The equine arena at Bridges at Worthmore is cavernous, well lighted, and clean. A door slides open, and two horses enter, roll on their backs for a moment, and stand. I’m invited by Bridge therapists Robin Dunning and Lisa Kliever to approach the horses, to stand with them.
I have no idea what I’m doing or what I can achieve from this, but I want to find out. Why are these immense, beautiful animals so successful in helping to heal victims suffering from trauma?
I’m self-conscious, vigilant, tense, and overthinking. The three of us look at each other, but I realize that I’m the only one trying to interpret the moment cerebrally—the horses are just being their magnificent selves and have already scanned and assessed my emotional space.
The chatter of the mind quiets, and I’m suddenly not just standing with horses; I am in the company of horses. The dynamic has changed as a subtle trust between us emerges. There’s no reason to try to think this through, to interpret while experiencing. That’s the noise of the mind dislocated from feeling, the somatic region of the body where our traumas are often buried, deep in the tissue bruised by life’s experiences. We stand quietly.
Worthmore Equestrian Center, north of Chestertown, is home to its founders, Pam and Eric Kuster. The Kusters moved to the Eastern Shore with the purchase of the 1854 farmhouse in 2003. With more than 40 years of experience in the horse industry, Pam launched into advocacy work after her son’s diagnosed with autism in 1992. Noting a need for therapeutic opportunities for children with special needs, Pam took a position at the Statewide Parent Advocacy Network (SPAN) and became the Executive Co-Director.
Aside from being a full-service equestrian facility providing care for both horses and horse enthusiasts, it is also the parent organization to two equine therapy programs, the Kent Association of Riding Therapy (KART) and the Bridges Program, programs with distinct differences in their therapeutic application: the KART program is a therapy model where clients ride the horse and the Bridges EAGALA program is an on-the-ground interactive environment.
Robin Dunning, an Equine Specialist/EAGALA certified therapist who volunteers at Bridges, says that AEGALA only works with horses on the ground. “At first, they did have some riding involved, but they took that out of. the program. Riding is a dynamic change, the rider controlling the horse; AEGALA’s philosophy is for the therapy to be a level playing field. The horses are not trained, and we want them to show up as they are, naturally, to interact with the client,” she says.
The Bridges model is based on the international EAGALA (Equine Assisted Growth and Learning Association. Founded in 1999, the organization now reaches 40 countries with 500 programs, and their practitioners are credentialed mental health professionals or equine specialists who have been certified through rigorous training. Through its immediacy, this model offers faster emotional breakthroughs than lengthier talk-therapy-based therapies.
“Under the AEGALa model, think of it as kind of a horse intervention. We are looking at everything that happens as we look through the “trauma” lens. If a human participant shows up and has an underlying, untreated trauma history, that will come with them. It’s important to understand that trauma is held with the body, in your bones, muscles, and nerves, and that’s why AEGALA works so well because you use your body. If we stay up in our pre-frontal cortex and use cognitive therapy all the time, that’s not going to treat the trauma. Re-telling the story does not heal the trauma,” says Lisa Kliever, an AEGALA certified Psychotherapist from Annapolis.
Bridges Director Barbie Glenn explained that horses as prey animals have evolved with a hyper-sensitivity to their environment—always looking for threats— and analyze and react to human body language and other non-verbal cues. This acute awareness within a therapy session with humans can become a mirroring process reflecting anxiety, fear, anger, and pain.
During the therapy sessions, the therapists stand back quietly and take note of the how the horses react to the client, noting behavioral clues: ears back, heads down, stance.
Robin Dunning tells an illustrative story about a study comparing heart rates between horses and the clients walking with them around an arena. “The subjects were told that an umbrella would suddenly open to startle the two at the fourth station of the arena. However, when they reached the fourth station, no umbrella opened, but the subject’s heart rate spiked in anticipation. Only after the human’s heart rate spiked did the horse’s heart rate rise in response,” she says.
Clients are first introduced to a session by therapists carefully using an instructional but unbiased tone, careful not to introduce bias or expectation. Each client is simply asked a perplexing question—what is their goal for the session?
From there, a client, may it be a couple, family, or business team-building group, is invited to approach the horses while the therapists observe. At the end of the session—a closure often dictated by the horses themselves as they walk away—clients are debriefed by the therapy team using feeling-based language and based on how they observed the horses during the interaction.
Bridges at Worthmore recently received approval from the Veterans Administration as the first service animal program on the Eastern Shore. For no-cost, Maryland veterans can join the adaptive riding program or work with Bridge therapists for up to ten sessions.
Since Bridge’s focus and expertise are trauma, veterans with PTSD, substance abuse or relationship issues can discover a healing environment with no disruption to their current healthcare program.
“Without a single word, horses offer veterans something therapists and doctors are often unable to: unconditional trust and an environment free from judgment,” Glenn says.
At the end of the session I tried to explain how I felt about standing with horses. Certainly, there was the tranquility of the moment but there were other dynamics at work. Self-centeredness drifted away leaving a sense of inarticulate wonder. I don’t know if that’s a kind of herd-acceptance, but I felt included.
“It’s usually a day or two later you begin to internalize the session,” Barbi Glenn, says.
I’ve been thinking about it ever since.
This video is a combination of two visits to Bridges at Worthmore, pre-vaccination, and post-vaccination of all involved, hence the appearance of masked and unmasked interviews. The mock-session clients were Dawson Hunter, KCLMBs Housing and Transportation Coordinator, and Rosemary Granillo, Director of Kent County Local Management Board.
This video is approximately eight minutes long. To find out more about Bridges at Worthmore go here.