Horses help heal through equine-assisted therapies in Maryland

From Left: Their Intern, Robin Dunning and Pam Dudek stand in front of their facility at The Horse-Inspired Growth and Learning Center. Photo by Julia Elliott

From Left: Their Intern, Robin Dunning and Pam Dudek stand in front of their facility at The Horse-Inspired Growth and Learning Center. Photo by Julia Elliott

By Julia Elliott

As she looked out over the pasture where a grey mare stood grazing, Pam Dudek recalled the case of a previous client of hers. The client was a woman almost completely taken over by addiction and pain, she was thought by other physicians to have mental illness as well. Then she found equine-assisted psychotherapy. Dudek said the woman had almost given up. She missed sessions due to her addictions, but all the while kept making progress- which she never found in her previous 25 years of other therapies.

Teams of equine specialists and licensed certified social workers, are building up equine-assisted therapy businesses which they believe to have stronger healing power than other conventional therapies might.

“The horses are amazing animals,” said Robin Dunning, Eagala Certified Equine Specialist. “They have been beside humans for 30 thousand years. What you see is what you get with horses, they are who they are. And so, they tend to mirror the humans that they’re around.”

Horses have a lot of experience reading people, Dunning said. They also bring who they are all the time, she said. Because they’re a prey animal, they’re always looking for threats in their environment, “so they don’t have time to be stoic and decide that they won’t react to something that could potentially hurt them,” she said.

Horses have always been used for transportation, sport and pleasure riding. In more recent years, the use of them in therapy has been discovered.

Equine therapy has been around for some time, but seems to be rising to the surface and getting more recognition. Horses are used in almost every aspect of therapy, from psychotherapy to physical therapy. Each team of specialists normally focuses their work on one area of therapy- depending on the background of the specialist with medical training.

Robin Dunning and Pam Dudek, Licensed Certified Clinical Social Worker, run an equine-assisted psychotherapy program in Parkton, MD, called The Horse-Inspired Growth and Learning Center. Using the horse as a tool during a therapy session, they are able to make revolutionary progress with clients and patients. The two received their certifications under Eagala, a worldwide organization. The modality they use is part of what they learned when they became Eagala certified.

Dunning and Dudek’s business focuses on Equine Assisted Psychotherapy and Learning. EAPL can address any issue related to mental health such as, but not limited too, depression, anxiety, PTSD, mood disorder or relationship issues.

“When you’re working with a horse, you’re using all of your senses,” Dunning said. You’re outside, you’re using sight, touch, hearing and feeling. All of those senses are brought into play, which allows for learning that can stay with you because all of those senses are being used,” she said.

A typical equine-assisted therapy session is much different from a therapy session in an office or clinic setting. The client is outside in either a riding arena where the horses are loose, or  out in the horses pasture with them.

Many sessions are begun with the instruction for the client(s) (sometimes it is a group, family or couple) to build an “obstacle” and move the horse over it. That might be the only instruction from the team to the client(s) for the entire session. A client may take only minutes to accomplish the goal, or months of sessions. The team of specialists can now observe the behavior of both the client(s) and the horses, and extract information they might never get in an office setting.

“When a client is sitting in an office with a therapist, the client is sitting in an artificial environment, and they’re talking,” Dudek said. “So words are generated in the frontal cortex of the brain. The client is running their interaction with their therapist through their filter and they’re formulating their responses through this filter. They have a need in this therapy session with this other being- who is pretty much a blank slate to them- to be approved of, to be liked, to be seen in a positive light. So the story they tell with their words is coming from just one aspect of a psyche, it’s being  filtered to meet needs, and it’s their interpretation or understanding of their reality, with no collateral information. Body language, posture, response, is all limited by the fact that they’re sitting in a chair,” she said.

Not only can the modality be used in therapy, but also teaching. Patti Schlough, is Eagala Advanced Certified and an Equine Specialist. She is also a licensed certified professional counselor in MD and PA. At her own farm in Red Lion, PA, Schlough has her own business, called P.E.A.C.E (Partnering with Equine to Assist in the Counseling Experience).

Therapy ponies approach a potentially dangerous object during a class taught by Patti Schlough at Normandy Farm. Photo by Julia Elliott

Therapy ponies approach a potentially dangerous object during a class taught by Patti Schlough at Normandy Farm. Photo by Julia Elliott

Patti Schlough and her organization, P.E.A.C.E, teaching at Normandy Farm in Street, MD

At Normandy Farm in Street, MD, she teaches classes to local teachers, using the horses.

Each class has a different theme, but overall, she helps teachers with problems they may encounter in school, like bully intervention, prevention strategies, and social skills building. Schlough believes that teachers are becoming overwhelmed with more responsibilities these days, than just teaching curriculum, so helping them in those areas can make a big difference in their lives and the students’ lives.

With a love for helping others and horses similar to that of Schlough’s, Stacey Greenberg, occupational therapy graduate student at Towson University, is very interested in this work. She has interned at a program in Glenwood, MD, called The Therapeutic and Recreational Riding Center for about a year.

“It’s that one place where you can be yourself, you’re not judged, and you can constantly learn,” Greenberg said. “You’re not confined to a room, or a chair- you can move around and do something you’ve never done before. I think that’s what makes it so different from conventional therapy.”

Horses seem to have a way about them that can help and heal people, no matter what their problems are.

A woman who was almost completely defeated by the problems in her life, took her life back with the help of a single grey mare. In a moment of flashbacks and despair, the mare’s behavior sent her a message that her pain and suffering was over. Now, that woman is married, healthy, above her past addictions, and running her own business.

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