Betting on horses to help women heal


Horse-assisted therapy is one of the fastest growing segments of the U.S. equine industry, generating approximately $ 311.7 million in annual revenue, according to American Horse Council sources. There are over 1,000 certified establishments in the country that offer horse-assisted therapy. Georgia’s equestrian industry is small, but equine experts at the University of Georgia Extension have said the state is recognized nationally for its quality horses and equestrian facilities.

Wellspring Living uses a range of therapies – including art, dance, running and yoga – to help women and girls enrolled in the one-year program, which is supported by the Boehringer Ingelheim Animal Health Philanthropic Foundation USA, Inc, based in Duluth..

Mary Frances Bowley, founder of Wellspring Living, said the organization first explored horse-assisted therapy several years ago. At the time, she wasn’t sure exactly how horses could help women overcome trauma, she said.

Therapists explained how horses would mimic women – their moods, their actions – serving as a mirror to help women explore their own repressed feelings and experiences. Bowley saw a shy, withdrawn girl approach a horse, who then mimicked her behavior. When a louder girl with a loud voice approached, the same horse copied her behavior.

“I said, oh my gosh that’s right,” Bowley said. “There is a protective shell on them because of what happened to them, but since they take care of the horse… it opens up more opportunities for them to work with the trauma.”

For the 340 women and youth served each year by Wellspring Living, the impact of various therapies, including horse-assisted therapy, can be measured in terms of improving school performance, returning to the family and, in many cases of a more normalized life.

Chastain has been offering therapeutic horseback rides and programs since 1999, portion a range of people with disabilities – attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, cerebral palsy, head trauma and more – are developing new coping skills, Rainer said. For survivors of sex trafficking, they have developed a targeted program in collaboration with mental health experts to work on areas of emotional development, including assertiveness, empathy, grief and independence, which can all to be accomplished by working with horses.

“Horses only live minute by minute in survival mode,” Rainer said. “Women really connect with this because they’ve spent so much time in the same survival mode.”


A rider from Chastain Horse Park who has partnered with Wellspring Living to provide horse-assisted therapy to women and girls who are survivors of sex trafficking. Photo courtesy of Boehringer Ingelheim Animal Health USA.

Credit: Handout

Credit: Handout

Most of the lessons that women learn from horses are intuitive. Much of this learning is accomplished in the field, but over time they ride and ride horses as well, Rainer said.

Once, a participant in the program pulled the reins to stop a horse while simultaneously digging her heels into the horse’s side, telling her to go. Now is the time to discuss what it means to send mixed signals and what the woman might feel if she receives similar mixed signals from the people in her life.

With a team of counselors and psychologists, women are able to build and reflect on the lessons they have learned in each session. Ideally, participants are in the program year-round, but some women don’t attend every session, Rainer said. Even this has the potential to become an exercise in growth and learning, allowing more experienced women in the sessions to act as trainers for their peers on skills that have already been covered.

“We’ve had a tremendous impact working with groups that have gone through a lot of trauma,” Rainer said. “Being able to make them work with horses improves future decision-making. The last thing we want is for those at risk to become victims of trafficking again. “

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