Pam Liverman couldn’t escape the feeling of failure. Her husband was dying of cancer at the age of 45, and she could do nothing to stop it. The thought of losing him consumed her 24 hours a day, with few exceptions. In the depths of her grief, however, she did something out of the ordinary. She visited a horse stable where her otherwise rambunctious mare, Lady, waited patiently to be groomed and exercised.
Only then did Liverman find fleeting moments of peace as she rode the 1,200-pound animal, leaving aside worries about her husband and the daughter who would be raised without a father. Lady lifted her off the ground, forcing her to set aside her pain and live in the moment.
For one or two hours, I could achieve something. I could ride. I could groom her. I could take care of her. I didn’t feel like a failure, recalls Liverman, who is now director at the 83-acre farm that houses The CENTER for Therapeutic & Educational Riding Inc. in Townsend, a facility that offers therapeutic equine and animal activities for individuals with special needs.
The Arabian who bucked two riders when Liverman first met her 10 years earlier showed great empathy, solidarity and love to her mistress in this time of need. “She chose to be with me in the moment,” Liverman says. Horses and humans have long shared a special bond, with recent research showing that a horse’s heart rate may mirror a human’s emotions, signifying an unspoken form of communication between the two.
In Delaware, stories of healing abound at a handful of therapeutic equine centers. Traditionally, these facilities have worked with individuals with physical, cognitive or psychological challenges. Because the walking gait of a horse resembles that of a human, riding a horse offers a chance to enhance balance, coordination and self-confidence.
As the benefits of equine therapy are better understood, the centers attract more typical participants who need that transcending interaction with horses to heal sorrow in their souls, even if they can’t identify it. “We are so privileged to be able to witness a fragile soul climb on top of very large and fragile animals and find healing and empowerment,” says Georgia Truitt, president of Southern Delaware Therapeutic Riding in Lewes.
Unlike traditional equine facilities that target competition and horsemanship, the therapeutic ones focus on tiny milestones in human development and personal growth. “The center is the greatest equalizer. No one cares about your disabilities, abilities, ethnicity or class,” Truitt says. “[The riders are] focused on the moment.”
Keith McDonald, a long-time volunteer and a board member at the Lewes center, says it’s amazing to watch the transformation of first-time riders, who initially show fear and apprehension when faced with the prospect of mounting such big animals. “Horses are, after all, prey animals, and they’re on alert. You have to be careful not to startle them, and clients understand that,” he says. As soon as the riders relax, their experience shifts.
The riders often fall in love both with the horses and the experience, McDonald says. A rush of confidence overcomes them as they succeed at something they didn’t think they could do—and when they feel they have control of a powerful animal. Jennifer Allen, a U.S. Army specialist, had just that experience. The combat medic, who has been battling post-traumatic stress disorder since returning from Iraq in 2006, participated in a Wounded Warriors program that took her to the Lewes riding center. She had no expectations. But soon after starting a riding session, she felt years of darkness lift, even if only for a few minutes. “I felt empowered,” says the mother of three. “I had a chance to feel in control. I have not felt that in so long.”
Kelly Boyer, vice president and secretary of Southern Delaware Therapeutic Riding, says the organization is honored to help wounded soldiers through its horses—Lucy, Willy and Stormy. “Even a few hours is helpful for veterans and their families, who may suffer from injuries, nightmares, anxiety, depression and anger,” she says.
Truitt notes that the horses that participate in equine therapy are exceptional animals. Out of 11 horses that are routinely tested for the program, only one qualifies. The top performers must show steadiness, control and a smooth gait. And that’s just part of it. “They’re the wisest, most patient and kindest animals,” Truitt says.
Winston Churchill said that there is something about the outside of a horse that is good for the inside of a man. People have linked improved health and functions to horses since the ancient Greeks and Chinese. But it wasn’t until the mid-1900s that the practice became better known. In 1969, the North American Riding for Handicapped Association formed to support various riding groups for the disabled. The association, considered among the most respected in the industry, has since changed its name to the Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship International. Along with the Equine Assisted Growth and Learning Association, it provides training and accreditation to therapeutic equine centers.
