Life had never been exceptionally easy for Maddie Engles.
Born with a mild case of cerebral palsy, she quickly learned to adapt to the physical challenges her condition presented.
But in the summer before Maddie’s senior year of high school, one of her best friends died by suicide. In the nine months that followed, three more traumatic experiences left Maddie reeling. Her horse, Cassie, which Maddie’s family had owned since she was 8, died. Then Maddie lost a beloved uncle to cancer, and her dog, Lucy, died.
“I went to a dark place after that,” says Maddie, now 22.
She shut down. The only emotions she showed were fits of anger over the smallest things. She wouldn’t talk to her parents for a week at a time.
She built a wall around herself, and let no one in.
After a few sessions with a traditional therapist where Maddie would say almost nothing, her mother took her to a place Maddie had known for much of her life: Healing Reins Therapeutic Riding Center, several miles outside of Bend, Oregon.
Maddie started seeing a mental health therapist at Healing Reins who used horses in her therapy. Under the therapist’s guidance, Maddie used chalk to write words describing her feelings on the side of a horse named Keeper. She practiced grooming keeper and walking her through a simple obstacle course.
Maddie says Keeper often seemed to reflect her feelings back to her, and over time, her sessions with the animal helped Maddie find a sense of peace.
“I just talked to her,” Maddie says. “I knew the horse wasn’t going to judge me, and slowly, piece by piece, I let my wall fall down.”
People have used horses to assist in physical, mental health and other therapy for decades, says Laurie Hoyle, Healing Reins’ development director. But in recent years, equine-assisted therapy—the use of horseback riding as a therapeutic or rehabilitative treatment—has flourished. Equine-assisted therapy involves horses for the treatment of myriad physical and mental health conditions, including cerebral palsy, multiple sclerosis, stroke recovery, autism, depression, anxiety disorders, substance abuse and post-traumatic stress.
Occupational and physical therapists who use horses to treat people with physical or neurological challenges use a form of equine-assisted therapy known as hippotherapy. The term is derived from the Greek word for horse: hippos.
“All sorts of magical things happen when you’re on a horse,” says Healing Reins cofounder Penny Campbell. In 2001, she and her husband bought the 20 acres of land southeast of Bend where the nonprofit now operates.
Laurie Schick, a physical therapist and a specialist in hippotherapy who works with patients at Healing Reins, says a horse’s natural gait and movement spark neurological changes and adjustments in a rider’s brain that can’t be accomplished through regular physical therapy.
Three-year-old Ella Gruber started hippotherapy sessions with Schick in March.
Ella, who suffers with hypotonia—unusually low muscle tone—was scared to death of horses when she first started the therapy, says Ella’s mom, Jenna. But after three months of weekly sessions during which Ella rode a horse with her therapist and two assistants walking beside her, Ella’s fear has diminished.
The therapy has changed everything about how Ella operates in the world, Jenna says. Ella now walks better and can jump, stand on one foot and kick a soccer ball, which she couldn’t do before.
“She’s blossomed as a person,” Schick says. “It’s been neat to see.”
“She’s made so much improvement,” Jenna says, walking beside her and Kitty, the horse Ella rode at Healing Reins, on a bright and sunny morning in June. “We so appreciate this place. It’s been a huge blessing for our family.”
Studies suggest equine assisted psychotherapy can be helpful for myriad mental health issues, especially for adolescents.
“It’s almost like we connect with horses in a more basic or more fundamental way,” says Laurie Hoyle. “It brings us back to the part of ourselves that are very basic and very foundational and that can be easily lost when we operate only in the world of humans.”
Those who work in equine assisted therapy say that connection happens because of a horse’s nature. It’s a prey animal that intuitively understands the need to calm a member of the herd who might be agitated, to keep the entire herd calm for its safety, Hoyle says. That makes a horse unusually sensitive to another being’s unexpressed feelings.
“They are an instant biofeedback machine,” says Casey Loper, a Bend mental health therapist who uses horses in her therapy.
That sensitivity and unspoken feedback from an animal somehow helps people open up to talking about and understanding their issues in a way they can’t do in a therapist’s office, Casey says.
In the midst of her anger four years ago, Maddie went through a special therapy exercise with Keeper at Healing Reins. With Keeper running around free in a large ring, Maddie stood in the center.
As Maddie’s anxiety and anger dissipated and she became calm, Keeper’s emotions seemed to mirror hers. The horse turned gently toward her and slowly closed the space between them, bringing a powerful sense of peace that brought down Maddie’s wall of anger.
“I was in tears,” Maddie says. “It was pretty amazing to be able to know I had worked through the wall.”
Today, Maddie is still at Healing Reins, but no longer as a patient. She volunteers her time to help with the horses and is training to become a therapeutic horseback riding instructor. Maddie says she wants her future to be about helping others find the same sense of peace she achieved at Healing Reins.
ABOUT THE SERIES: This Ruralite-produced initiative spotlights health challenges in rural communities, efforts to address them and the unsung heroes behind the work. The series receives support from the M.J. Murdock Charitable Trust, which funds projects and programs in Alaska and the Northwest. The sponsorship helps fund journalism that makes a difference. Send story ideas to firstname.lastname@example.org.