On horses and equine-assisted self exploration

Horses can teach you a lot. As prey AND pack animals, they are incredibly attuned to body language and vocal tonality. A patient, my peers, and myself have all learned something unique from our time with these creatures.

About two months ago, I reflected on a patient at my assigned pediatric/internal medicine clinic— he’s extremely overweight with controlled hypertension and diabetes. We talked about nature, about what it’s like to be separated from the place you’ve grown up, and the isolation that can result.

At the end of our conversation, I suggested Quantum Leap Farm, a horse ranch about thirty minutes from Tampa. At QLF, physical therapists, mental health counselors, occupational therapists, and volunteers team together to provide horse-based therapies for many different population groups— ranging from veterans suffering from PTSD, to adults with severe autism, and children with cerebral palsy. I figured a combo of the outdoors, a service-driven purpose, and working with horses and his hands would give him the push to overcome parts of his depression and start some forward momentum towards a better future and improved overall health.

During spring break, before leaving for my weekend of madness at the Okeechobee Music Festival (which also delayed the posting of this #LongFormSundays post :P), I received a lovely text from the resident physician caring for this patient. She relayed that he had recently attended a volunteer session at QLF and loved it! He plans to visit and help out with the horses every Saturday he can. The staff even recognized his experience and would like him to join on as an instructor! He wanted to pass on his thanks through the resident because he finally found something that gives him a reason to get out of bed on the weekends.

Last month, I organized an Equine-Assisted Self-Exploration (at EASE) therapy session for a group of MD+DPT students, a few hours after our second cardio exam. Originally, I set this up because I wanted a chance to play with the QLF horses without actually paying for the sesh! Then, I realized that I could do some guerilla advertising for the horses and their handlers as well as get folks interested in these therapeutic methods through first-hand experience.

An amazing experience, both for me personally and for us students as a group. I’ll let my peers have the last words on the matter:

“I wasn’t really sure what to expect at first, honestly the main reason I wanted to go was to play with some horses after a very stressful test and I even considered not going because of all the things I had on my to-do list. Having no real expectations going in I have to say that I am thoroughly impressed and I am now a huge fan of equine-assisted therapy. I really felt like this was a much needed break from the stress of Medical/PT school and it was truly a spiritual and emotional experience.

When we first arrived it seemed as if time had slowed down and everything was moving at a much more relaxed and stress free pace. The location is absolutely beautiful with the wide open spaces, beautiful nature setting with trees and small bodies of water and of course the beautiful animals. It was nice to forget about the busy streets and bright lights of the city and to be surrounded by such beauty so close to home. The whole time I was there I was completely focused on the beauty I was surrounded by and the relaxing feel to the session, the two leaders of our session were extremely patient and I never once felt rushed by them.

By the middle of the session I had completely forgot I had a test that morning and I wasn’t even thinking of my massive to-do list which is usually always on my mind. One thing I will try to remember more from this experience is to just take time to appreciate the little things and to find the beauty in nature and to just slow down sometimes.”

Rachel Sheffield, SPT

“I really wasn’t sure what to expect going into the experience, I wanted to keep an open mind in order to absorb everything in an unbiased manner. When we first arrived, I immediately felt more relaxed because of the country location and farm-like feel. We started by watching the horses interact with each other and with the environment and it was beautiful. It was calming and serene. It makes you remember that communication doesn’t only occur verbally.”

Ciara Hall, SPT

“I never expected horses to be so sensitive to the emotions and especially the body language of people. It was surprising to see how horses express their own body language, especially in their ears! The staff members were great at incorporating activities that provided connections to our daily lives, oftentimes things that we don’t pay attention to.”

Andre Lee, MS1

“My excitement culminated in an experience that did not disappoint. I had the opportunity to interact with some of my favorite creatures, excellent program facilitators, Jenna Miller and Carla Staats, and peers from the schools of medicine and physical therapy. There was the perfect amount of instruction, unguided interaction with the horses, and reflection. Within the confines of the arena, we shared experiences and overcame obstacles. The opportunity to reflect on the commonality of our struggles and goals – both in the arena and beyond – fostered introspection and bond-building. Throughout the entirety of the program, my peers and I were all completely captivated – transfixed by the horses and the poignant lessons that were bundled into our session.

Quantum Leap Farms is a dynamic, noteworthy place. Not only is At EASE is a wonderful program, but the other programs offered there provide incalculable amounts of therapeutic reprieve for many people with diverse health conditions. As a future practitioner, it is a viable alternative therapy for prospective patients. To paraphrase one of the most valuable insights we corroborated during our time in the arena: we must know ourselves well in order to better help others. Programs like At EASE facilitate this in an extraordinary way. At EASE could undoubtedly prove invaluable to future (and current) healthcare practitioners in their quest to better serve their patients.”

Mackenzi Frost, MS1

“I would recommend this to anyone struggling with self-worth, those struggling for a purpose, ones looking for love, or anyone wanting to implement change into their lives. It was such a unique bonding experience, not only for me and the horses, but the awesome group of individuals I got to share the experience with. Thanks Eugene.”

Randall Sheffield, SPT



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