It’s impossible to imagine the West without horses. Horses are part of our landscape, part of our souls. But there’s something deeper, a connection with these powerful, yet gentle creatures that we feel in our hearts. We intuitively know that animals can help us therapeutically. There are numerous cases where contact with and caring for horses calms, heals and reaches beyond the shackles of disability and trauma to free individuals and improve lives.
Researchers at Colorado State University (CSU) are seeking to understand the science behind the powerful testimony to the healing bond we have with horses. The University is creating the Temple Grandin Equine Center in Fort Collins, Colorado, to integrate research and education in equine-assisted activities and therapies. “Hippotherapy goes back thousands of years, traced back to ancient Greece. We now want to define an expanded role for the horse in therapeutic activities,” says Adam Daurio, director of the Temple Grandin Equine Center (TGEC). “We are not looking to legitimize equine-assisted therapy; we know it works for some people. We are concentrating on the “why”; why it works and how to duplicate results.”
Often, programs are run by individuals or nonprofits with a true passion for animals and those with disabilities. Their outcomes are impressive and heartwarming. But healthcare providers, insurance companies and government agencies such as Medicaid and the Veterans Administration have been slow to pay for such therapies without solid proof that they work. The TGEC hopes to put numbers to these outcomes and make such therapies and activities accessible to more people that need them. “Equine-assisted activities and therapies are the fastest growing segments in the equine industry, yet there are few industry-wide standards for education and minimal research to guide and educate students,” Daurio says. “The TGEC will be the hub for observation, education, practice, research and community outreach.”
A Convergence of Disciplines
CSU has a long relationship with the horse and is the natural home for such an equine-based science program in Colorado. The school’s agricultural programs have evolved to address every aspect of the agriculture, ranching, livestock and equine industries, and its veterinary medicine school and occupational therapy department are consistently top-ranked in the country. The TGEC is a convergence of many disciplines at CSU in addition to the veterinary program, including occupational therapy, psychology, social work, health and human science, adult learner and veteran services. When completed, the TGEC will include more 40,000 square feet of classrooms, research, therapy, office and riding facilities. A large arena with several viewing areas will allow participants, their families, caregivers, researchers and students to observe various equine-assisted therapies in action, and to document and celebrate progress.
Much of the initial focus of the TGEC will be in the area of occupational therapy. Students will be able to earn a Master’s of Science and a Ph.D. in occupational therapy with an emphasis in equine-assisted therapy. The Center also works with licensed physical therapists, speech therapists and mental health professionals in developing equine-assisted therapy treatment protocols. “CSU is the place for the TGEC to happen owing to both the history and present day excellence of multiple programs, coupled with our exceptional research capacities. We have, for instance, top-ranked programs nationally in equine science, veterinary medicine, occupational therapy, and social work and others, all of which are associated with excellent programs of research,” says Dr. Wendy Wood, TGEC director of research and professor of occupational therapy at CSU.
“Students get interested in careers to which they are exposed,” says Dr. Temple Grandin, professor of animal sciences at CSU and namesake of the TGEC. “Therapeutic riding is a popular equine activity that students can have for a career. It is important for equine science majors to get hands-on experience running an equine facility.”
Therapies for All Ages
Therapy just seems more tolerable when the patient is on a horse. The TGEC serves both adult and pediatric populations. “Parents get to say, ‘Let’s go to the barn. Let’s go see Slick.’ It’s not like going to the hospital to see the physical therapist,” Daurio says. “It’s so much nicer for both parent and child.” Adults benefit as well, such as in recovering mobility after a stroke. “The difference between working—make no mistake, this is hard work—with a horse, doing exercises while on a horse versus going down to the basement of the hospital and being hooked up to a machine, is incredible. Physical therapy doesn’t have to be degrading to be effective. It can be innovative. People understand the need for physical therapy, but this doesn’t feel like work. Most people cannot wait for their next session with the animal.”
The TGEC also addresses activities such as horsemanship adapted for people with special needs. Activity is different than specific therapy goals and can include vocational training for those with special needs. “An example might be a 19- or 20-year-old who is no longer in public school but is not appropriate for the traditional workforce and is seeking vocational positions that can be adapted for them. We see those individuals coming and working with the horses, grooming them and cleaning stalls, preparing equipment such as the boots and helmets used in therapy appointments and learning how to care for horses. The confidence instilled by caring for a living animal that relies on you is incredible. This prepares them for jobs in the equine industry and can help make them productive, employed persons in society,” Daurio explains.
What’s in it for the Horse?
An important part of the TGEC’s mandate is to improve the welfare of horses. Hippotherapy is often a second career for retired horses, such as former competitive show animals. As with any job, some horses can find becoming a therapy animal stressful, especially when placed in the wrong role. “A licensed, trained therapist is using the horse as a specific tool for a specific need. The therapist must choose which horse is appropriate in that setting. Our program will teach therapists how to find the right match,” Daurio stresses. “Not every horse is well-suited for these activities. For instance, a horse that is too high-spirited is not a good choice for use in therapies that require great patience from the horse. The horse may not understand or allow a therapeutic session to happen. A patient horse is best in a setting where an individual with disabilities might take 15 minutes to actually get onto the horse. The horse must remain calm and understand the need to wait.”
However, a therapist may want to work with a horse that exhibits strong reactions. “In a session with a high-risk youth, a flighty horse can be good because the youth must stay calm and speak clearly in a way that the audience (in this case, the horse) understands,” Daurio explains. “The youth cannot fly off the handle or react with abusive behavior or the horse will shy away from him. The horse’s behavior can serve as a metaphor for the individual’s behavior, and can be used in therapy. How the horse reacts might be the way a parent or friends would react to certain behaviors. The individual can learn to better understand his own behavior.” No matter what a person faces in life, the bond between the person and the horse remains. “When an individual walks or wheels into the barn, they don’t find the judgement or rejection that they might in tradition life settings,” Daurio says. “They are immediately accepted by the animal despite ability or disability.”
The Center’s Namesake—Dr. Temple Grandin
“Horses were my salvation,” Dr. Temple Grandin says simply. Diagnosed with autism in 1949 at the age of two, Grandin found it difficult to fit in; she was often bullied in her youth. But caring for horses taught profound lessons in life. Caring for horses—bathing, exercising, feeding and grooming them—taught Grandin how to care for herself. She saw that horses needed to be fed and exercised on a schedule. She then saw the need for a routine in her own life. She saw how horses benefited from proper grooming and then paid more attention to her own hygiene.
Grandin is a prominent and influential proponent of the rights of persons with autism. In a 2012 TED talk, Grandin asserted that, “The world needs all types of minds.” She has used her own experiences of feeling anxious and threatened in her surroundings, and of being bullied and treated dismissively, in her breakthrough work in humane livestock handling processes. She is recognized internationally for her work in animal welfare as well as autism. Grandin is a Professor of Animal Sciences at CSU and is actively involved in the Temple Grandin Equine Center.
In 2010, Time magazine named Grandin one of the world’s most influential people. She has received honorary degrees from universities around the world. Grandin was the subject of an HBO film, Temple Grandin, starring Claire Danes as Dr. Grandin. The 2010 movie was nominated for 15 Emmys and received five awards including a best actress win for Danes.
Grandin has a personal research goal for the center. She wants to understand the link between speech and horses, and learn about children with autism who begin to speak on horseback. “I’ve heard this several times: My kid said his first words on a horse. There was no communication (between the multiple parents telling me these scenarios), they were in different states,” Grandin says. “Something is going on here.”
BIO: Colorado author Kimberly Field is a frequent contributor to Colorado Expression.
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