Not just horsing around: the healing power of equines

Star and Buck, rescue horses

Originally published in Taos News

Photos taken from Equine Spirit Sanctuary’s website

Horses and kids tend to do well together. Equine-assisted therapy produces exceptionally good results due to the social and responsive nature of the horses and the natural curiosity of kids.

“There is just something about the horse,” said Ruth Bourgeois, owner and director of the Equine Spirit Sanctuary. “Horses hold a special captivation for persons of all ages, that we don’t seem to outgrow. If a simple picture of a horse has the power to emotionally move us, imagine the strength and effect of an actual interaction.”

To facilitate such interaction, Bourgeois created Horses Helping Kids, a program that combines equine-assisted learning and therapeutic riding at Equine Spirit Sanctuary. The program includes grooming and leading exercises as well as riding.

Two happy riders

Danny O’Rourke has been part of the program for over three years. He is eleven years old.

“Horses have huge hearts and are so good with kids,” said his mother, Karin Johnson. “No matter how Danny is feeling before we get to the Equine Spirit Sanctuary, he is always so happy there…that’s a high point in his life. Ruth and all her volunteer staff are doing a great job. We hope they can build an indoor arena so the lessons can take place year around.”

O’Rourke goes riding once a week during spring and summer.

“I love Dustee,” he said. “He’s an old good horse! But I like Hava, Kat and Elvis too.”

Miquella Brown is nine years old and also enjoys her rides, which can last up to thirty minutes.

“This is the only therapy she really likes,” said her mother, Josephine Brown. “She is nonverbal, but she gets the biggest smile when we are driving toward the sanctuary.”

A lesson

A typical lesson is one hour in length and consists of preparation, grooming, and riding—the most fun part of it, but also one that requires the most preparation and care.

“The riding part includes warm-up, stretching, balance and flexibility exercises, games on horseback, and learning basic riding skills as appropriate for the client’s age and abilities,” said Bourgeois, PATH, Intl. accredited therapeutic riding instructor, who directs and supervises the program.

“The objective is not to teach extensive horsemanship skills, although horse handling and riding are part of the program,” Bourgeois said. “The focus is on more on personal growth and life skills, with specially designed exercises to improve self-esteem and self-awareness, combining body awareness exercises with motor planning and verbal communication, in a supportive setting.”

Fulfilling a need

Bourgeois recognized the need for a therapeutic riding program in Taos County when she looked at the figures.

“Currently there are around five hundred learning disabled persons between the ages of three and twenty two in the special education classes in the Taos School system, according to data from the schools,” she said. “We care about these kids and want to offer them something special that they cannot get through any other local program.”

She sees kids and horses as “a natural combination.”

“And for children with disabilities, animal companionship is particularly invaluable, as they may have trouble making friends with kids their own ages,” she said. “Horses give children an opportunity to connect with another living being, which is extremely important to any child’s development.”

The Sanctuary

Equine Spirit Sanctuary is a non-profit, volunteer-based healing center, founded in 2005. The organization’s vision is to provide horse rescue and programs for people.

“It is the culmination of my dream to bring people and horses together,” she said. “Since I was a child, I have loved horses. I have a degree in horse husbandry and worked for years in the horse industry until I came to Taos. Here, all my life experience and horse background came together, to create a sanctuary for these beautiful and intelligent animals.”

As a nonprofit organization, Equine Spirit Sanctuary depends on the generosity of its sponsors and volunteers.

Healing with horses

Equine Spirit Sanctuary offers an equine-assisted learning and therapy program for persons of all ages in addition to the Horses Helping Kids program.

“I am most excited about the potential of this program. Horses have a natural healing power that has been proven effective in physical, mental, and emotional therapy,” said Bourgeois. “Besides the innate healing energy that they possess, interacting with horses has many other benefits.”

One of them has to do with the most visible trait of a horse —its size.

“Horses are big, often intimidating animals,” said Bourgeois. “Because of this, interacting with a horse immediately challenges issues of fear and confidence. Horses are also incredibly responsive to human emotion and action. By working with them, people learn about leadership, taking responsibility, and teamwork. By honoring and respecting the spirit of the horses, they then are a source of joy and inspiration to the people whose lives they touch.”

A dream come true

Writer and designer Susan Washburn interviewed Bourgeois for her book My Horse, My Self: Life Lessons From Taos Horsewomen.

“I was nearly moved to tears by what she told me about her life, which was, to put it mildly, filled with obstacles, from difficult relationships to a bout of intractable fibromyalgia,” Washburn said. “I believe Ruth’s personal suffering and the healing influence she felt from her own horses are the wellspring of the deep compassion she has for both equines and humans. Equine Spirit Sanctuary has been a lifelong dream of hers and it is so gratifying to see it come to fruition with the acquisition of a permanent home for this wonderful interspecies community.”

That dream has become a reality. In May 2015, Equine Spirit Sanctuary was able to buy the property they had been renting for over seven years.

“Now we have a forever home,” Bourgeois said, “and we are looking forward to being able to do more with our programs, for more people.”

Equine Spirit Sanctuary is located at 13 Los Caballos Road Ranchos de Taos

Phone: (575) 758 1212

Dustee, lesson horse