High Horses Therapeutic Riding Program and the HealthHUB are looking to join forces to address the growing need for mental health intervention for the youth in our community. Studies show an increase in depression, anxiety, and stress in today's middle and high school students. The proposed program seeks to create a new approach through collaboration between an existing program providing therapy in schools and an existing therapeutic riding program. We have many of the resources in place to get this program off the ground.
In our rural area, there is not enough access to resources for those struggling with mental health problems like anxiety and depression due to a shortage of mental health providers. In addition not all practitioners in the area are accessible to all students because some do not accept Medicaid, rendering utilization of their services out of the question for the neediest families. Accessibility is further limited by location and lack of transportation. The need for mental health resources far exceeds current capacity. At this time there is no one in the immediate area doing any group work at all. Our collaborative partnership will employ a mental health therapist who will work both in the schools and at High Horses Therapeutic Riding Program offering group sessions for teens grappling with anxiety and depression. It will combine individual outreach and therapy sessions with group sessions to maximize the number of teens served as well as to provide social connections outside of school hours.
Therapeutic Riding and Equine Assisted Activities have been proven to reduce stress, anxiety, and depression for this population. Studies have been done regarding the benefits of the horse as part of mental health treatment. Partnering this proven intervention with the use of peer mentors to address teens facing anxiety and depression will be a new, innovative approach in our community.
The benefits of group therapy for reducing symptoms of anxiety and depression in teens and young adults are well documented. Participating in group equine therapy places the focus of the group outside of the individual member’s “issues” and instead places the focus on the horse. Learning to care for, respect, and ride horses increases an individual’s ability to regulate their own emotions. Emotional regulation leads to increased confidence and self-esteem and is necessary to build trust with your horse partner. Participating in a group decreases isolation and increases one’s sense of belonging; both are important for building resiliency which is essential in decreasing suicide. The benefit of having the participant’s primary focus not be on themselves, but rather outside of themselves, increases the likelihood of meaningful participation; meaningful participation leads to increased benefits for the individual members. It is through this process over time that participants are able to gain skills, confidence, connection, and a sense of accomplishment.
As experiential educators, it is important for the facilitators to provide an experience where participants feel safe, while giving them opportunities to expand their comfort zone in a manageable way. The environment needs to be as predictable as possible, routines established and maintained. Their choices can be voiced and their voices heard and heeded. We want our participants to have an experience where they can increase their awareness of their reactions to different situations, be in control of their own decisions and actions, and find tools that will help them manage their anxiety as they go about their lives. At the same time we offer opportunities for self-awareness, healthy relationships, and just plain fun!
So, how can horses help us do that?
- They find safety in community, and feel great comfort in a trustworthy herd member or human caretaker.
- Working with calm and patient horses, our participants can explore how they can build back their own innate self-protective mechanisms, by reconnecting with their bodies and accessing their own personal wisdom. They explore connections that felt emotionally safe, and develop relationships and closeness, not only with the horses, but with the other humans involved.
- Strong friendships emerge between participants and the horses, with each other, and with the volunteers and staff. They have an opportunity to find their place in a community.
- Paradoxically, horses also provide a level of manageable stress that is a wonderful teaching tool. Their size, strength and high levels of responsiveness can provoke anxiety when participants move to the edge of their comfort zones, depending on proximity and the level of perceived risk. With the horses we choose, the actual level of threat is very low, but it doesn’t always feel low to participants. Just being safe and allowing oneself to feel those sensations can be an enormous challenge for people who have anxiety.
- A horse’s gait closely emulates that of a human. No other modality mimics the walking gait of a human and stimulates virtually every movement system in the body.
Physical: Allows brain to practice correct walking movement patterns, improves balance, respiration, strength, independence and agility
Psychological: Release of endorphins; gives sense of empowerment, and control; a connection and bond
Functional, or Cognitive: Enhances learning skills to function in our complex world
High Horses Therapeutic Riding Program and HealthHUB have both been operating in the Upper Valley region of Vermont for around 25 years. The two have discussed a partnership, with the help of local schools, to address anxiety and depression in the teenage population. This grant opportunity is in line with what we hope to achieve through collaborative efforts. While coming at this issue from different perspectives and interventions, the organizations have the same goal.
High Horses, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization located in Sharon, VT, has been providing therapeutic riding services to children and adults for over 25 years. Our mission is to improve the well-being of people with unique needs through a therapeutic equine experience. Our PATH-certified instructors and trained volunteers provide individually tailored lessons to address the participants’ current needs on that day. Our instructors take great pride in developing an appropriate lesson plan to help participants reach their goals.
Our participants’ needs vary widely from physical to emotional. Our participants may be working on strengthening their bodies by improving balance, posture, and flexibility, all which can be affected by recent injury, aging, cerebral palsy, muscular dystrophy, and many other conditions. The horse’s movement gently and rhythmically moves the rider’s body in a manner similar to a human gait making these improvements possible.
Participants may also be working on improving speech, social interaction, self-control, self-esteem, patience, or behavioral challenges related to depression, anxiety, domestic abuse, autism, and anger among other causes. The emotional and behavioral gains are made possible through the unique connection that our participants make with the horses. Equine therapy helps riders maintain optimal health, reduce symptoms, and combat emotional stress.
HealthHUB’s mission is to provide high quality, prompt, cost-effective medical, dental hygiene and mental health services to children from preschool through high school, with expanded dental hygiene services to adults. Our innovative approach to delivering care where the children are, and in the communities where families live, takes away barriers to care: School-based services reduce lost classroom time for students; parents get prompt treatment for their children, saving an average of 2 hours of travel and work time; teachers benefit by having more class time with appointments scheduled in coordination with the student’s schedule whenever possible; transportation is no longer a barrier to care. Everyone benefits by having healthier children in the classroom.
HealthHUB now provides medical, mental health and dental hygiene services to the schools in the eleven towns – Bethel, Chelsea, Orange, Rochester, Sharon, South Royalton, Stockbridge, Strafford, Tunbridge, Washington and Williamstown - of the White River Valley and Orange North Supervisory Unions.
Mental health issues are a significant concern in our communities; a full time counselor, who works in the schools during school hours and at a local pediatrics office outside of school hours, is part of the HealthHUB team of providers. The counselor carries a caseload of 30 – 40 students, and has a waiting list of almost as many. There is a need for a second counselor, but there are a limited number of mental health providers in our service area, and HealthHUB has struggled to fill this gap. To hire a full time counselor that provider needs another space in which to work when school is not in session. In addition, assuring that provider of enough work during out of school hours is a challenge. Partnering with another local organization who are interested in utilizing the services of the provider in a complementary way seems ideal.