“That was the first time in 20 years I’ve liked myself.”
Kristen Marcus will never forget those words, spoken by a veteran after an equine-facilitated psychotherapy session. Breakthrough moments like this are why Marcus has devoted her life to sharing the incredible healing power of horses.
Marcus is the executive director of Children, Horses and Adults in Partner Ship (CHAPS), a Wyoming-based nonprofit dedicated to helping people learn, grow and heal through equine-assisted activities and therapies (EAAT). Nestled into the foothills of the Bighorn Mountains near Sheridan, CHAPS is the only facility of its kind for more than 100 miles. Some of the 250-plus participants CHAPS serves face long commutes to get there, but the drive is worth it.
The benefits of horse-human interaction have been well known for many years, with mounting evidence proving horses can help with physical, emotional and cognitive issues. Part of the reason horses are so effective is because of their physicality, which can encourage muscle strength, balance and coordination in humans. But there’s something else about horses—less tangible—that makes them powerful agents of emotional healing as well.
“We don’t know if it’s pheromones, body language or electrical activity,” says Marcus, who’s witnessed first steps, first smiles and first words, all thanks to horses. “We don’t know how horses read us, but they have this uncanny ability to know exactly what we need. They give us the feedback we need right when we need it and in the form we need it. It’s amazing. They’re amazing.”
Eleven amazing equines comprise the herd at CHAPS, ranging in age, breed, size and specialty. The diminutive Feather, just 10 hands tall, is perfect for the smallest riders and for traveling to clients who are unable to be transported. Tili, the largest horse in the herd at 17.2, is a giant teddy bear who likes to work with at-risk youth and in the driving program. Twenty-seven-year-old Sampson, the oldest in the group, is active in the riding program and excels at working with veterans. Despite their differences, the therapy horses of CHAPS have something in common: they all shine at their jobs.
The job of a therapy horse is much more involved than simply carting riders around, pony-ride style, says Marcus. It’s a rewarding job, but it’s demanding. Riders can be very busy—swaying, kicking, twisting and turning. Some riders are unbalanced, with all their weight tipped to one side or the other. Other program participants carry heavy emotional loads. Marcus says, “It’s very difficult on the horse—physically and mentally—because they have to constantly compensate for what the rider can’t do.”
Marcus emphasizes that therapy horses have to be in top shape. To keep their horses happy and healthy, CHAPS employs a robust horsekeeping program that includes custom diets specific to each horse’s needs, full-time turnout, aloe juice to prevent ulcers, bi-weekly chiropractic adjustments and Cosequin®.
“It doesn’t matter how old or young they are, they all get Cosequin®,” says Marcus. “This job is physically demanding so we want to take care of their joints and keep them comfortable for as long as possible.”
It’s an approach that’s working.
“Our 24-year-old, he runs in for breakfast every morning!” laughs Marcus.
Taking excellent care of their horses is a priority at CHAPS. The horses, in turn, are able to do what they do best: help people overcome some of life’s toughest challenges.
“I have story after story after story about the incredible things our horses have done,” says Marcus. “It makes what we do worth it, every day.”
Article sponsored by: Nutramax Laboratories Veterinary Sciences, Inc., makers of Cosequin®.