Hippotherapy can help treat anxiety, trauma, depression and more
Though the first dedicated hippotherapy centers in the U.S. didn’t begin operating until the 1960s (“hippotherapy” is the term used to describe equestrian therapy for humans), the proven therapeutic bond between horse and human dates back to antiquity. According to hippotherapy professionals, horses have an acute, innate sixth sense to read human emotion and can therefore be highly effective in helping to treat PTSD, abuse, depression and autism, as well as giving those with physical or emotional disabilities peace, joy and fulfillment. Equine-assisted therapy has proponents and beneficiaries around the globe and right here along the Grand Strand.
President and founder of Barnabas Horse Foundation, Sue McKinney, is a long-time local and mother of five who turned her love of horses and children into a program now operating with two farms, hosting some 150 therapy sessions each month.
“I began to work toward opening Barnabas in 2011,” said McKinney, “and we saw our first client in 2013. It blows me away at how fast we’re growing.” Currently partnering with eight area therapists, Barnabas supplies horses, a safe environment, and some 10 highly trained equine professionals who help interpret the horses’ body language and assist the therapists, who are always present at the sessions.
“There’s a big need,” said McKinney. “I wish we had more hours in the day. We are trauma focused. We’re partnered with the Rape Crisis Center, and we’re restarting a veterans’ program. We see a lot of kids with anxiety and clients who have witnessed horrible things.”
Barnabas supplies the horses and equine professionals. Then, along with the client and the therapists, a session begins. Depending on what the therapist is trying to accomplish, the client may be on the ground or may be on horseback. “Our job is to read the horses’ body language. For example a therapist might ask a client ‘How are you doing today?’ and the client says, ‘I’m fine, there’s nothing bothering me.’ The horse can pick up that the client might be hiding something. We communicate that and then the therapist can say to the client, ‘You’re telling me you’re okay, but the horse is telling us something different. What’s going on?’
“Horses can also be very empathetic,” explains McKinney. “There are so many stories I could tell you. On a personal level I had a good friend die suddenly and I was distraught. I walked outside and the nearest horse, who is normally kind of an independent diva, walked across the pasture, came up to me and just rested her head up against my chest and stood there for the longest time. Horses are a herd animal. We are part of their herd, and they see us as family. The horses are family to us as well.”
Barnabas, a nonprofit organization, does not charge for its services and fundraises to cover expenses. They recently received a state grant to help with two salaries. Barnabas came out of McKinney’s own personal experience. “When a family member experienced some trauma and I saw how the horses helped, I knew I was supposed to do something with that, and so I began work toward opening Barnabas. I feel like Barnabas was our saving grace, and we hope it can be for other families as well.”
Photographs courtesy of Barnabas Horse Foundation