Healing With Horses: Expanding Equine Therapy In Topeka

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TOPEKA, Kansas (WIBW) -- Using horses to heal -- A Topeka non-profit is working to expand equine therapy in Topeka.

Professor Leslie McCullough and the therapists at Hope and Healing Academy see magic happen all the time that can only start with a human and a kinship with a horse.

It's called equine facilitated psychotherapy - pairing a traumatized or disabled person with a horse. With a $50,000 grant from the Horse and Human Research Foundation, they're hoping to spread more of that magic.

Chris Moran and his wife started their own horse therapy practice three years ago. McCullough reached out to them about two years ago after she completed equine therapy research in San Antonio, where she's been one of the forerunners of the movement for more than 20 years. She had just completed a dissertation revealing her findings that EFP did decrease symptoms of trauma and stress in her clients, and increased an animal/human bond. She found Moran and now they are doing more research so EFP will be a scientifically recognized form of therapy.

The facility mostly works with kids at this point.

"I got the opportunity to work with kids in a group home and saw how it was really transforming to them and helping them think differently about who they are, what their capabilities were and thought, we need to do more of this," Moran said.

McCullough says horses are perfect for people who have been abused, have PTSD and have disabilities.

"They are prey animals. They operate in fight or flight which is exactly how PTSD operates," McCullough said. "Because horses are working at the same level as traumatized individuals, there's almost an instant connection. It's like, 'I get you, you get me.'"

One of their clients was scheduled to come for a therapy session, but couldn't make it at the last minute. So, to fully understand their work, I put myself in the client's place. They went through the steps like they would with an actual client. The therapists encouraged me to release my tension, take deep breaths and allow myself to feel a connection with the horse.

His name is Caesar. He came to Topeka with McCullough. Over his 16 years of therapy work, he's seen every type of person imaginable, worked with every disorder. And just by riding him for about 10 minutes, I could see how it works - I felt relaxed. I felt in-tune with Caesar. I let my body relax, and he let his relax as well. We trusted each other. That's exactly what McCullough, Moran and his staff want to see happening all over Topeka and Kansas.

McCullough said horse therapy has been a big thing in Texas for a long time, but through her experiences getting started in Kansas, she said the Sunflower State is behind the rest of the country in that aspect. However, McCullough says the people she's met who want to join in the equine therapy movement are receptive and willing to learn.

The grant money will allow more research and expansion, such as inviting veterans to visit HAHA, but Leslie and Chris say it's the power of the horses that heals.

"They don't care what you look like, don't care what car you drive, if your mama dresses you funny. They're unconditional," McCullough said.

"They just want to be loved and feel safe, and in return give you an amazing experience where you can learn some incredible horsemanship skills as well as learning how to control your anxieties, fears and improve your confidence."

Moran said HAHA is working toward non-profit status to provide therapy at minimum to no cost to its clients. He hopes to work with 3rd party pairs as well.

Hope and Healing Academy (HAHA) is located at 10437 SW 53rd Street in Topeka.