Counseling with horses that heal

Lisa Engel had no previous experience with horses, but the farm’s location and philosophy appealed to her. (Photos by Kyle R. Stevens)

A dog may be man’s best friend, but a horse may be able to help him (or her) unravel personal troubles.

That’s the thinking behind equine assisted therapy, which brings people together to ride or work with horses. With the help of counselors, many are able to begin to address problems in their lives.

“Horses are very empathetic animals,” says Lisa Engel. “They seem to sense people’s moods and respond.”

Engel, who works at UWM four days a week on the administrative support staff in the School of Education advising office, also spends two days a week as part of the counseling team at Stepping Stone Farms, near Franksville.

Engel, a staff member in the School of Education, earned her master’s degree in educational psychology. Her work with the farm’s counseling program is helping her earn hours toward a state license.

An Army veteran with a master’s degree in Educational Psychology, Community Counseling, Engel needed 3,000 hours of counseling experience to earn her state license. While doing outreach as part of her practicum, she met Lia Sader, the executive director of Stepping Stone Farms, who invited her to join the team at the farm for her counseling experience.

Trying something different

Although Engel had never worked with horses before, the philosophy of the farm and the rural setting attracted her.

“I like the idea of trying different things,” she says of the equine therapy approach. She quickly learned the names of all the horses, and discovered that each had its own personality. All the horses at the farm are gentle and used to working with people, but they are large animals and need to be treated with respect and care, she adds.

Engel completed a seminar to become certified through Greg Kersten’s O.K. Corral Series. Kersten is the founder of EAGALA (Equine Assisted Growth and Learning Association), an international nonprofit association for professionals using equine therapy to address mental health and human development needs.

Clients who come to the farm can try riding or simply grooming the horses – whatever they’re comfortable with. The key to success, says Sader, is building a trusting relationship with the horse. With the help of counselors, clients can learn to overcome fears, build nonverbal communication skills, and gain self-confidence and self-control.

The nonprofit farm offers therapy, group counseling and learning programs. The therapy clients are referred from Employee Assistance Programs or other agencies. Some come on their own. They may be abuse victims, or may be struggling with behavior issues, post-traumatic stress, low self-esteem, or stress and anxiety.

Working with the horses helps eliminate some of the stigma of going to therapy, especially for young people, says Sader. “They like to say they’re going to their horseback-riding lesson instead of saying they’re going to therapy.”

The veterans connection

Working with veterans is very much a bonus of her experiences at the farm, says Engel, who served for three years in a military intelligence unit in Panama. After her marriage to another soldier and her discharge from the service, she moved to South Korea, working as a teacher at a school near the Army base. She completed her 600-hour counseling practicum with Veteran Quest, an organization that offered counseling services at no charge to veterans and their families.

“Vets who may not be ready to admit they want or need help can begin to heal in the environment and learn from the animals.”
– Lisa Engel

Engel would like to get more student/veteran groups involved at the farm. “We are really hoping to make a connection with the student veterans’ groups on campus to volunteer, and to receive services if they want.”

Veterans are traditionally a very good source of volunteers for all kinds of community projects, says Engel, because they like to continue to serve after they leave the military. Individuals or small groups of veterans have helped out at the farm, putting up fences around the pasture area and building the tack room, she adds.

The farm has also begun working with veterans, many of whom have found their way there without formal programs. The facility is part of Operation Free Ride, offering rides to veterans and their families, and is also reaching out to veterans with issues related to their service.

Just being active can help veterans suffering from anxiety, stress and insomnia, says Engel. “It’s a very therapeutic environment. The ‘therapy’ doesn’t necessarily need to be formal to be effective. So vets who may not be ready to admit they want or need help can begin to heal in the environment and learn from the animals.”

For example, the nonverbal communication needed to work with the horses can help stressed veterans begin to rebuild their ability to communicate with others close to them. Handling large animals also requires respect, focus, control and patience, all of which can help in dealing with postwar stresses, says Engel. And most of the horses have been rescued from abuse, evoking empathy from veterans and other clients who’ve also suffered.

Cats, dogs and other pets can be a comfort, says Engel, but the horses are especially helpful in therapy because they are so sensitive to human emotions and feelings. If treated with respect, they bond with humans.

One day, a veteran who came to the farm to help out was really feeling down because of personal troubles related to his post-traumatic stress disorder. One of the horses just put his head down on the veteran’s shoulder, Engel recalls. “That was what that guy needed at that moment.”