Manning has epilepsy and struggles with bipolar manic disorder. On top of that, she says, “I lost a daughter many years ago, so I’d done traditional therapy for years. Never worked.”
After just a short time paired with her assigned horse Vicky (and therapist Mary Ellen Martin), Manning says her stress is down, she doesn’t have seizures anymore, and she’s found a new confidence in herself — so much so, the former preschool teacher is starting a veterinary tech program.
“I never thought I would actually find something that was gonna help me get better,” she says. “I really didn’t.”
These types of results are common at StableStrides. Executive director Shannon Mitchell says while many people think what the organization does is just “fun horseback riding,” it’s so much more.
“We are providing a medically necessary treatment for physical, developmental, behavioral, and mental health needs. A lot of times people perceive it as a fun activity for individuals with disabilities. And while it is that, we do require that the individuals that come to us have an adaptive need of some sort.”
StableStrides, whose history of working in this arena goes back to 1981, employs individuals who have licensures either in mental health or in the physical, occupational or speech therapy world. The nonprofit is also the only premier accredited center in Southern Colorado of the Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship International. Accreditation requirements mean meeting about 250 safety and business-practice standards — it’s a status they’ve held for 30 years.
Mitchell says StableStrides’ mental health programs began in 2010, and today they make up almost 70 percent of the organization’s work. “Horses have the ability to understand us in a way that other animals don’t,” she says. “They also react to our emotions and our feelings in a way that other animals or other humans don’t.”
“If I walk into an arena and I am upset or I’m angry or I’m scared, they know it,” she explains. “And depending on the horse, certain horses, if you’re just really nervous and scared, they may come up to you to help calm you down. At the same time, if you’re angry and scared, depending on the horse, they may decide they don’t want to be near you. Unlike a dog, we can’t put it on a leash. Although we do put a halter and lead on it, we can’t force it to come with us if it doesn’t want to.”
The work for their clients is really about relationships, communication and trust, Mitchell says. Horses are in a constant state of fight or flight, and they will react very similarly to some situations as a client with past trauma or PTSD might. If a horse hears a loud noise and doesn’t know where it came from, it’ll go into flight mode. “Being able to have a human sit and see that reaction, and then see how do we calm that horse down, how do we help it come back to centering itself? They can then use those same skills for themselves.”
Humans, she says, can learn so much from a horse that they can’t in a clinical setting.
Manning agrees. “You’re able to not get focused on your problems and what you’re going through and just be in the moment. It’s like they put off good energy or something, and you’re able to breathe.”
“I used to hate going to therapy once a month,” she adds. Being with the horses is “so different because there’s a confidence you get and a nurturing and a caring from the animal that’s unimaginable.”
Her results have made such an impact on her family, that Manning’s active-duty military husband has also started the programs at StableStrides and is seeing his own success.
“For the first time in a long time, I can say I’m genuinely happy,” Manning says. “If my insurance would pay for five days a week, I’d be there.”