The Healing Power of Horses
MANE & TAILL: Therapeutic Horsemanship Academy
Five teenagers, grouped in two teams, slowly circled a horse that was loose in a paddock. Some waved a bright-colored noodle commonly used as a swim aid, trying to shoo the horse toward a gated pen. The goal was to persuade the horse, without touching it, to willingly enter the enclosure. It took a couple of times, but the handsome animal eventually scampered through the gate as the young people cheered.
Samantha Iulo watched approvingly from the side of the paddock as volunteers guided the special needs teens back across the field.“They were having a real hard time being successful,” she says. “They were getting frustrated. These are children who deal with frustration every day. This helps them deal with frustration.” As part of the non-profit Mane and Taill Therapeutic Horsemanship Academy that Iulo launched in 2009 at her friend’s farm in Currituck County, her well-trained and gentle horses help children and adults with emotional and mental disabilities learn to trust, gain confidence, and open up to the world. And they have fun doing it.
The campers teaming up at the day camp on a recent summer day were participating in a program called Equine Assisted Psychotherapy (EAP) that fosters emotional growth by encouraging collaboration and problem-solving, with the assistance of a licensed therapist.
Sara Marcus, PhD, a psychologist in Kitty Hawk, was on hand to watch the children interact with one another and the horses. Afterward, she gathered with the campers in a portable classroom and talked with them about their experience that day.
“Was it easy or hard to get Mini in the pen?” she asks the teens. When one boy responded that it was hard, Marcus asks the group to tell her what made it hard.
“Because Mini is very stubborn,” responded a boy named Jason. “If she doesn’t want to work, she’ll stop working.”
Marcus: “Anybody know people like that?” The back and forth conversation continued as Marcus talked about the difficulty of getting the second horse into the pen and the frustration it caused for the teens. She commended their perseverance and ultimate success.
“I saw really good communication, really quick, and working as a team,” Marcus told the group.
“I was really proud of you guys. That was hard and you worked through it.”
The goal of EAP is to encourage activities with the horses that help the participants learn about each other and themselves. By discussing what they did and what they thought afterwards, it helps process feelings and make sense of behaviors and patterns. It also sharpens non-verbal communication skills.
The Academy holds sessions during the year that offer therapeutic horseback riding for children and adults with disabilities such as autism, Down syndrome, cerebral palsy and/or intellectual, mental, and emotional handicaps.
Riding horses teaches coordination and strengthens the body. Sitting on top of a powerful animal also provides a sense of control and respect. And the horses seem to instinctively respond with more gentleness around special needs people.
“Most definitely,” Perry says. “When a kid gets around them, they change completely. [The horses] recognize that they have a disability.”
A grant from the Outer Banks Community Foundation has provided scholarships for camp programs, Iulo says. There are 10-15 volunteers who she calls the backbone of the program. “All the people helping with this program are truly committed to the mission,” she says. Fees are different, depending on the service, but every effort is made to supplement the costs with grants to help families.
“These are children who need to be prepared for life,” says Iulo, as the young people groomed one of the horses nearby. “This is an opportunity for them to learn from a horse. Even though they’re domesticated animals, they still run away when they’re frightened. “They’re learning from the horse. All we’re doing is helping them be aware of it,” she added.
The program currently serves about 50 children and adults in the community and surrounding counties. The EAL program has served about 15 people. In addition, horseback riding lessons are provided for about 10 participants in the spring and fall, and about 20 to 25 children and young adults attend day camp during the summer. Horsemanship and horseback riding lessons are also provided to 15 to 20 special needs adults.
Francine Levesque, from Camden, says her high-functioning autistic son Julius, an 11th grader at Jarvisburg Christian Academy, had enjoyed therapeutic horseback riding when he visited Camp Royall in Moncure, NC a few years ago. Levesque said she later met Iulo at the Surfing for Autism event, where Iulo was volunteering. “It was ironic,” she said. “I asked her if she knew anyone who did therapeutic horseback riding, and she said that’s what she did.”
Levesque’s son has gone to the Academy for four years now, and she has nothing but raves for it.
“Sam is awesome,” she says. “I recommend her to everybody.”
Riding and being around horses calms 15-year-old Julius and helps him relax, Levesque explains. “The tension just goes away; there’s a lot of stress that comes with autism.”
Levesque adds that the social aspect of the Academy has also helped her son make friends. In the four years he has attended, Julius, already an animal lover, has built a strong bond with the horses.
“You’re not just maintaining a horse,” she says. “It’s more of a relationship that you’re developing.”
One of the volunteer counselors, Claire Perry, 17, said she has seen much progress in the young people over the five years she has volunteered.
One three-year-old girl who has no depth perception was afraid to use the pedestal or mounting block because it was too high. But the horses kept her motivated to keep trying, and now, at age six, it’s not an issue.
“I haven’t seen her scared about anything,” Perry said. “She’s pretty much confident with everything.”
Another child, a young boy, started the program barely able to string together a sentence and having difficulty controlling himself.
“This year, when he came back,” Perry says, “his sentence structure was like 20 times better.
He said, ‘I love you’ and ‘this is the best time ever.’ ”
Perry said when she goes to college, she wants to study therapeutic horsemanship to help substance abusers as well as those with special needs.
The name Mane and Taill stands for Meeting All Needs with Equines And Teaching All Individuals Life Lessons, and Iulo seems to have the energy and passion to fulfill the ambitious mission that is spelled out in that acronym.
As a girl growing up in Randolph, NJ Iulo, 37, says that her family had horses that she rode. But when she went off to college, her riding days ended, and she did not resume her interest in horses until a few years after moving to Currituck County in the early 2000s. After getting a job teaching at Dare County Schools, she earned a degree in Special Education from East Carolina University. Once she started working with special needs children, she knew she had made the right career choice.
“The more I taught the class, the more I fell in love with it,” Iulo says of working with special needs populations. “They’re amazing people. They’re warm. They’re generous. They appreciate everything. They’re honest. They’re very happy. They’re just good people.” Iulo has been teaching exceptional children at Dare County Schools for eight years.
Bad behavior from the children usually means there’s something going on to cause it, she says, whether it’s fear, loneliness, or frustration. Magic happened when horses were added to the mix. For Iulo, she says she first saw it when an autistic teenager she had been teaching one-on-one at First Flight High School had gone to see horses with his speech therapist.
After the therapist moved, the student had a meltdown. With patient probing, she figured out that he was mourning not only the loss of the therapist, but the time spent with horses. After that, he earned the chance to again see the horses once a month, and soon enough, he had bounced back.
“He did beautifully,” she said.
That was a powerful lesson for Iulo, and she was inspired to get certification with the Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship. Before long, helped by a donation of a retired racehorse, things evolved to the point where she was able to start the Academy at a friend’s farm.
“It’s an opportunity for me to share my love and respect for people with special needs,” she says. “Every time I’m out there, I just feel great.” Iulo says her own two boys, ages 7 and 8, have showed her that the social connections with special needs children and adults are as vital to them as is the riding and interactions with the horses.
“They have grown up with the program, and they are a big part of it. The horses make it so that everybody is on an even playing field; it really makes it a good environment to be in,” says Iulo.
Catherine Kozak has worked as a writer and reporter on the Outer Banks since 1995. She lives in Nags Head and enjoys running in the woods with her dog, Rosie.