Horses & Healing

How Equine Assisted Therapy Changes Lives at a New Jersey Farm

By Anne Levin | Photos courtesy of Equineassistedtherapyofnj.org

Therapist Jeanne Mahoney sees it happen, again and again. A person in the depths of depression, a child silenced by autism, or a veteran suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) emerges stronger, more confident, and more at peace after spending time in the company of horses.

Informally called “horse therapy” and formally known as equine assisted psychotherapy, use of the majestic animals for emotional and physical healing is a recognized branch of mental health. Mahoney’s Salem County farm is the headquarters for Equine Assisted Therapy of NJ, a nonprofit corporation that practices this route toward positive change.

It is one of more than 800 centers across the globe dedicated to the concept. According to the Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship International (PATH), there are nearly 4,800 certified instructors and equine specialists like Mahoney, helping almost 69,000 children and adults.

Horses are iconic. They stand for power and freedom. They are effective in therapy, experts say, because they give immediate feedback to the handler or rider’s actions. They react strongly to body language. Their quiet sensitivity helps people by mirroring their emotions; they almost have a sixth sense.

“Horses are non-judgmental. They have a sense of how people really are,” says Mahoney, who has been helping people heal by partnering them with horses for two decades. “They can tell if you’re upset. If you come to the barn in a bad mood, they know you’re in a bad mood. If you come in in a hurry, they know you’re in a hurry. They just know.”

While significant research and large, controlled studies on the effectiveness of using horses for therapy are still needed, there is little evidence that it is not effective. Some organizations have funded research on their own. The Horses and Humans Research Foundation works to “advance global knowledge of horse-human interactions and their impact on health and wellness through the funding of rigorous research, outreach, and education,” according to its website.

The Mannington Township farm where Mahoney, trained facilitators, and nine horses work with clients has an indoor arena and barn, an outdoor arena, a round pen, acres of pasture, and trails around the property. Services include equine assisted learning, leadership training, team building, psychotherapy, coaching, hippotherapy (riding to improve coordination), occupational therapy, applied behavior analysis (for autism), and school programs.

There are individual, group, and family sessions. Some clients ride; others groom the horses or just spend time around them. “I’m a way better therapist with a horse,” says Mahoney.  “If a person isn’t being honest with me, I know. Because my horse already told me.”

Therapist Jeanne Mahoney

Though she grew up in a suburban housing development, Mahoney fell in love with horses when she was 8 years old. When she married and started her own family, she and her husband bought a small farm. Horses became a part of the family’s life. A licensed nurse, Mahoney was working at a hospital when she began doing adaptive riding, which is recreational horseback riding for individuals with challenges.

“I had a few doctors who had children with some special needs,” Mahoney says. “They would bring them to my tiny farm. I worked with the kids riding the horses. They [the doctors] were amazed at the improvements they saw in the children’s gait, their social abilities, and just their happiness in general.”

In 2000, Mahoney became certified by PATH as a riding instructor. She earned further certification six years later from Eagala, a global network that uses a team approach — putting a client in the arena together with a credentialed mental health professional, a qualified equine specialist, and horses.

Mahoney recently retired from nursing in order to run the nonprofit full time. Through New Jersey’s Farmland Preservation Program, she was able to expand her small farm to nearly 29 acres. Working there with her team, she treats individuals with a variety of issues. A significant portion are veterans struggling with trauma and readjustment to life after the military.

“Most of them are suffering from PTSD and moral injury,” Mahoney says. “It’s not only what you did and what you witnessed, but maybe what you didn’t do that drives you crazy. I try to have them in a group, because they witnessed in a group.”

The veterans don’t ride during psychotherapy sessions. “They come into the arena, and I give them activities to do,” Mahoney says. “Sometimes we just plain old have fun. We play different games with the horses. They loosen up a little bit, and stuff comes out. This work makes a big difference. A lot of the veterans take to it more than the traditional talk therapy in an office. I really try to pull everything out of the tool box.”

People with disabilities are also known to benefit from sessions in the arena or on the trail. Mahoney recalls especially rewarding progress with a young boy suffering from cerebral palsy. He is now in high school. “That horse loved him,” she says. “And being on the horse was empowering for him. It made him feel bigger than everybody else, and that was important.”

Not everyone chooses to get in the saddle. “Some people just want to be near the horses. They like being in the barn with them,” says Mahoney. “I’ve seen people with special needs, or people who are down in the dumps, spend time in the barn and then leave with a whole different demeanor.”

Because horses are naturally herd animals, family therapy sessions with them can be especially effective. “It’s phenomenal,” Mahoney says. “The horses will be in there, loose, and so will the family. Horses live in a herd. And in a herd, you have to check in with all of your herd members. They know if one horse in the herd is hurting. They feel it. They really are matriarchal in many ways. They take turns being the leader. They protect the one that needs to be protected. It’s just fascinating how they interact. And it works so well with a family – another kind of herd.”

Mahoney doesn’t get paid for her work, instead funneling all the fees back into the nonprofit. While committed to all of her clients, her devotion to veterans is clear. “Our goal is to not have any veteran have to pay for anything,” she says. “I have a veteran liaison who works with me in finding funds for them. Because veteran suicide is way too high. We live in a very hectic world, and you have to slow down somewhere.”

To learn more, visit equineassistedtherapyofnj.org.