In times of distress or grief, any means of solution is on the table — or, in the case of Spirited Connections, in the stable. Rebecca Stares, owner of the equine therapy program, cites an example from the early days of her practice. A family struggling with the father’s recent death entered a stable together, eager to mend the divisions that arose between them, and to help them cope with their loss. The three horses present, however, had a different idea. Each horse retreated to a separate corner with tails facing the family. The mother, clearly distraught, burst into tears and immediately recognized that the the horses’ behavior mirrored her family's state.
“I was truly amazed,” says Stares. “Horses are the best nonverbal communicators I have ever encountered,” she says that the animals have a keen awareness of human energy, picking up on this particular family’s dynamic of separation. However, throughout five sessions, Stares said this family experienced deep transformation. They worked as a cohesive unit, dropped their tension and were able to naturally interact with the horses.
Stares, an addictions and mental health specialist with a focus in child and family therapy, moved her practice from Calgary, Alberta, to Asheville in March. She has several years of experience working with individuals, couples and families facing addiction, anxiety, PTSD, illness adjustment or those who seek a deeper connection to themselves through horses.
Stares believes equine therapy offers a more solution-focused and present-moment approach than traditional talk-therapy or even other animal therapies. “A horse is fundamentally a prey animal, so they respond differently than other animals,” she says. “It’s a 1,200-pound (or more) being and you have to be aware and in the present moment. You can’t put on a façade and fake it with a horse like you do in everyday life. They see right through you.”
Spirited Connections also offers a unique “expressive therapy” program at the Willow Creek Horse Farm just a few miles from downtown Asheville. Equine expressive therapy, or “Horses As Canvas,” offers clients a chance to put their story directly onto the horse.
For this program, Stares collaborates with local art nurturer Court McCracken, allowing participants to use a variety of media, including paints, pipe cleaners, and ribbons to create a project based on that day’s theme (the paint is nontoxic, washable, biodegradable). Not only do the horses enjoy the human touch and massage during this practice, but they respond based on the client’s energy, Stares says. “Everybody’s expression will look different. It can be very symbolic of their personal journey.” There is a healing intention behind every theme, and often times issues will come up during the session for later debriefing.
“With traditional therapy, you’re expected to pour out all of your ‘junk’ to a stranger, and that therapeutic relationship accounts for 30 percent of your outcome,” says Stares. She explains that many people find it easier to disclose after relating to the horse than they would in traditional talk-therapy.
However, the third type of equine therapy that Spirited Connections offers involves minimal talking. One of only a handful of programs like it in the country, Yoga on Horses offers a twist on typical meditation and yoga practices. Stares had her own yoga practice for years, and one day decided to take it into the stable, where she was amazed at the outcome. “Matching your breathing to the horses, at only 10 beats a minute, really helps you slow down and feel the horse’s energy,” she says.
There are three levels for participants depending on their physical capability and comfort with the horses. From a grounding meditation with simple yoga poses using the horses for balance to advanced poses on the horse’s back while walking, Stares has seen some deep bonds formed between the participants and their horses during these sessions.
“The only requirement for these types of therapies is that you aren’t terrified of horses,” Stares says. Her intention is to make equine therapy accessible to everyone, as demonstrated through Spirited Connections’ sliding-scale fee system. She believes that there is “no one-size-fits-all approach to health and wellness,” and that equine therapy can benefit a wide array of individuals. In the fall, Stares and assistant Chelsea Cloutier plan to offer a recovery and relapse-prevention program for domestic offenders.
Although many of Stares and Cloutier’s horses have a history of abuse and neglect, Stares explains that, unlike humans, “Horses don’t hold on to their past.” Through the variety of approaches that Spirited Connections offers, their intention is to promote that same outlook to humans while fostering a safe space for personal behavioral transformations.
— Sharon Bell is a social media manager at Make Me Social.