Recovering from trauma… with horsepower!
Amity Foundation horses help identify and relieve the effects of trauma.
“I knew there were things that happened to me in childhood that have affected me all my life,” says Aimee Beyda, a retired psychotherapist from Chester, New York. “I talked about these things with friends and with my own therapist, but with the horses, it went far deeper than words. I was able to finally truly let go of feelings that had been trapped in my body for a lifetime.”
Aimee came to the area from New York City—being around horses was far from familiar. But when she saw a flyer about a therapist working with people together with horses in the Town of Warwick she was intrigued. On one hand, she intuitively sensed that the combination of humans and horses could be effective. But on the on the other? “I had a lot of fear of the horses at first, but as I worked through my own fears, I developed a sense of confidence and a deepening attachment to one of the horses. There is something so calming about being in the presence of a horse”, says Aimee Beyda of Chester.
The horses that helped Aimee have helped others recover in similar ways. “When people experience trauma it typically leaves behind a psychic wound,” explains Corey De Mala who co-founded the Amity Foundation for Healing with Horses with Equine Specialist and Trainer Christine Swanson Dykshorn. Corey is a Licensed Mental Health Counselor, a Certified EMDR therapist (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing), who has trained extensively in IFS (Internal Family Systems) therapy, as well as several equine-assisted modalities, including certification from the Equine Assisted Growth and Learning Association (EAGALA) as well as Equilateral (equine-assisted EMDR) among others.
“Unresolved trauma can cause any number of things—recurring memories and flashbacks, a feeling of sadness and depression, sudden, unexplained outbursts,” she adds. “Sometimes people don’t know why they feel like they’re carrying a heavy load,” Corey continues. “Traumatic events don’t necessarily go away; they just get covered up,” she says.
Corey and Christine have added trauma healing to their already established and successful boarding/training facility in the Amity section of Warwick. They have recently assisted veterans as well as veterans with their spouses as they work through emotional issues that surround the return from combat. They’ve also helped homeless people develop a sense of confidence in a world that can feel hostile and threatening. Today they’re on a mission to help adolescents who bully as well as those who have been bullied face uncover emotional issues contributing to their behavior and address them, sometimes without uttering so much as a word.
“People can recover, sometimes in a very short time. Horses help move the process forward. We’ve seen how effectively they work!” she says. According to Corey, equine therapy is an “experiential therapy”. That means patients may identify and address hidden or subconscious issues through activities such as role playing, guided imagery, the use of props, and a range of other active experiences. These experiences and activities provide opportunities for the therapist to observe patients in situations where the patients are not focused on the therapy itself.
For example, during an equine therapy session, participants will likely be focused on completing an assigned task with a horse, and will be more likely to let his or her guard down than he or she would during a traditional individual or group talk therapy session.
The horses might be observed together in a field. On-lookers quickly see how horses relate to one another. “When issues with horses arise, the horses deal with them immediately. They might threaten a kick, or deliver one. Generally, they walk away or keep their distance from a difficult situation. The point is, the difficulty is handled quickly and then the horses go back to grazing,” Corey explains.
Eventually, the horses might be approached in a more enclosed setting, the arena for example. “Horses are big. Simply approaching them helps attendees face fear and overcome it,” Corey says. Participants may work individually with one horse they select. Sometimes they work together. “A whole lot of feelings can emerge when people are asked to so simple tasks, like move horses from grazing to an inside stall without the use of ropes,” Corey says with a smile. “Anger, resentment, helplessness at not being in control. These are opportunities to learn…and they can be sometimes enjoyable as well as instructional.”
Why are horses particularly suited for this type of therapy? “Unlike dogs and cats, horses are prey animals. They can size up situations with other horse or with people in a hurry. They instinctively know who can be trusted. They know what it feels like to be preyed upon.” Corey adds. “Horses instinctively analyze and react to our body language and other nonverbal cues. As a result, we are able to gain insight into our own nonverbal communication and behavior patterns, just by being around them,” she explains “I remember one boy looking into the eyes of one of our horses. ‘He’s seen a lot,” the child said. “Like what?” Corey asked. And he told her about things the horse might have confronted—problems that sounded strangely like those that could be his own. “Opening up in words isn’t necessary. It’s the feeling the horses evoke that are important. When positive feelings arise, we reinforce them in various ways.”
For Aimee, safe feelings eventually overcame the negative residue from trauma. “My childhood memories weren’t erased, they just didn’t seem as powerful when I was in the company of something as big as a horse,” she says. “I finally felt in control. The bond with a horse transcends words,” she adds.
“Our goal is to help people move beyond the debilitating effects of trauma,” Corey comments. We want them to…return to grazing,” she adds with a laugh.
Corey, Christine and a group of dedicated volunteers are now fundraising in an on-going effort to provide this therapy to people in need free of charge or on a sliding payment scale. For more information on individual or group sessions, visit their website at www.theamityfoundation.org or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org or call (845) 224-6258.