By Hannah Vermillion | Photography by Romona Robbins
A true horseman does not look at a horse with his eyes; he looks at his horse with his heart. —Unknown
As I sat down with Narissa Jenkins, the CEO and founder of Healing Hoof Steps Equine Assisted Therapy and Therapeutic Riding in Crestview, Florida, we began to talk about the extraordinary bond between humans and horses. Both of us have experienced the healing powers of horses and the way they can touch hearts!
Since 2014, Jenkins has worked tirelessly to promote mental health awareness by helping people and horses alike through her nonprofit equine therapy program that focuses on patients building mental and emotional health through spending time on and around these powerful animals. “We’ve grown exponentially over the last three years,” Jenkins says. “We have gone from employing one mental health counselor to four.” She credits this growth to the shift in the conversation around mental health. “When I was growing up in the ’80s, people thought asking for help meant you were weak,” Jenkins explains. Now, people are more willing to find help or encourage those who they see are struggling with mental illness to seek treatment options. Especially during these trying times, mental health should not be a shameful subject, and seeking help should come with an outpouring of support.
Healing Hoof Steps strives to empower individuals, couples, and families to define their success through working with horses. With the help of their PATH-certified instructors, licensed mental health counselors, and horses, the program’s patients walk into a lesson and start by setting their own goals. The animals, of course, might have their own plans for how a session will go. “It is fascinating to see how horses shift to what is going on in the environment,” says Jenkins. She tells us about the time a horse bumped a client in the chest—something that caught everyone off guard and caused the woman to stay silent for the rest of the session. When she got a phone call from the woman a few days later, Jenkins learned why. The patient explained how she had prayed before the session to bring healing to her heart. In the instant that the horse bumped her in the heart, she was able to let go of what troubled her. She stayed silent for the rest of the session to keep from crying. Jenkins explains that the horse was able to pick up on this energy and encourage the patient through it.
Equine therapy is powerful because horses and humans share a special relationship. After all, it is the only relationship where known predators, humans, and prey animals, horses, can work together toward a common goal. “Mother Nature tells us that if you are prey, you should not trust a predator. But there’s something in the horses that is willing to give humans a chance,” Jenkins shares. “They don’t care who you were or who you think you are.”
Horses cannot live in the future or the past—unlike humans, who often feel anxious thinking about something that hasn’t even happened yet. These powerful and majestic animals teach us to live in the present moment. “They are reading and reacting to the energy we are giving off as humans, which causes us to naturally calm down so we can get close to the animals,” Jenkins expounds. The self-awareness that comes from this experience is something that patients cannot learn in traditional therapy. The beauty of horse therapy is that, while there is guidance, the individual is doing the work, leading to a greater sense of accomplishment and fulfillment.
Horses cannot live in the future or the past—unlike humans, who often feel anxious thinking about something that hasn’t even happened yet.
Equine therapy has shown to be very effective for individuals dealing with PTSD. Healing Hoof Steps shares that in a study of veterans with PTSD, 80 percent of them reported over a 50 percent decrease in symptoms after completing therapy sessions. “Trauma is the central area of focus for this therapy, whether it’s sexual trauma, military trauma, or another catalyst,” says Jenkins. Trauma creates hypervigilance among individuals that causes them to disconnect from their environment. Interestingly, horses also live under hypervigilance, but they can still find peace in their lives. Being around horses helps the clients to understand that there are other ways of dealing with trauma than closing off from the world. “You don’t have to have any horse knowledge or experience to get any of the benefits from this type of therapy. You just have to want to heal,” states Jenkins.
As more people realize the benefits of equine therapy and therapeutic riding, Healing Hoof Steps is fundraising $200,000 to expand its operations by building a new barn. This structure will remove the extreme heat and inclement weather barriers that currently affect the nonprofit’s year-round programs. Because the new Healing Hoof Steps arena will be covered, the rooftop will create a giant aerial billboard that offers a great sponsorship opportunity for businesses. The arena is in the direct path of many incoming planes into the Destin-Fort Walton Beach Airport, Pensacola International Airport, and Destin Executive Airport, so the exposure will be significant. The support from a sponsor will be very beneficial for the program, and Jenkins encourages any area business owners to reach out about the opportunity.
Individuals can also get involved by donating through the nonprofit’s website or by volunteering at the facility. If you or someone you know could benefit from horse therapy, contact Healing Hoof Steps and experience the healing powers of horses.
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Learn more at HealingHoofSteps.org