Horses are majestic creatures. Their manes, big eyes, strong bodies and peaceful dispositions are awe-inspiring—so it’s no wonder that equine therapy is a powerful tool for mental well-being. We spoke to Hallie Sheade, co-founder of S.T.E.P.S. With Horses—located in Cresson, a city just outside Tarrant County—about the transformations they’ve seen in children and adults from all over Dallas-Fort Worth.
DFWChild: Tell us about the origins of S.T.E.P.S. With Horses.
Hallie Sheade: My husband Paul Ziehe, a [U.S. Marine Corps] veteran, and I started S.T.E.P.S. in 2017 to expand equine-assisted mental health services and to increase access to these services.
I have a Ph.D. in counseling, and I’m a licensed professional counselor supervisor as well as a registered play therapist supervisor, and have been practicing equine-assisted counseling for more than 10 years. I’ve seen many clients struggle to access high-quality mental health services, with cost being the main barrier. That’s compounded by the fact that many clients, especially military and at-risk youth, are reluctant to try office-based approaches.
We created S.T.E.P.S. to help fill that gap.
C: You mentioned military and at-risk youth; are they your primary clients?
HS: We specialize in working with military service members, veterans, their family members, at-risk youth and others with mental health needs.
Most commonly, we [work with those] experiencing posttraumatic stress, aftereffects of trauma, depression, anxiety, child behavior problems, and social skills and self-esteem issues.
C: What makes interacting with horses so restorative?
HS: Research has demonstrated numerous benefits of interacting with animals, such as reduced blood pressure, reduced anxiety, increased [positive] hormones and decreased stress hormones. It’s also been shown that animals help facilitate relationship development between people.
The presence of horses supports the development of a strong therapeutic relationship.
As prey animals, equines are constantly aware of everything and everyone in their environment. For this reason, they have a high level of attunement in human feelings, even those feelings that we ourselves may not consciously know we’re experiencing.
That makes equines ideal partners in counseling. They’re inherently genuine and authentic, non-judgmental, empathic. We view equines as true partners in the healing journey.
C: How does treatment work?
HS: It focuses on lessening symptoms or disorders. It can also help people cope with life’s challenges and experience a greater sense of meaning in their lives. Interaction with equines is used in conjunction with a variety of counseling techniques including trauma processing, cognitive behavioral strategies, motivational interviewing, mindfulness and grounding skills.
There’s no riding involved. Working with the horses in their natural environment, without attempting to exert control over them, allows them to respond to the client in a natural manner, as if the client were a part of the herd.
[The horses] notice many cues indicative of a person’s emotional state, such as breathing rate, heart rate, body language, facial expressions, tone of voice, even scent. The feedback the equine provides assists the client in gaining insight into thoughts, feelings, behaviors as they’re happening in the moment.
The counselor helps them connect those experiences to any challenges they’re facing. The clients also have the opportunity to practice problem-solving, decision-making, calming skills and communication skills that can be applied to daily life.
C: What about equine therapy for kids?
HS: We use an approach I developed, Equine-Partnered Play Therapy, for kids ages 4–10. We recreated the traditional play therapy room in a ranch environment. Miniature equines are invited into the therapy process, and the child has the opportunity to include the equines in their play as they work through things.
[The kids] can express themselves … but also project their feelings onto the equine.
C: Can you tell us about a child you have worked with?
HS: Sam [whose name has been changed for privacy] started coming to us at age 7.
Sam’s dad served in the military, and Sam and his parents lived all over the world. His parents brought him to counseling because he had difficulty getting along with kids his own age. Sam would tell his parents that he often felt sad and angry; he had years of problem behaviors, including tantrums and trying to hurt himself, [which] resulted in frequent hospitalizations.
When he first began working with [us], Sam was very unaware of how his behavior affected those around him. He would frequently run to the horses screaming and waving his hands. He was unconcerned that the horses moved away from him.
Over the next several weeks, Sam began to try out different ways of approaching and talking to them. He noticed [the horses] wanted to be close to him when he was calm and quiet; they chose to approach him on their own accord. By befriending the horses, he learned how to make friends.
Soon, his parents [told us] Sam was acting more nurturing to the family dog; he also started trying to make friends at school. He told [his parents] he was happy again, and his teachers noticed he was more focused. Today, he’s finding healthy ways to relate to others.
S.T.E.P.S. (which stands for Spectrum of Therapeutic Equine-Partnered Services) With Horses is always in need of donations in order to provide no-cost services or financial assistance; the organization is also in the process of raising funds for a facility. You can donate through stepswithhorses.org.
Photo courtesy of Jana Vinson.