Horsepower for Veterans: Equine-Assisted Psychotherapy Offers Unique Healing in The Natural State

 

Trauma therapy and mental wellness have come a long way in the last few decades. Just one example of the recent advances in therapy includes the incorporation of horses into the healing process, a tool which The Natural State is aptly designed for. 

 

Kim Copps is a licensed social worker, and is the owner and therapist of Corral Coaching and Counseling, PLLC. She has a diverse population of clients, from individuals to couples, to families, and to veterans. 

 

Copps moved to Northwest Arkansas in the early 2000s to offer their children a rural lifestyle. Copps already had a bachelor’s and a master’s degree in social work and began to fulfill her continuing education hours in 2001. This opened her career — and her world — up to the role that horses play in therapy.

 

“This continuing education really changed my thoughts about horses and how they work,” she said. 

 

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Copps explains how staying up to date on her career field got the ball rolling.

 

“My work evolved; I worked at the VA here in Fayetteville, and my specialty was traumatology. Equine-assisted psychotherapy is a really hard thing to do, between liabilities and having training, but I was able to start a program while I was at the VA,” Copps explains. “After five years, I went into private practice and went into coral coaching, studying all over the country. I already had the VA training, and my husband, a lawyer, was very instrumental in setting up my business plan and working with the VA.”

 

Copps is known for working primarily with veterans and started working with an organization called Sheep Dog Impact Assistance. Sheep Dog has a mental health program called Warrior PATHH training. That’s where Copps came in. 

 

“Sheep Dog is a fascinating organization that started in Rogers,” she says. “One of my former acquaintances at the VA was talking about a new mental health program with Sheep Dog at the VA, and she fulfilled the equine component and asked me to join her. One of the primary populations that I work with is veterans, first responders, and their families. I find Sheep Dog’s mission especially important because they focus on post-traumatic growth and recovery.”

 

Equine-assisted psychotherapy is unique, with roots that go back thousands of years. 

 

“Equine-assisted psychotherapy has grown. Horses and humans have had connections since the beginning of time, but there wasn’t a lot of real evidence-based study related to equine therapy,” Copps explains. “I helped develop a course at UA called equine activities and therapies, and what we hoped to do was to allow anyone to take that elective. A lot of therapy students could take that class. The only facility that did this when I moved here was in Bentonville. It’s grown since then.”

 

Copps points out that there is a huge difference between horsemanship and equine therapy. 

 

“A lot of people who own horses think that they can do this too overnight,” she says. “You can’t just throw up a round tin in your backyard because you have horses and do this too. You need to be a licensed professional in order to do this. As a mental health professional, my specialties are trauma and equine specialties. Every equine-assisted psychotherapy organization usually will have two people, one who specializes in horses, and the other who specializes in therapy, and both of them work together.”

 

As a result, there’s no such thing as too much training.

 

“Mental health and equine-assisted psychotherapy with the specific population of veterans and their families requires highly trained professionals. I am very grateful for my years at the VA [Veterans Healthcare System of the Ozarks] in Fayetteville for the massive amounts of training they provide specific to PTSD and other diagnoses, such as depression and substance use disorders,” Copp says. “There’s no such thing, in my opinion, as too much training. My personal and professional code has always been to honor those people with meaningful work that is very, very difficult. The population and work require a commitment to excellence.” 

 

Copps explains that there are different types of equine-assisted psychotherapy.

 

• Therapeutic riding programs require physical therapy, which helps patients strengthen physical aspects or work through medical issues by riding horses and working with horses. The team consists of a horse handler and a physical therapist. The horse walks with patients, who are better able to work on their balance.

 

• Hippotherapy, which is also considered a mounted program, can have physical therapists or occupational therapists who help patients work on their fine motor skills by leading the horse, in addition to working through tasks and activities. 

 

• Equine-assisted psychotherapy is the mental health component of working with horses through emotional bonding and working through various diagnoses, including trauma. 

 

“Anyone can benefit from equine psychotherapy— practitioners across the country work with children and adolescents, couples, families, and groups. Anyone can benefit. It really is not diagnosis specific. Adolescents and students who struggle with social or generalized anxiety can also benefit. Connection and communication are the foundations of our work that horses help us with. Horses are excellent communicators recognizing that effective communication is nonverbal.”

 

Copps explains that equine-assisted psychotherapy is effective because humans and horses share a bond that goes back thousands of years.

 

“Horses as herd animals need the herd for survival, not living alone. Many people with trauma struggle with isolation. Just putting their hands on a horse can begin the healing process.”

 

One of the reasons the horses are so different, Copps shares, is because humans are connecting with a prey animal. This is different from connecting with a dog, which is a predator animal.

 

“In order to feel safe with a 1000-pound animal, you have to start at zero and work your way up. By the end, when you step off and walk, the horse steps off and walks with you,” Copp says. “If you are anxious, the horse is anxious. If you are relaxed, the horse is relaxed. Of course, this bond, like therapy, can take time. If I were to push someone to do something that they’re not ready to do, they wouldn’t establish a good relationship. Horses don’t get in a hurry, they’re good at staying in the present moment. Many people who come here struggle with anxiety.”

 

Copps emphasizes the role of communication; that’s what makes equine-assisted psychotherapy so unique.

 

“I tell young people that the most important relationships are not social media relationships. Spending time with someone and doing things together is most important.”

 

Copps says that the sky is the limit on patients who can work with horses. Many children will engage in play therapy with horses, while veterans will work with horses to help their anxiety.

 

 

“I have people who have service dogs and work with service horses. You work with your service dog every day. You only occasionally work with a service horse. That’s part of the uniqueness of equine-assisted psychotherapy. Knowing that the horses are different helps different people. People have different preferences for animals. That does make them wrong or right that’s just a preference,” Copps says. “Therapy is not intended to last forever. Some people start frequently, and then they start to tamper off. You have to have the willingness to look at scary things and address the difficulty and not ignore it. The arena gives people the support of a therapist to do things differently and better. It’s a combination of confidence and competence.”

 

Today, Copps says she also likes taking the time to help students, social workers, and therapists find out more about equine-assisted psychotherapy and how to fit into this unique therapy subset.

 

“My goal is to help people understand this and the work that goes into this so they can find a practitioner and figure out how to get involved and trained,” Copps says. “The principle of connection is so important in this work. Most of our problems as humans come from when we aren’t connected with one another and communicating well.”   

 

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