FARMINGTON — Retired race horses are getting a second career by helping humans overcome trauma, mental or behavioral challenges, according to a Utah conference this week.
The program, which is called equine-assisted psychotherapy and uses the intuitive nature of horses, can help veterans, at-risk youngsters, families and others, said Hayley Sumner, a spokeswoman for the Equine Assisted Growth and Learning Association.
The group hosted its 12th annual conference in Utah cities this week, according to the Standard-Examiner of Ogden. EAGALA works in partnership with the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation to pair up with the horses.
Proponents say horses have an acute sensitivity that helps with bonding and responding to human handlers.
"The horses respond to what we bring with us," said Lynn Moore, a Minnesota-state based licensed alcohol and drug counselor.
Lynn Thomas, a co-founder of the Santaquin-based association and its executive director, said the key is that as the humans take horses through obstacles, the animals sense and respond to nonverbal signals.
Four horses and four volunteers used props such as Hula Hoops, traffic cones and barrels during a demonstration Thursday. The focus was not on whether the individual coaxes the horse through the obstacle, but rather their work together.
Moore said horses respond by moving from or toward individuals, or by moving their head. If a horse moves away, an individual can let go of their stress, changing the way the horse responds.
Carissa McNamara, of Payson, said working with a horse helped her resolve post-traumatic stress and anxiety stemming from a 2005 car accident. She is now an EAGALA board member.
The association has more than 300 social workers, educators, equine specialists, corporate leaders and psychiatrists, and some 3,500 members worldwide.