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Healing Across The Sierra: Horses Helping Adults With Depression, Anxiety

NOTE: This story originally aired on March 31, 2014.

For the last four years, Nevada Equine Assisted Therapy, or N.E.A.T, in Reno has often offered its horse therapy to children and teens with severe physical or cognitive issues, like cerebral palsy and autism. But as Michelle Bliss reports for KUNR’s series: Healing across the Sierra, a new clientele is emerging—adults looking for alternative ways of dealing with stress, anxiety, and depression.

“You’re just going to take a nice, quiet, warm-up ride around the arena," says Laurie Roberts, co-owner of N.E.A.T., as  she watches as her client Tanya leads a white Andalusian horse named Cody into the covered dirt ring.

It’s a drizzly day, so the arena is crowded with other riders. But after an emotional week, this ride is Tanya’s meditative respite. Her mother passed away last fall, and even though she’s doing better, her grief comes in waves.

“It’s up and down," Tanya explains. "You eventually kind of just get back into day-to-day and think about it a little bit less. But then, all of a sudden, it’s like, ‘Bam!’ It hits you again, and I think this week it happened to me.”

Tanya has done a lot of talk therapy—and it’s been helpful—but she’s tired of talking and ready for a visceral experience. While grooming and riding her horse Cody, all of Tanya’s emotions are actually mirrored right back at her. That’s because horses are prey animals, so they’re keenly aware of what’s going on with nearby predators, and they yearn for humans to be confident leaders.

“When I get anxious," she says, "I tend to hold my breath, which is something I’m working on. And I’ll be talking really fast and Laurie will point out that he’s picking up on that and it’s making him anxious and nervous. I can actually hear him, when I calm down, let out a big breath, like a sigh.”

Cody also requires Tanya to be fully present at all times, which sounds simple. Tanya’s Therapeutic Equine Instructor Laurie Roberts insists that for most of us, it’s not.

“There’s so much going on in our lives that our brains are going in five directions at one time," Roberts says. "And one of the things with the horses is that you need to be here. If you’re not present, you don’t get the connection and the horse is uncomfortable with that.”

Roberts says that traditionally, equine programs in Nevada and beyond are most known for their work with physically and cognitively disabled children. But their reach extends beyond that to social and emotional issues like eating disorders, addiction, and post-traumatic stress disorder. Now, there’s also growing recognition of the mental health benefits for adults like Tanya, who need help with common issues like setting boundaries and working through conflicts or stressors in the moment.

 “We are starting to see more and more adults looking for ways to deal with their issues," Roberts explains. "And this is just a very different way to approach day-to-day life issues that are sometimes keeping us from doing what we want to do.”

Since this use of horse therapy is still emerging, there’s been little research on it yet and most success stories are anecdotal, like Tanya’s. She only spends an hour with Cody and Laurie each week, but she’s already noticing a difference in her ability to adapt to life’s unexpected demands and detours.  

“Go past the yellow pole," Roberts instructs Tanya. "Turn—oh! Cody had a mind of his own. Alright. Good. Stop and regroup. That’s a perfect way to handle that.”

When Cody successfully finishes the course, Tanya wraps up their weekly routine, grooming his white mane with a curry brush and rewarding his hard work with a handful of crackers.

The next time Tanya visits the arena will be with her 11-year-old son. He also suffers from severe anxiety and has just started his own private sessions with Cody.

Michelle Billman is a former news director at KUNR Public Radio.