It doesn’t involve hospitals or fancy medicines, but equine therapy can be a powerful tool to help the healing process. Time with horses can help kids with various medical conditions or in ‘at-risk’ situations overcome some of their greatest challenges. We spoke with Deb Hoyt of the Healing Hearts With Horses organization in Runnells, Iowa and learned about her work uses horses to heal.
Healing By Breaking Down Physical and Mental Barriers
Horses certainly do have healing powers. We’ve all seen it! You may have experienced the blissful relief of stepping into the barn after a stressful day at the office. You feel your worries melt away with the knickers of your beloved equines and the smell of fresh hay.
Yet the healing power of horses goes much farther than simple stress relief. For the Lakota Indians of South Dakota, horses were viewed as sacred and an important part of the culture, religion and lifestyle. Many other cultures also place the horse in high esteem within their societies.
In our modern world, the horse and medical communities have banded together to create the field of equine therapy. These techniques are helping a wide range of people from those with traumatic head injuries to kids with developmental disorders. Horses can even help troubled youth find a sense of peace and belonging in a world that seems to have passed them by.
Deb Hoyt runs a faith-based organization called Healing Hearts With Horses in Runnells, Iowa. This organization is an equine therapy operation that helps needy children, youth, and even some adults throughout the region. Deb shared, “I LOVE kids and feel like my mission on Earth is to help heal kids with horses.”
Deb Hoyt runs the Healing Hearts With Horses program in Iowa aimed at improving the lives of kids in at-risk situations or other medical conditions.
Deb uses Equine Assisted Psychotherapy (EAP) and other equine therapy techniques to help at-risk youth and other kids with conditions like cerebral palsy, autism, or speech problems. Her work is able to break down medical and psychological barriers and help these children overcome their various challenges. Each of her techniques helps improve the lives of the children and teens that visit her farm. It is truly a special program.
Bareback Riding as Therapeutic Treatment
One of the techniques Deb uses is called hippotherapy and involves the children riding bareback on the horse. The movement of the horse simulates crawling, which is an integral part of brain development. Deb explained, “This helps people with all kinds of problems. We work with a girl with cerebral palsy and it helps her with her balance. We also work with a boy with autism and it helps calm him.” One of the most fascinating results Deb has seen is that children who are dealing with speech problems improve when they practice speech during hippotherapy. “It just seems to ‘stick’ when they are on horse back!” This technique can help a wide range of people including those recovering from strokes.
Equine Assisted Psychotherapy
With Equine Assisted Psychotherapy (EAP), Deb allows youth to interact with horses on the ground rather than on horseback. According to the Equine Assisted Growth and Learning Association (EAGALA), this technique “incorporates horses experientially for mental and behavioral health therapy and personal development. It is a collaborative effort between a licensed therapist and a horse professional working with the clients and horses to address treatment goals.” Deb became certified in this type of therapy by attending training sessions in Utah and Oregon on the EAGALA model.
The focus of EAP is to set up ground activities involving the horse where the kids need to use tools like non-verbal communication, assertiveness, creative thinking, problem solving, team work, taking responsibility, leadership, relationships, confidence, and a good attitude to accomplish the task. For ‘at-risk’ youth, these activities can be tremendous learning opportunities.
Jamal was on EAP youth who benefited greatly from his time at the Hoyt Farm.
Deb shared that many of the teens that enter her program tend to be drawn to the most difficult horses. She works with kids ages 12-18 who live in group homes. Some of the kids have no family for support, behavior problems or are even recovering drug addicts. Others have been sexually abused or have run into trouble with the law. Deb explained, “They are the kids that society really doesn’t like through no fault of their own.”
One of her favorite activities with these kids is the Monty Roberts technique called ‘Join Up - Follow Up’ where teens are asked to make a connection with the horse and then have it follow them around the paddock. “Sometimes they cry and they all say things like ‘He likes me!’ as the horse willingly follows him or her around.” She continued, “These are the kids who feel unloved and unlovable – so this is VERY powerful stuff for them. There are usually tears of happiness all around that day.”
Several teen EAP boys celebrate after a session spent with the horses.
Stories of Healing
When we first began learning about the Healing Hearts With Horses program, Deb shared several truly touching stories of how her work made a huge difference in the lives of some children and adults.
We learned about a young boy named Christopher who was unable to talk by the age of two due to frontal lobe damage to his brain. He was often out of control and angry because he was unable to communicate. After a few weeks working with Deb and his chosen horse named ‘Snazzy’, Christopher made rapid improvements in his speech. His mother shared, “Within six months Christopher was talking in full sentences, had fewer tantrums, and was much easier to handle now that he could communicate his needs to us.” This therapy caused a dramatic positive change in Christopher’s life.
Christopher was a young boy who was able to overcome his speech problems after working with Deb and ‘his’ horse Snazzy.
Another girl named Adelyn was a 13-year-old volunteer with the program. At Healing Hearts With Horses, even the volunteers can experience great benefits. Adelyn signed up along with her mother after experiencing bouts of depression and problems with an eating disorder. Adelyn shared, “Helping at this farm has improved my attitude and has made me feel much better. I'm glad I had this opportunity to heal myself and I hope others will too.” Adelyn’s mom also saw a huge improvement in her daughter’s life after volunteering, "My daughter was in a dark place and Healing Hearts With Horses brought her through that time and I can't be more thankful for her work and the opportunity she gave Addy to heal.”
There are many more stories like these that tell of young people who were experiencing pain in their life. This program and technique helped them overcome some of their challenges to move towards healing and happiness. Deb is currently compiling many of these stories into a full book to tell the story.
A Driving Purpose for Their Work
There are huge costs to maintain the program and care for the more than thirty horses on the farm. The Healing Hearts With Horses program is operated in conjunction with the Horse Heaven Rescue program. Deb and her staff take in neglected or abused horses to be retrained and eventually adopted out to new homes. During their time at the farm, Deb said the horses love working with the kids. “They know what day it is and what time and they are lined up at the gate to do it! It is a whole new aspect for them.”
The Healing Hearts with Horses program is run in conjunction with the Horse Heaven Rescue that takes in abused or neglected horses. The horses are retrained and found new homes.
The biggest challenge for her program is funding and finding enough volunteers. They are also looking for someone to help with grant writing and looking to find a full-time horse trainer.
The Healing Hearts with Horses program relies entirely on volunteers to operate.
The Healing Hearts with Horses program has combination two horse trailer and a 1978 stock bumper pull horse trailer received through an ASPCA grant program. Deb explained, “We DREAM of the day we could own a slant load horse trailer and have a truck that can pull a gooseneck.”
This can be a truly challenging program for Deb and her volunteer staff. “Some days are long and hard!” she explained. Still, she feels that God called her to do this work and she is going to do her absolute best. To learn more about Equine Assisted Psychotherapy, visit the EAGALA.org website. Also visit the Healing Hearts With Horses site to learn more about Deb’s work with both therapy and the Horse Heaven Rescue.
Next time you visit the barn after a long and stressful day, be thankful that you have the healing power of the horse at your fingertips!
**Can you share an example of a time that you personally experience a healing effect from time with your horse?
**Do you know of any local resources that provide similar services to trouble youth or kids with medical problems in your area?