Healing Hoof Steps Brings Equine Therapy to Northwest Florida
July 14, 2021
Most of us might picture mental illness treatments as sitting on a couch for therapy sessions or taking certain medications. While these options have provided relief for many, they are by no means the only solutions for anxiety, depression, or other mental health conditions. In a society where no person is the same as the next, our options for help must reflect the same variety. There will never be one pill to solve all of our problems, nor one therapist who can talk us into cultivating inner peace—this is why we need options.
One of these options is equine therapy. Healing Hoof Steps Equine Assisted Therapy and Therapeutic Riding in Crestview, Florida, is a local nonprofit offering this type of service that focuses on building mental and emotional health through spending time around horses. VIE did a story on the facility and its founder, Narissa Jenkins, in 2018 for our Animal issue. Jenkins’s incredible healing journey through the help of these majestic animals is awe-inspiring. After experiencing the profound effects of horse therapy for herself, she felt called to share this with others. VIE caught up with Jenkins to hear about what’s happened in the past few years and how Healing Hoof Steps is continuing to change lives daily.
“We’ve grown exponentially over the last three years,” says Jenkins. “We have gone from one mental health counselor to four in the past three years.” She credits this growth to the shift in the conversation around mental health. “When I was growing up in the ’80s, asking for help meant you were weak,” Jenkins explains. Today, the growing message is that it’s OK—and encouraged—to search for treatment options and understand that mental illness impacts go beyond the individual. Often the whole family is dealing with it. Especially during these trying times, mental health should not be shameful.
Horse therapy is powerful because horses and humans share a special relationship. After all, it is the only relationship where a known predator, 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 explains. “They don’t care who you were or who you think you were.” 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 cannot be learned 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.
Perhaps the most significant development at Healing Hoof Steps has been the addition of the Therapeutic Riding program in 2020. Visitors now can ride the horses with PATH-certified instructors who provide a more holistic approach to increasing self-confidence and reducing anxiety and depression. The clients play games on horseback and learn essential skills such as balance, coordination, and the confidence that comes from being in control of a large animal. “We have a beautiful sensory trail for the riders where they can experience a lot of colors and different things they can do,” says Jenkins. The expansion of this program has opened a whole new clientele for the facility, especially for those who lack the mobility needed for the mental health side. The new program has shown remarkable results for clients suffering from disabilities such as cerebral palsy and Down syndrome due to its nonverbal methods.
The mental health side of the programming mirrors a more traditional therapy session than the therapeutic riding side due to its compliance with HIPAA. A tri-team of a horse, a mental health counselor, and an equine specialist guide the patient to healing through powerful metaphors using the horses. “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 be silent for the rest of the session. Jenkins learned why when she got a phone call from the woman days later explaining how she had prayed before the session to bring healing to her heart. It was in the instant that the horse bumped her in the heart that she was able to let go. She stayed silent for the rest of the session to keep from crying. Jenkins explained how the horse was able to pick up on this energy and encourage her through it.
Equine therapy has shown to be very effective for individuals dealing with PTSD. In a study of veterans with PTSD, 80 percent of them reported over a 50 percent decrease in symptoms of after completing therapy sessions. “Trauma is the central area of focus for this therapy, whether it’s sexual trauma, military trauma, etc.,” explains 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. Just being around horses helps the clients to understand that there are other ways of dealing with trauma than just 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.
“We are constantly trying to put ourselves out of business,” she says, explaining that the goal is not to keep clients but to help them with what they need and then get them back to their lives. “We don’t need to see someone for ten years, but we will be there when they need us.”
More expansions are in the works as Jenkins plans to open another therapeutic riding barn due to increased demand. The arena covered by a giant aerial billboard is also a great sponsorship opportunity for businesses. The arena is in the direct path of all incoming planes into the area, so the exposure will be significant, and the support will be very beneficial for the program. Individuals can also get involved by donating through the nonprofit’s website or by volunteering at the facility.
To learn more about Healing Hoof Steps or get involved, visit their website at healinghoofsteps.org.