Manitoba horses helping to heal patients with trauma

Horses are helping people heal from trauma and abuse thanks to a partnership between a Winnipeg psychologist and a farm that specializes in horse therapy.

PTSD, abuse, anxiety being healed as part of partnership between farm, psychologist

Samantha Sanderson says horse therapy helps calm her down. She has anxiety and suffered trauma earlier in her life. (Erin Brohman/CBC)

Horses are helping people heal from trauma and abuse thanks to a partnership between a Winnipeg psychologist and a farm that specializes in horse therapy.

Samantha Sanderson was at Symatree Farm on Saturday to see the horses she's been visiting and working with for the past few months. The farm is just past Oakbank, Man., and specializes in equine-assisted learning.

When the horses are working with people, they look for a bond — which is about trust — but also for a leader. (Travis Golby/CBC)
"It calms me down, and it relaxes me, it really helps," said Sanderson, 15, while petting a small horse on the nose.

She has anxiety and suffered trauma earlier in her life.

"It takes a load off my chest. Because I just love animals and it helps me relax and it doesn't make me think, you know," she said.

Clinical psychologist Kelly Penner Hutton said the therapy gives patients living with post-traumatic stress disorder something she wouldn't be able to offer in her office. She works alongside Kathy Asseiro, who owns the farm, and Barb Rutherford at Symatree Farm in equine sessions with her clients. 

"With complex PTSD, people that are very, very shut down, we're not seeing a lot of movement in the office, we bring them out here, and within a few sessions, they're starting to feel like themselves again. They're starting to see the light a little bit."
Clinical psychologist Kelly Penner Hutton says the therapy is unlike anything she's able to offer inside an office. (Travis Golby/CBC)

Penner uses evidence- based cognitive behavioural therapy and eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) therapy in combination with the outdoor equine experiences. She said the horses help her clients calm down and develop coping strategies.

"Horses are great because they have these wonderful little neurons in their brain, many more than we have, that mirror experiences," Penner Hutton said. "So they pick up on nonverbal cues that we might miss and can gauge a person's internal experience."

She said they can tell when patients feel uncomfortable too.

"The horses help them to feel more comfortable with that, learn to tolerate their emotions and their body sensations and their thoughts, and then help them through it. Usually one of the horses is going to step up and show them how to do it and then lead by example," she said.

The energy and relationship between the person and the horse is grounding, she added. "At the very least, we can touch the horse, and feel the horse, we can feel the rhythm of the breath of the horse," she said.

Relief after abusive relationship

One of Penner Hutton's patients said she found comfort with horse therapy after leaving a 10-year abusive relationship.

The patient, who didn't want to be named, said she's had issues with boundaries, abandonment and trust and has tried a number of different therapies and therapists.

She didn't know what to expect when Penner Hutton suggested the equine therapy and she said she was "taken aback" by what happened when she went.

There are 19 horses on the Symatree Farm. (Travis Golby/CBC)

"There was some real intimate emotional connection with those horses," she said, adding during the sessions, she had to relive painful memories of abuse.

"Each time things got very tough for me, that horse walked over and pressed her face against mine. It was almost as though she could feel that I was very troubled at that moment. And came over to offer support."

Another exercise involves pushing the horses away to keep them at a distance while walking with them in the arena, in order to establish respect and healthy boundaries. The woman said she didn't like the thought of the exercise because she didn't want the horses to go away.

"They always did come back," she said.

Kathy Asseiro says the horses often have their own stories of neglect and that helps them bond with patients. (Travis Golby/CBC)

Kathy Asseiro, who owns Symatree Farm and partners with Penner Hutton to make the program possible, said the horses on the farm are mainly from rescues, auctions or farms where they weren't wanted anymore.

"So they come with their own stories of abuse or neglect," said Asseiro.

She said when the horses are working with people, they look for a bond — which is about trust — but also for a leader.

"That leader is only going to be someone who's fair and consistent and clear and kind," Asseiro said. "They teach the kids and adults that same balance."
Horses are helping people heal from trauma and abuse thanks to a partnership between a Winnipeg psychologist and a farm that specializes in horse therapy. 2:28

with files by Erin Brohman