Revered throughout history for their strength, intelligence and beauty, horses have long been woven into the fabric of many cultures for the versatility and companionship they offer.
Popular culture has delved deep into and brought many of the wonderful qualities and attributes associated with horses to the silver screen, with movies like “Seabiscuit” and “War Horse” exploring the life-changing bond that can develop between people and these majestic creatures.
Their powerful natures can also make horses transformative partners in the healing process, especially in the field of equine-assisted therapy.
Though it’s commonly believed that equine-assisted therapy has been used in some form since antiquity, the practice became a widely accepted therapeutic treatment for physical health issues in the 1960s.
Decades later, equine-assisted therapy earned a place as a viable treatment within the mental health sector, with psychotherapists and patients alike often touting benefits like improved relationships, greater confidence and enhanced emotional awareness.
Kelley Hullihen witnessed first hand how working with horses in a therapeutic setting could help children struggling with diagnoses like autism and decided to start her own Equine Assisted Activities and Therapies Center nearly 15 years ago.
Hoofbeats with Heart is a nonprofit that specializes in hippotherapy — occupational, physical and speech therapy that relies on the motions and movement of horses — provided to children, teens and adults. In addition, the organization conducts traditional in-home therapy services and even boasts its own onsite therapy clinic.
Hoofbeats also offers psychotherapy with horses, following the leading standard in equine-assisted psychotherapy and personal development known as Eagala.
Other programs Hoofbeats offers include riding lessons for individuals with disabilities, aquatherapy and even bereavement therapy.
Originally operated out of Gilbert, the nonprofit moved to San Tan Valley nearly 12 years ago amidst growing popularity, which required Hullihen to invest in a larger property. Hoofbeats is located just off Ironwood and Germann roads near Combs High School.
“I think one of the things that makes Hoofbeats with Heart so different is that they are a 501(C)(3), so instead of just offering equine-assisted therapy, there is the traditional therapy center and there’s all the modalities of occupational therapy, physical therapy (and) speech therapy,” said Meaghan Selger, marketing director and board member. “But they all just work really well with the equine-assisted therapy.”
Horses, said Hullihen, are great partners to have in therapy because of their non-judgmental temperament.
Often categorized as herd and prey animals, horses possess acute sensitivity to their environment. In therapeutic settings, their heightened awareness enables them to quickly analyze and react to body language and give nonverbal cues that experts say can provide patients with greater insight about how they approach other areas in their life.
“The horses are out here — they’re present — so most of the folks that interact with them are getting real time therapy because the horses mirror our judgments (and) our moves,” said Hullihen.
Their natural disposition to be mindful of their environment also make horses good candidates to work with teenagers that have committed minor offenses. In partnership with the Pinal County Sheriff’s Office and the American Sheriff Foundation, Hoofbeats participates in the Juvenile Redirection Program, a pre-arrest program that aims to give adolescents that have had run-ins with the law a chance to redirect their course.
Teens enrolled in the program spend Saturday mornings working at the Hoofbeats farm on Coyote Road, cleaning up after and caring for the animals. As part of their participation, they also receive equine therapy.
The program has worked with just over 100 students. Of those students, Hullihen says only a couple have been repeat offenders.
“You get a lot more results out here at the farm than you would ever get in a traditional setting,” she said. “The kids come out to the farm and they engage a lot more, they’re involved a lot more with the therapy (and) with the horses — they’re meeting their goals quicker.”
Whether it’s working with teens through juvenile redirection or with those with mental and physical health challenges, equine-assisted therapy has a strong track record of producing improvements, especially among children and young adults.
Hullihen estimates that about 400-500 children and families participate in programs run by Hoofbeats. She attributes equine therapy’s success to the fact that horses likely make the sessions more experiential and engaging for young minds as opposed to traditional clinical settings, which some can find burdensome. Though Hoofbeats offers treatment in a clinical setting as well, she says that the farm is typically a favorite among the younger clients the nonprofit sees.
“It doesn’t feel like a session,” Selger said, noting that younger clients typically view their therapy sessions with the horses as a commitment or sport. “It feels more like an activity which creates that sense of normalcy that I think a lot of these kids are lacking.”
In addition to hippotherapy, for those 18 and up, the nonprofit offers sessions to assist with physical disabilities. That particular program, Hullihen said, incorporates a variety of goals and training sessions as well as some equine therapy.
The organization even runs a Horses for Heroes program, where licensed therapists work with veterans, first responders and their families in group sessions and monthly workshops.
Like many other nonprofits, Hoofbeats has been deeply impacted by the pandemic, with the organization doing whatever it can to serve those that depend on the farm while taking necessary precautions against the virus.
As a result of the economic slowdown caused by the pandemic, the nonprofit has recently offered more scholarships to families that rely on the organization’s therapy services despite a significant dip in donations. Though a lot of the programs offered by Hoofbeats are covered by insurance, Selger noted that some families only have the means to pay for services in cash.
“We’ve been offering more scholarships and doing more just so we can continue to safely treat as many families as possible,” she said.
But keeping the doors open hasn’t been easy. Over the course of 2020, Hoofbeats witnessed the cancellation of many of the contracts it relies upon to feed the animals at the farm, a trend that Hullihen says has carried over into this year.
With a policy of not turning anyone away no matter their ability — or inability— to afford services, keeping Hoofbeats operating during the pandemic has proved to be a challenging balancing act, she said. However, the organization remains committed to helping local individuals and families, Selger says.
“Despite the struggles and the pandemic, we are still doing everything we can to keep the doors open, keep the animals fed and continue to serve the community,” she said.