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Therapy In The Midst Of Horses

Carina Cooper And Bonnie Cordeiro

What is your background regarding equine-assisted therapy?

Cooper: I am an equine specialist. I am also the founder of HEART (Hawaii Equine Assisted Reflection & Therapy).


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Carina Cooper And Bonnie Cordeiro

Cordeiro: I am an EAGALA-certified (Equine Assisted Growth and Learning Association) mental health specialist and equine specialist, as well as an internationally certified alcohol and drug counselor.

How did you come to work with horses in a therapeutic capacity?

Cooper: As a girl I had an affinity for horses that has led to a lifelong passion. My horse has always been my best friend, and I have an unexplainable connection and understanding with horses. Some people refer to this ability as “horse sense,” or a sixth sense that the horse has for picking up on energy and emotion and responding in a way that is healing. I learned about the Equine Assisted Growth and Learning Association in 2010 and instantly resonated with its experiential model of therapy for using horses in a mental health setting. While obtaining my certification as an equine specialist and gaining more experience in the field, I’ve come to see that my history with horses has taught me invaluable lessons in growth and healing that I am now able to share with others.

What is HEART?

Cooper: HEART is a therapy program where horses assist people with growth, learning and healing. We offer interactive experiences with our horses at Sunset Ranch on the North Shore. We have programs for psychotherapy, learning, team building and life coaching that are experiential, engaging, safe and fun. As the founder and director of HEART, I do all coordination of therapy sessions and organization of workshops and events. We are focused on educating the public about equine-assisted therapy and being a presence in the mental health community. As an equine specialist for HEART, I manage and care for our herd of horses and prepare therapy horses for their sessions with clients. In a therapy session, I observe horse behavior to communicate shifts and patterns in behavior to the mental health specialist. We then use these observations to discuss the experience with the client. Another important responsibility of the equine specialist is to monitor safety of the horses and the clients within a session.

Who is the best candidate for HEART?

Cooper: We offer individual, couple, family and group counseling and psychotherapy sessions for all ages. We offer team-building and learning programs for youth groups, business teams, school groups and more. We offer workshops for individuals looking for personal growth and development as well as customized retreats for groups.

We also have a new youth learning program called Horse Play offered to ages 9 to 17 that focuses on learning valuable life skills.

What happens during equine therapy sessions?

Cooper: Clients work and interact with horses in unmounted activities. No riding is involved, and no horse experience is necessary. Clients are asked to engage with the horses, or complete a task that is applicable to their treatment or learning goal. For example, a client may be asked to get the horse over an obstacle that represents a current challenge in their life. During and after the activity we talk about the experience the client had with the horse, the thoughts and feelings that emerged, how the experience relates to their life and what solutions are available to best solve the problem. The clients are then able to practice the skills learned in the equine-assisted therapy session and apply them to the challenges they face in real life.

Cordeiro: Equine Assisted Psychotherapy (EAP) is a powerful and effective therapeutic approach that has an incredible impact on many people. EAP addresses a variety of mental health and human development needs, including behavioral issues, attention deficit disorders, autism spectrum disorders, PTSD, trauma, grief and loss, substance abuse, eating disorders, depression, anxiety, life transitions, relationship issues and communication needs.

What experts are on hand during these sessions?

Cordeiro: Each therapy session is facilitated by an equine specialist and a mental health specialist, at minimum. I am the primary mental health specialist on hand. I have more 25 years of experience working with adolescents, families, individuals and groups, in correctional facilities, schools, residential and outpatient settings, in the roles of therapist, clinical supervisor, family therapist and administrator. It is imperative to have two professionals in the arena who can facilitate the unique experience that occurs between the client and the horses.

How many therapeutic horses do you have?

Cooper: We currently have eight horses at Sunset Ranch and four horses off the ranch property that are involved in the HEART programs. Typically, one to five horses are used in a session, depending on the needs, goals and comfort level of the client.

Our therapy horses come from a variety of backgrounds and vary in age. There is no special training to be a HEART therapy horse other than the requirement that they be safe, healthy and non-aggressive with humans. As an equine specialist, my job is to know our horses well – their typical behavior patterns, how they interact with others in their herd and how they interact with different types of clients. Some horses are chosen in sessions particularly because we anticipate that they will engage with the client in a specific way that is beneficial for the client’s treatment plan. However, we are constantly amazed at how they respond to each individual. Every horse on our therapy team has its own personality and attitude. They help our clients heal in ways different from human interaction. Horses don’t judge, they don’t tell your secrets, and they don’t have a hidden agenda. In this way, they are supremely honest with those in their presence.

How similar is this to other therapy animals?

Cooper: Unlike dogs, horses are prey animals, meaning that their lives depend on their awareness of their environment in order to avoid predators. This sensitivity becomes useful to us as therapists and specialists in that it gives us valuable information about the client that we might not have learned during talk therapy. Horses are social, forming dynamic herds with their own leaders, followers, outcasts and “bullies.” Observing these herd dynamics and each distinct personality allows the clients and the treatment team to apply powerful metaphors. Horses may represent people in your life, or various situations and feelings. Metaphorical learning is such a powerful technique in therapy that it can help produce outstanding results for even the toughest clients. Horses are large and powerful and to many are intimidating to be around. Working with horses becomes a perfect opportunity to overcome fears and build confidence. Clients can then take these skills and apply them to other situations in life that may be challenging or difficult.