You May Not Think You Are Anxious, But Your Horse Does

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Lynne Bryan Phipps & Rajah. Photo © Madeline Caswell

By Jack Coffin

Competitive riders, by definition, are always under stress, if not anxiety, and that affects performance.

What isn’t often realized is that horses are far more perceptive of emotions than people are – although some of us are reluctant to accept this. What ever you feel is transmitted to your horse, only magnified.

Most people associate equine therapy with organizations for children with disabilities. Their emphasis is on empowering the client, usually by horseback riding and horse care. There are also other horse therapy groups with various approaches to adult trauma.

The Beachwood Center for Wellbeing, located outside of Newport, Rhode Island and more recently, Wellington, Florida, has gained a reputation for its evidence-based work dealing with stress, anxiety, depression, PTSD, and performance anxiety. A non-profit organization, their work is tracked by a Brown University research study, now in its second year. Developed by a minister and equestrian, Integrative Equine Therapy (IET), is based on the recent groundbreaking research studies on stress response and achievement.

A Veteran in Rhode Island

The New Protocol

Lynne Bryan Phipps, an equestrian, and ordained minister for twenty years, had seen the horse programs used in palliative therapy. She was also knowledgeable in the variations of talk therapy, but she was concerned with talk therapy’s effectiveness and the time required. Bringing horses together with these higher levels of therapy should be much more powerful. There was a better solution; it just took four years to develop.

“My objective was to establish a protocol that could deal with stress, anxiety and trauma in a shorter and more cost-effective way than conventional therapy.” In 2017, Lynne opened Beachwood just south of Newport, Rhode Island.

Clients typically come to Beachwood dealing with anxiety or a traumatic experience. Over seven, one-and-half-hour sessions, they work with one of Beachwood’s five horses and a trained equine therapist. A horse can only do this work two hours a day; the equine therapist can handle six hours.

Lynne made several observations. “Fifty minutes is too short for a beneficial interaction; it takes time to fully sync with the horse, or as one client said, “to get in the flow.” Likewise, if you are going to develop new neural pathways – new responses to handling threatening emotional situations – you can’t achieve that in one or two sessions. Yet, what can be accomplished in seven is significantly faster and less expensive than the older approaches to therapy.”

A young client finds horse help

Intensives

Beachwood has grown primarily by word of mouth, even attracting people who fly in from across the country. Based on a California client who enjoyed coming back for “competitive tune-ups,” Lynne developed INTENSIVES, three-day and six-day protocols designed for people who haven’t the time for a bi-weekly program.

The Results Are Often Dramatic

After three sessions, a young girl suffering with panic attacks and anxiety disorder was able to manage being away from her family.

After her intensive the mother of a client said her daughter, an equestrian, had accomplished more in those five days working with the horses than she had in a month long outpatient program at a major medical center in Manhattan.

Anxious to the point of nausea and unable to get out of bed, a failing high school student was able to return to school and graduate.

“What our horses do naturally and therapists are trained to do is create a safe space – to get to those places where you can be the person you are at the core of your being.

“If you’re anxious, if you’re worried, the horse will reflect it,” Phipps said. “It shows up in a really kind, gentle, wonderful way. It’s the most judgment free space in the world.”

The Horses

In Beachwood’s Integrative Therapy, clients do not ride. Specially trained therapists work with dressage horses, bred for their intelligence and responsiveness. Even then, selecting from twenty or more screened horses, only one or two are chosen.

Bugatti & Rajah after work

These horses make a difference in treating trauma. They are objective readers of people, as they must accurately and continually observe their environment to survive as prey animals. They’re constantly aware of who’s around them.

Anxiety and Riding

What began by treating serious cases of trauma and PTSD referred by psychiatrists, physicians, and veteran’s centers, grew, expanding into athletic performance. Interestingly, it began not with equestrians but with marathon runners.

Competition and stress are inexorably intertwined, and this can be beneficial. But if it grows into anxiety, it’s a different issue altogether. Equestrians are particularly susceptible. You may get hurt playing tennis but you can get seriously hurt riding a horse. If your stress escalates to anxiety it will be transmitted to the horse, actually well before. Now we have two linked beings missing internal cues, losing their edge, and risking each other. Integrative Therapy is designed to break this loop.

Veterans And Caregivers

The veteran’s program is a major part of Beachwood’s focus. In our first year, an officer with major PTSD issues, found Integrative Therapy transformative. He went on to fund a major part of our free services for veterans. A recent example of success: an Iraq veteran went off all medication for the first time in eight years.

Despite the fact that fifty percent of all the Center’s clients are free, or on a reduced fee, Beachwood’s speaking engagements and word of mouth didn’t attract many vets. Men in general, and male veterans in particular, are not attracted to therapy in any form.

It was only when Beachwood began working with the veteran caregivers from the Elizabeth Dole Foundation that veteran clients took off. Their wives and family members developed anxiety and trauma from the highly demanding support that was required of them.

These caregivers had no issues with looking for help. Integrative Equine Therapy fit perfectly, and they loved the horses. From their own success they went out and convinced their husbands or brothers to try it as well. Now Beachwood is striving to grow with the demand.

In addition to seeing individual clients, starting in January 2020, the Wellington Center is offering group sessions on Mondays for veteran caregivers. Please consider donating to our veterans and caregivers program.

Becoming An Equine Therapist

A number of riders have approached Beachwood asking to be trained and certified in order to bring IET back to their community, or work in one of our new barns opening around the country.

We are receptive to interviewing prospects for our training program, not all are accepted. While trainers must be conversant with working with horses, it is not necessary to be an accomplished equestrian.

Selecting appropriate people is not much different from selecting horses; one must be intelligent, compassionate, and personable. Most importantly, be comfortable guiding clients dealing with significant trauma. If you are interested in applying, arrange for a first step telephone conversation with our director.

Visit Palm Beach Or Newport…
Intrigued by integrative Equine Therapy?
Call (401) 788-9110 or visit our website: beachwoodri.org.
And again, please consider donating to the veterans and caregivers program.

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