Because no two programs are exactly alike, the differences are also worth noting. For instance, at the Courageous Hearts Equine Assisted Psychotherapy and Learning Center in Milford, Rosemary Baughman, a licensed clinical social worker, doesn’t expose her clients to horseback riding. Her equine-assisted psychotherapy incorporates horses experientially for mental and behavioral health therapies. All individual and group activities are aimed at honing nonverbal communication, assertiveness, creative thinking and problem solving. In this model, a licensed mental health clinician and an equine specialist work with clients and horses on the ground to address treatment goals.
“Horses serve as a metaphor for what is going on in their lives,” Baughman explains. For instance, a woman in a recent parenting workshop stood still while an agitated horse swished its tail in her face. The woman took it without showing much of a reaction. After analyzing the situation, however, the client realized that she tolerated the swishing because she had been accustomed to having her mother nag her for most of her life. “The horse in this case represented the mother and the type of relationship that they had,” Baughman says.
Each equine-assisted psychotherapy session can cost up to $175, but Baughman says it’s considered a short-term therapy that yields faster results than does typical talk therapy. Baughman, who has extensive experience with drug and alcohol interventions and crisis counseling, has been using equine therapy for three years. Her daughter’s love for horses led her to witness the healing power of horses and prompted Baughman to add the therapy to her practice. Today, she also works with youth groups to help build resilience and teach boundaries, teamwork and cooperation.
Alex Layton, 23, has been riding at the Lewes center since the age of 8. Cerebral palsy left him unable to sit up and control his torso. Over the years, however, he has gained tremendous balance and coordination, says his mother, Debbie Layton, of Dagsboro. He even participates in riding competitions. Speaking through a voice box, he says that, for him, competing is about camaraderie and teamwork. “We have so much fun, and we support each other,” he says.
The Southern Delaware center has historically worked with special-needs populations. As the organization settles into a new facility, with room to triple the number of clients it serves, Truitt envisions reaching out to new groups, such as battered women. The group works on a sliding scale. Victims of emotional, physical, psychological or sexual abuse can climb on top of a horse and feel in control again, enjoying a nurturing relationship, she explains. She also hopes to take miniature horses to assisted-living facilities for older adults. Unlike dogs, horses don’t climb into people’s laps or jump on them. “You have to earn [the horse’s] trust, and people like to have to work for it,” Truitt says.
At The CENTER, Liverman and stable owner Carlotta Cline hope to expand their Warrior Within Program to families who are affected by cancer. In addition to a pleasure-riding track, the program offers a non-riding track that emphasizes grooming, feeding, bathing and walking as well as watching horses and studying their behavior. “We want them to be around the calming nature inherent in horses,” Liverman says.
Men and horses have worked together in teams from our earliest days. Horses transported people and pulled plows for centuries. They even carried warriors into battle and took falls for them. Men with their horses could also herd more sheep than by using dogs. As society became more civilized,the role of horses has evolved. Today, the animals are recognized as therapists and healers. “They sense what others are feeling, and they respond to it,” Liverman says.
Ellen Kaye Gehrke, a National University professor in San Diego, set out to conduct qualitative research that would look at the energetic connection between horses and humans when they interact with one another by studying the potential synchronization of heart rates. She found that horses and the humans they interacted with had the same heartbeat patterns. Also, when a horse interacted with an unknown human, the horse’s stress level was entirely dependent on the stress level of the human.
Science aside, equine therapy is also about living in the moment and honoring the bond with horses. Dawn E. Peet, a Delaware National Guard state family program director, was impressed by what she saw during a visit to the Lewes barn. She observed a soldier who served four tours in Iraq and Afghanistan—and who was found under rubble in a building that had been blown up by enemy forces—grooming and riding a horse.
“He stood and stroked the muzzle of his horse, talking softly with him, connecting,” she says. For Liverman, those moments, and the presence of such healing animals, are like gifts from above. “We are just lucky to have them,” she says.
Freedom Reins at Carousel Park
Wilmington, 995-7670, www.carouselparkequestrian.com
The CENTER for Therapeutic & Education Riding
Townsend, 376-9594, www.thecenterfortherapeuticriding.com
Southern Delaware Therapeutic Riding
Lewes, 664-1920, www.sdtrhr.com
Courageous Hearts Equine Assisted Psychotherapy and Learning Center
Milford, 593-1378, www.courageoushearts.us