From the Horse's Mouth 5

Local Nonprofit Uses Horses for Healing

There are hospital wings across America dedicated to it. We see it covered by local news each night. It’s the ultimate gut-wrenching scene in the latest theater release. Trauma drives the plot. It gets us to pay attention and then look away just as quickly. As dramatic as trauma is made out to be, it is more common than we have been willing to talk about.

This is not Hollywood trauma. This is the visceral kind. It’s the stunting kind that affects your child’s grades at school and his ability to connect with his peers. This is the isolating trauma that keeps a veteran indoors on Independence Day. This is the quiet trauma of folding up a newborn’s clothes that were never worn.

Trauma does not discriminate, and it does not hand-pick those who have seen war. Trauma could be brought on by a car accident, a natural disaster or an abusive relationship. Trauma is highly complex and difficult to treat. Many victims don’t recognize they are struggling with trauma—they are simply getting through one day at a time. All the while, the metaphorical trauma door is beginning to groan and splinter under the weight of unresolved issues.

Despite emerging research shedding light on the nature of post-traumatic stress disorder, options for alternative treatments are still limited. This missed need is where Horses & Heroes steps in.

When founder Julie Baker launched the organization in 2015 from her living room in Overland Park, she had an uncluttered and profound clarity about the purpose of her nonprofit.

“I remember exactly how it felt,” Baker remembers about the morning that the idea occurred to her. “It was like all the experiences of my past collided with a clarity of purpose. My business coach always said that when you find your ‘why’ it will make you cry. She told me that if your dream doesn’t scare the hell out of you, it isn’t big enough. Well, I found my ‘why’ that morning.”

Horses & Heroes is an equine-assisted psychotherapy organization focused on a simple vision: to heal the unseen wounds of trauma. Originally tailored to assist veterans with PTSD, the founders of Horses & Heroes quickly recognized the larger need for trauma therapy as unexpected clients stepped forward. Alongside veterans and first responders, clients arriving for sessions included single mothers, adolescent girls and broken families.

The implications of a traumatized individual are devastating in their own right, but the impact does not stop there. The families who struggle alongside trauma victims are equally affected, especially when there are children in the mix. These families, in turn, have a direct impact on the health of the community. This is a crisis.

The symptoms of trauma can often be mistaken for the crises themselves: loss of jobs, substance abuse, depression, relational abuse, poor sleeping habits, divorce and suicide.

Thankfully, awareness of the statistic that 22 veterans commit suicide a day has broadened over the past five years. However, awareness about the spike in adolescent suicide rates is disturbingly lacking. According to the American Psychological Association, the number of adolescent suicides has risen by a quarter in less than two years, now numbering 13 in every 100,000, compared to 10.5 every 100,000 in 2015. It appears that our military service members are not the only at-risk demographic for trauma-related suicide.

For the 40 percent of affected adults who do seek help for trauma, new studies have indicated that cognitive talk therapy may not be effective. Inversely, studies of experiential therapies have shown again and again to result in effective breakthroughs.

Equine therapy has especially been gaining ground in the scientific, as well as the therapeutic, communities over the past 15 years. Equine therapy ushers in quicker and more frequent client breakthroughs than conventional therapy sessions. This is attributed to the fact that equine therapy requires a client to participate actively in his or her healing. Since it brings the client out of the office and into the outdoors, it doesn’t feel like therapy. It is focused on problem-solving and results and provides clients with real-time feedback.

Whether clients are veterans or civilians, there is a generally negative stigma associated with talk therapy. To counter that stigma, equine therapy doesn’t require clients to have the language necessary to discuss a specific trauma. All they have to do is arrive. The intuitive nature of the horses takes care of the rest.

Horses & Heroes uses horses in a ground-based, team approach. There is no riding experience necessary to participate. As the client interacts with the horse in a session, powerful metaphors emerge. Since the horse stands as the focal point of a session, discussing difficult details feels less threatening. These metaphors give clients crucial insights into the nature of their traumas.

Clarity and focus have been the cornerstones of Horses & Heroes’ mission. This focus is what channels Horses & Heroes’ resources toward assisting immediate families in the Kansas City area. Starting at home is not only how families heal—it’s how entire communities heal.

As a new nonprofit, Horses & Heroes’ needs are many. The primary needs are for private donors, volunteers and corporate sponsorship. For more information about volunteer and donation opportunities or to book a session, visit HorsesAndHeroes.org