Horses who help with healing

At Silva Spirit Farm in Tiverton, a day with horses might be just what the doctor ordered

By Kristen Ray
Posted 10/23/20

The sun was shining down brightly, but Rachel’s mind had clouded over as she sat alone in the middle of the Silva Spirit Farm pasture, lost in thought. A handful of horses were busy roaming the …

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Horses who help with healing

At Silva Spirit Farm in Tiverton, a day with horses might be just what the doctor ordered

Posted

The sun was shining down brightly, but Rachel’s mind had clouded over as she sat alone in the middle of the Silva Spirit Farm pasture, lost in thought. A handful of horses were busy roaming the grounds around her, but Rachel had eyes only for one. With its silky black hair and spirited demeanor, it was different from all of the others, and Rachel felt herself attracted toward it.

They stood there together, just she and the horse, for nearly half an hour; Rachel stroking its head and neck, the horse providing her its undivided attention. Rachel cared for that horse and wanted it to care for her too, but eventually it was ready to move on, and as the horse trotted away Rachel was struck with the realization that this was exactly how all of her relationships go. She has found and lost love, and once it was gone, she turned to drugs each and every time.

“The abandonment and self-worth, of being unlovable,” she said. “It, like, hit me right there.”

It was a powerful, “mind-blowing” moment for Rachel, yet she was not alone; many of her fellow residents from Teen Challenge — an 18-and-over all-women’s drug and alcohol addiction treatment center in Providence — were having their own realizations as they each spent time with the horses that sunny morning on Saturday, Oct. 3. It was the reason why equine specialist Carol Ann Silva had invited them down to her Tiverton Farm in the first place, where the nonprofit, Medicine Horse, was housed. She wanted to demonstrate how equine-assisted psychotherapy could play a powerful role in the journey toward healing, and that it could be accessible for all. 

Why it works

Incorporated as a 501(c)(3) in March of this year, Medicine Horse is comprised of Ms. Silva and mental health professionals Marjory Roberts Gray and Jessica Veroline. As a team, they facilitate therapy sessions at Ms. Silva’s farm, using the equine-assisted growth and learning association (EAGALA) model to treat a variety of emotional, behavioral and mental health issues, from addiction and grief, to anxiety and depression, PTSD and eating disorders.

“Everything that a therapist deals with, we deal with,” Ms. Silva said.

Unlike therapeutic riding, the EAGALA approach takes place entirely on the ground, next to the horses; during sessions, clients engage in activities centered around one of four different focuses — move, create, observe or relate — depending on the issues they are working on. Someone having relationship troubles may try to ‘relate’ and form a connection with one of the horses; a child struggling with grief may ‘create’ a painting on them to exhibit their emotions.

“It’s a method that firmly believes that clients have their own answers, and you just need to provide the safe space for that story to unfold,” said Ms. Silva.

Since they are prey animals, horses are acutely aware of their surroundings, capable of adapting their behavior to whoever they are around — making them “gold for humans, because they read our energy,” Ms. Gray said.

“You don’t really see that in any other kind of animal that we use in these therapies,” she added.

Because the EAGALA model is an experiential, metaphorical approach to therapy, Ms. Silva said they never share information about the horses. That way, the animals can transform and represent whatever they need to in that moment — whether that be a deceased grandparent, sibling conflict, or career opportunity.

“Regardless of what they think or I think the horses are doing, it’s what the client reads from it,” Ms. Silva said.

A day of healing

Though they know just how transformative equine-assisted psychotherapy can be for clients, Ms. Gray said that even they were not expecting the powerful experiences had by the Teen Challenge residents at the farm that Saturday. Only a few out of the 12 women attending had ever been around horses before that day; some even had a fear of the animals. But for Kelsey — having experienced a tumultuous upbringing in the city — spending time with the horses at Silva Spirit Farm was like a dream come true.

“I always wanted to be around horses and stuff,” she said. “I used to dream about it to take me out of my physical situation.”

For about two hours that day, that is exactly what Kelsey and the others got to do. Splitting up into two different groups, the Teen Challenge residents experienced a less-directive version of the EAGALA approach to therapy, getting to spend some time out in the pasture with the horses as Ms. Silva, Ms. Gray and Ms. Veroline stood back and observed.

Some of the women went from horse to horse, patting their heads and stroking their necks; others kept their distance, simply watching the animals from afar. Forty-eight-year-old Lisa found herself drawn to one of the large brown horses, its body pressing against hers as she stroked its mane and muscular body. Standing there, she knew what it was like to feel safe and protected, after experiencing a lifetime filled with traumatic events.

“That’s a big piece of the struggle, acceptance,” she said. “Individuals, with people … even with myself. Accepting myself as who I am.”

Caroline, meanwhile, spent the majority of her time in the pasture sitting next to one of the miniature horses, each choosing not to bother the other. As she sat there, her thoughts drifted to her son, now almost six years old; how, just like between her and the horse in that moment, there was distance in their relationship — a consequence, Caroline knew, from her dependence on alcohol and drugs.

“I’m watching this child who really doesn’t want anything to do with me,” she said.

Though Steph was able to bond with many of the other horses in the pasture, she was “hurt” when the black-haired one in particular ran away from her. That was exactly what her mother did, Steph remembered, when she abandoned her at such a young age.

“It’s something I’m still working on and healing through,” Steph said.

Though the day had brought up some difficult emotions and memories for the women, some in the group were already expressing interest in coming back to the farm before they even had left; in the days since, Ms. Silva said they have gotten numerous thank-you notes from the residents, detailing just how moving of an experience that had been.

“It never fails to create an environment that’s relevant and important to whoever’s in there, whoever we’re working with,” Ms. Gray said. “It amazes me, every time.”

How you can help

As a registered nonprofit, Medicine Horse accepts donations. For more information about the organization, visit www.medicine-horse.com.

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