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Healing with Horses

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Judy, a cancer survivor who is taking part in Healing with Horses at Rocking Horse Ranch, grooms Sammy, a miniature horse, who is her equine partner in the program. "I love my Sammy," she said. "In a very short time, I think we've learned quite a bit about each other."

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By Kim Grizzard
The Daily Reflector

Sunday, October 7, 2018

Watching Brittany lead her horse through hurdles, there is no sign of apprehension. It seems that is an obstacle she overcame the first week of classes at Rocking Horse Ranch.

Brittany had not been nervous without cause. When she was younger, she had climbed onto a horse without a saddle, and it threw her.

But not the way that cancer did: twenty-four surgeries in eight years, an open wound for six of them and lingering bone pain that requires her to have a pump that delivers morphine to her spine.

Spending time with horses has done nothing to alter her pain, but it has helped this cancer survivor to change her perspective.

That is one goal of Healing with Horses, a partnership between Rocking Horse Ranch Therapeutic Riding Program and Vidant Health. The 12-week program brings cancer survivors to the ranch for two hours each week. The first hour is spent interacting with horses; the second is devoted to group therapy.

Vidant Support and Survivorship Coordinator Jenny Higgins said because horses are sensitive animals, interacting with them can help people to not only form connections with the horses but with their own emotions and with one another.

“There's something that's very special about getting to work with another living being and having that dynamic and that relationship,” said Higgins, a licensed clinical oncology social worker. “For whatever reason, some of these folks may feel more comfortable with animals than they do people

“Horses can help people have that sense of security, that sense of connectedness,” she said. “When we feel connected to something, we might be more apt to share what we're thinking and what we're feeling.”

Healing with Horses is not a riding program. Instead, participants focus on ground skills such as leading and lunging (a method used to exercise a horse or teach it without a rider on its back).

The program not only includes activities such as haltering, grooming and jumping hurdles but has emotional goals as well, including overcoming fear, gaining trust and restoring confidence. Participants work with the same horse each week in order to establish a bond between horses and humans.

In the first session, Rocking Horse Ranch Executive Director Malaika Albrecht introduces participants to all the horses, watching for clues about which pairs would work together best. Behaviors such as licking or chewing suggest that a horse is content and can indicate a good match.

“Each horse has different things to teach,” Albrecht said. “So I do think in our partnerships we choose each other for a reason.”

Brittany is paired with Bindy, a pony that gave “kisses” when Brittany began petting her and talking with her.

“They pick you,” Brittany said. “You don't pick them.”

Amy is paired with Dakota, a 20-year-old quarter horse/Arabian cross that is a former show horse.

“I hear that he's stubborn and he's kind of antisocial,” Amy said, laughing. “But with me he's just wonderful and he's so loving. He's bringing love out for me.”

Amy grew up riding horses as a child and teenager but lost touch with that passion in her adult years. A hospice nurse who was diagnosed with breast cancer last year, Amy thought Healing with Horses might help her to deal with feelings of isolation and depression.

“I've been at home, so this is just really a wonderful program and a wonderful place for me to be,” she said. “It's really helped me. I'm learning that I can get out, that I'm excited to get out.”

Following a horse activity session relating to trust, Amy said she found that she was able to discuss her cancer in a way that she had never been able to before.

“I've never said out loud that I'm a survivor,” she said. “I just realized after I said that.”

Lynne Murphy, an assistant professor in the Department of Occupational Therapy at East Carolina University, has seen the bond with horses extend to more intimacy within the group.

“People really do talk about the things that are difficult for them to talk about in other places,” she said. “I think those relationships between the people in the group are really strong.”

Murphy is studying Healing with Horses to determine if the program helps to decrease distress in participants and lead to an improved quality of life.

“What we found is that there was a significant improvement in the quality of life,” she said. “Two of the main things were connections with the horses and then connections with each other in the group and how much that was contributing to their feelings of well being and peace and support.”

Higgins said participants attending a previous Healing with Horses program cultivated such a feeling of kinship that they made an effort to stay connected after it ended. A group of about half a dozen women continued meeting after their session ended, gathering for lunch a few times a month and even working together to create a scrapbook to document their experience.

“It's really interesting to see the evolution as they continue to go through this experience,” Higgins said. “People walk away with lifelong friendships. People walk away with a social support system that they never had.”

Brittany, who moved to Greenville about two years ago, said she had established few close friendships with people in the area. Healing with Horses has helped her to connect with others with a common interest (horses) and a common enemy (cancer).

“If you've gone through a cancer, whatever cancer you've gone through, you still had to go through all the same things, the radiation, the fear and all that,” she said. “So it's nice to have someone else that gets that side of you and understands.”

What has been surprising to Brittany is that Bindy seems to understand as well. In an obstacle course exercise in which participants were asked to think of barriers to their well being, the horse became hesitant when Brittany seemed uneasy.

“It's interesting how intuitive they are,” Brittany said. “I expect that from my own dog; she sleeps with me. But I don't expect that from a horse I've just met a few times.”

Murphy found that in addition to establishing connections with horses and each other, Healing with Horses participants reported an increased resilience and persistence to pursue goals.

Brittany agrees. Though she started off somewhat fearful, she is growing more confident in her ability to lead her horse.

“This has kind of slowly given me back some feeling of control,” she said. “If I can do this, then maybe I can try something else that's not so safe.”

Rocking Horse Ranch is at 1721 Blue Banks Farm Road. Healing with Horses, funded by the ranch and Vidant Medical Center, is made available to cancer survivors for $25 for a 12-week session. For more information about Healing with Horses, call 752-0153 or visit rhrnc.com.

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