.

The success of the program is apparent, Smith said. And it is able to be scored on scales of individual, social and interpersonal markers, rising as much as 10 percent over what other therapies alone produce.

Sifling added that when coupled with "somatic" therapies that work to release trauma to the body, the program is that much more successful for the clients, who are all state-funded Medicaid recipients.

It's serious therapy, Smith said, adding, "It's not about coming out and riding the ponies."

Sifling gave a demonstration Wednesday of one of the sessions, called "Meet the herd," or "Reflections of the herd."

She walked into the arena with Tiana, Nelly, Maggie and Baby Snooks. She was to identify a person in her life -- someone who invited trauma, or negative emotion, or positive emotion -- with one of the horses. She was then to identify one of the horses with herself. Each horse did her own thing -- one walked away from the rest and began eating grass on the other side of the fence, one rolled on the ground and snorted, and others milled about in exploration. Smith observed and noted the behavior of the horses. She then talks with the clients about why they chose to name each of the horses to delve deeper into the clients' personal experiences.

Another session, called "Pockets of the Past" helps clients identify trauma in various stages of their lives.

"Leave it at the River" helps clients leave the trauma and the negativity behind, and the "Experiential Empowerment Exercise" helps clients find their personal power by getting the horses to obey them.

Cathartic responses from the clients, as the program explores causes, conditions and root issues, are common.

Heidi said that when she went through the program (she continues to attend weekly even though she's completed the program), she identified greatest with an old pack horse named Jed. He is known as a biter and ornery and nobody likes him.

"To me, he's beautiful," Heidi said, adding that the two hit it off immediately. She became teary when she mentioned him.

"As soon as I turn onto the road, my body just relaxes," Heidi said. "It's like an 800-pound weight is lifted off my shoulders."

She has pictures of Jed on her phone, and she looks at the pictures when she feels her anxiety level rising. Her therapist will even drive her out to the stables so she can get a look at Jed, even when it's not the day of the week for the therapy session, because he is so helpful to her. He helps slow down her racing thoughts.

"They bring something out of you you didn't know you had," she said.

Smith and Sifling said the program can accommodate about 10 people a week, or 40 a month. Although the majority of the clients are Medicaid-enrolled, private payers may also participate, Sifling said.

Information from: Arizona Daily Sun, http://www.azdailysun.com/

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