March 29, 2020
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Unbridled healing: How a Maine therapist is using horses to help people

UNION, Maine — On a hot, sunny summer afternoon, Cindy, a Knox County woman clad in a colorful skirt and Muck boots, walked into a herd of about a dozen grazing horses as if she were on a mission.

In a way, she was. Cindy, who didn’t want to share her last name, has spent the last several months using horses to help her contend with a diagnosed anxiety disorder. Today she was on the quest to capture two particular horses, a dappled white Anglo-Arabian and a dignified dark brown American Quarter Horse. Once caught, Cindy led them to the arena where she would have a therapy session with April Cloutier, a licensed clinical social worker who was the first person in Maine to specialize in equine-assisted psychotherapy.

At other times in her life, Cindy said she gets so caught up in her head and her anxieties that she doesn’t always pay attention to what is really going on around her. But when she’s with the horses, she is fully present.

“I think it’s about bringing my emotions to the surface and not putting on a show,” Cindy said of her experience working therapeutically with the animals at Painted Horses LLC, Cloutier’s business. “The horses are helping me heal the foundation of my soul and my spirit.”

Cloutier, a lifelong horse person, said this kind of reaction is common among those who try equine-assisted psychotherapy, a relatively new form of experiential therapy that is gaining in popularity.

“What happens between horse and humans can be pretty amazing at times and pretty unique and profound,” she said. “I would say that equine-assisted psychotherapy is for everybody. Everybody can walk away from this experience gaining something. It is live therapy. Anyone can come sit in my office and talk about anxiety or marital issues or family conflicts. But with equine-assisted psychotherapy I get to see those dynamics coming out in the arena. I immediately see it, and we start working on it together.”

Still, there aren’t a lot of studies or data yet on equine-assisted therapy to quantitatively show its benefits.

“With EAP, scientific results regarding its usefulness are lacking,” Margarita Tartakovsky, an associate editor at the online independent mental health social network Psych Central, wrote last October. “Experts suggest it may be because experience-based therapy, such as storytelling or art therapy, is difficult to quantify. In other words, the questionnaires that psychologists typically use to measure a treatment’s effectiveness might not capture the changes or positive benefits of EAP.”

Cloutier, who is working on her doctorate degree in the field, said she is planning to do her clinical research on equine-assisted psychotherapy and add to the existing studies. She said that before 2005, she focused on traditional talk therapy and may not have have stayed in the job for much longer if she hadn’t stumbled onto the concept of using horses therapeutically.

“Then there was no turning back,” Cloutier said. “I saw what you could do with a horse in the arena and how it made therapy come alive. It was just amazing. Finding that really kept me in the field. I could see more progress in my clients.”

With equine-assisted therapy, clients rarely ride the horses — riding is not the point, she said. Instead, the therapy can happen as people capture the horses from the herd, groom them, walk them, feed them and do other types of equine activities. One client she worked with took five sessions just to catch a horse — a slow timeline that gave ample opportunity to do some therapeutic work.

“You’re looking at how they’re problem solving and their frustration tolerance,” Cloutier said. “We get to see where that person is at.”

This type of therapy can be particularly helpful when working with couples or families, allowing Cloutier the chance to observe tension and healthy or unhealthy dynamics while her clients are working on a task together. She has seen it help people with post-traumatic stress disorder, with anxiety disorders, depression, marital conflict and much more.

“Horses can be a draw, but the reality does sink in that you’re still doing counseling,” she said.

Cloutier said she has seen equine-assisted psychotherapy grow a lot in popularity in the last decade.

“I have never formally advertised this business at all. I have been completely busy since the day I started,” she said. “It’s an alternative to traditional therapy. It really is profound. It brings out change quicker. I really believe in it.”

Cindy does, too. She said that before starting therapy with Cloutier, she was afraid of horses. But now she sees that they’ve given her something special: the chance to move forward, away from her anxieties and toward a freer life. After her session was done, she pulled open the barn doors and smiled as her two horses raced past her to get back to the herd, the fresh air and the sweet green grass that beckoned outside.

“Wow,” she said as she watched them go. “They’re really powerful.”

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