The Therapeutic Power of Horses: How Equine Programs can Promote a Healing Culture

The Therapeutic Power of Horses: How Equine Programs can Promote a Healing Culture

There are many ways to work with horses— therapeutic riding, hippotherapy, equine assisted psychotherapy, equine assisted learning, horsemanship—and all of them are therapeutic on some level. Studies done in the last ten years have confirmed what horse lovers have known for a long time. Horses have a unique ability to read the emotional state of humans, which some compare to a biofeedback machine. Horses can read facial expressions and emotions in humans and reflect them back without any judgement or interpretation, an innate gift that helps humans understand their own emotions more fully. Sarah Petrella, National Equine Program Director, has worked in

“Our student population is so deserving of time, attention, support, and a purpose. When they work with our equine partners and I witness trust developing, thoughts being changed, goals transcended, or moments of pure elation, it manifests something that I can’t describe as anything less than magical.” — Sara Zinn Petrella, National Equine Program Director

the horse industry for twenty-four years, nine of those with Rite of Passage (ROP). She oversees seven ROP equine programs and has four more that are being established this year. Her students at Oak Grove Academy learn to groom, feed, and even train the horses. She says that most therapy doesn’t happen in the saddle, although even the most fearful students eventually want to learn to ride.

The powerful changes occur as they learn to care for someone other than themselves. They develop empathy for the horse in their care, and ultimately themselves and others around them. They also learn trust and important skills for building healthy connections while establishing a safe and trusting relationship with a 1,000-pound animal.

Horses for the program at Oak Grove are mostly adopted or donated. Petrella purposefully seeks out horses with special needs. “It’s a second chance for the animals and the kids to learn from each other,” she says. “It’s therapy for both of them.” Petrella often pairs the most challenging student with the most difficult

horse and watches the magic unfold. She says the kids see themselves in the horses, which places them on the path toward healing. “They will ask, ‘why is the horse acting that way with me?’ and this provides a way to talk about what’s going on.” She has witnessed transformation in countless students. “These kids make a believer out of me. Some people think of them as throwaway kids, but at the farm they get to be someone else—a boss, a leader.”

Beyond its therapeutic value, the program brings in professionals to teach valuable job skills, including farriering, horse care, and veterinarian technician skills. When a horse needs surgery, the kids assist. They graduate the program with increased confidence in themselves and training to earn a living for themselves doing something they love.

This article was originally written as an article in our 2023 Rite of Passage Magazine. To read the full magazine please click here.