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Debbie Roberts Loucks

Growing up in the Santa Ynez Valley, my notion was that horses and horsemanship really ran the gamut across breeds and disciplines. But my memory of horses on television was that they were almost exclusively for sport, whether professional, amateur or recreational.

The occasional movie like Black Beauty or Man From Snowy River, filled our soul. But I would often ask myself, "How could others who didn't grow up with horses ever come to understand what we equine romantics know to be true about the special bond with horses?"

Thankfully some really smart people (with lots of initials after their names) came along to bridge the gap.

Equine Therapy began as early as 460 BC with the writings of Hippocrates about physical therapy. Later British physiotherapists studied therapeutic riding as a means to help all types of handicaps. In 1969 the North American Riding for the Handicapped Association (NARHA), now Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship (PATH) was founded. Then in 1999, the Equine Assisted Growth and Learning Association (EAGALA) was formed, offering certifications in Equine Assisted Psychotherapy.

At first the therapy was about using horses for programs. However, using horses for programs is no way for people to acquire life skills. Then therapists began working with horses to help patients gauge their own physiology to create healing. Learning the body language of horses has taught us to recognize when someone is being too passive or too intense, and helps people regain their self-confidence or become more calm when frazzled by life.

Understanding the communication system of horses develops long-lasting learning that is compelling for people and safe for horses. Horses are mostly silent communicators so non-verbal cues are important to notice. In a herd, horses are constantly communicating with body language, involving their ears, their neck, their eyes and even the tautness of their lips and jaw muscles. Fascinating! Most people only notice if they kick or bite and miss all the other cues.

One fast-growing area of equine assisted therapy is for veterans with Post Traumatic Stress, often diagnosed as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). There is a local program called "Horse Sense & Healing" whose founder thinks that the term is a misnomer. Monty Roberts’ non-profit program began as a Discovery channel documentary in 2010, Horse Sense & Soldiers (now Horse Sense & Healing). It's since grown to help others: serving police, fire, first responders and their families.

“Our military personnel don’t particularly like the use of the word ‘disorder’. They didn’t enlist with this disorder but if they have experienced trauma, they get labeled with it. We instead call it PTSI, the ‘I’ stands for injury; and horses can provide the healing,” explains Monty Roberts.

Another program, Santa Ynez Valley Therapeutic Riding, founded by Dr. Mary Ann Evans in 1990, emphasizes the importance of volunteerism from the community to support the therapy. Volunteers are essential in the areas of participating during lessons leading horses, assisting with side walking and caring for the animals who work hard alongside staff.

Besides physical therapy, the program called HELP (Horse Enlightened Learning and Psychotherapy) involves eight adolescents per session facilitated by licensed psychologist, Dr. Margaret Wilkinson. Her program focuses on anger management, self-confidence, empathy, anxiety, depression, communication and social skills.

Thanks to those smart people and horse lovers alike, it's becoming clear as to why everyone is happier -- and healthier -- with horses in their lives.

Debbie Roberts Loucks grew up on Flag Is Up Farms in Solvang. She is the daughter of Monty and Pat Roberts. You can follow her on her popular podcast Horsemanship Radio. 

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