35– Horses & Veterans; judgement free help in the therapy arena with, Judy Smith

September 15, 2020 Utah State University Office of Research Episode 35
35– Horses & Veterans; judgement free help in the therapy arena with, Judy Smith
35– Horses & Veterans; judgement free help in the therapy arena with, Judy Smith
Sep 15, 2020 Episode 35
Utah State University Office of Research

In this episode of Instead, Wyatt preps for an upcoming Blue Plate Research event with Equine Assisted Therapist Judy Smith. The two discuss the history behind this unique form of therapy. Judy explains how a horse's movements can help people regain balance. After that you'll learn how horses can feel anxiety in a person, leading them to psychological improvement. 

Show Notes Transcript

In this episode of Instead, Wyatt preps for an upcoming Blue Plate Research event with Equine Assisted Therapist Judy Smith. The two discuss the history behind this unique form of therapy. Judy explains how a horse's movements can help people regain balance. After that you'll learn how horses can feel anxiety in a person, leading them to psychological improvement. 

Judy Smith: [00:00:01] And just think about it, the opportunity to get out into nature, to engage with a living creature who can choose to ignore you but yet chooses to participate with you. It's a very integrated.


Wyatt: [00:00:17] That's the voice of Judy Smith, and she's going to tell us about horses helping people, here are some ways horses can help people.


Judy Smith: [00:00:26] Therapy is harnessing the movement of the horse as a dynamic platform. And so the equine specialist would work with an otter, Peter, a speech therapist, to achieve those therapeutic outcomes. We have equine assisted learning. An example of that would be corporate activities, and they need to work on communication skills and they put them in the arena with the horse and also equine assisted psychotherapy. And in that role, the equine specialist partners are paired with a therapist to achieve mental health outcomes.


Wyatt: [00:01:01] I bet you have questions about equine assisted therapy, like how long has it been around or what makes horses such effective therapeutic tools? Well, Judy answered those questions for me and you. And she also told me how her research brought a herd of horses together to serve some of Utah's veterans.


Wyatt: [00:01:20] My name is Wyatt Traughber, and you could be wondering why that old blue four wheeler doesn't seem to remember you, but you are listening to this instead. Judy gets things started by giving me a peek into her research, then she takes me back to where she grew up near Yakima, Washington.


Wyatt: [00:01:48] We are looking at the discipline from the horse's perspective. The horse is an active agent and healing. We need to support their well-being just as much as we support the well-being of the humans that benefit.


Wyatt: [00:02:02] Why did you get interested in equine therapy? Tell me about your path.


Wyatt: [00:02:07] I made a mistake when I said equine therapy. That would be like giving a Palomino a massage or helping a Shetland pony get over his height issues. What Judy does is equine assisted therapy.


Judy Smith: [00:02:19] My love for horses started very young. My grandmother, when I was five, insisted that I needed to have a horse and my father being the very proper Dutch farmer that he was and very practical. He grew up with horses using them to farm the place when he was a child and he was on to using tractors and he didn't need a horse to chomp up the ground. And then also you can't eat them. But my grandmother won and my fifth birthday I received my first horse and then my great uncle, he said, well, if she's going to have a horse, she needs to know how to do this. Right. So they signed me up for horse storage. So in Washington State, we had a very active program through our Land Grant University. And I was in for H for 12 years. Also during my teen years, I rode competitively Hunter Jumper and had a wonderful mentor who really developed my skills and my horsemanship ability. Then I got married and my husband was in the Air Force and we moved away from the farm and life happened. And I found myself 20 years later not having a horse in my life and working at a university that had a small equestrian program. And I realized I really miss horses. I've been busy doing other things, going a different career path. And I got back engaged, helping out with their equestrian program and rekindled this love. I went in a different direction and went back to school. I picked up my undergrad as an organizational leadership with a minor and equine studies.And then I went on to graduate school at Oklahoma State University, where I studied therapeutic recreation, and they allowed me to specialize in the recreation and therapeutic development of equine programs.


Wyatt: [00:04:16] How do you think growing up with a horse informed who you are?


Judy Smith: [00:04:21] Well, the main reason my grandmother felt I needed a horse was because I was terribly, painfully shy. And she felt with my two older brothers who were a little bit of bullies, a horse would help me develop confidence. And she really was right on the farm we had and a lot of neighbors and didn't have any siblings my own age. And my horse became my best friend. And as I grew, especially in the forage program, I was forced in a position to have to speak in front of people. But it wasn't so bad when I could talk about my horse or anything to do with horses because I was so connected to that relationship, so deaf. And the horse helped me kind of come out of my shell and gain those interpersonal skills that I could apply to the rest of my life as an adult.So the Equine Assisted Activities and Therapies program at USU is special because very few universities have an academic path that prepares a person to become either an equine specialist and mental health and learning or therapeutic riding instructor. And on my journey to build my academic background, when I went back to school, I just had to make it happen myself and then seek my professional certifications. And that's something that I really wanted to bring here is a very defined academic path that gives the students a hands on opportunity to engage with the participants that we serve it.


Wyatt: [00:05:56] After learning a little bit about Judy's history, I wanted to know more about the history of equine assisted interventions. Judy gave me the background I was looking for.


Judy Smith: [00:06:05] I mean, the horses have been around for about fifty five hundred years and they've been a part of mankind. And there's early indications that primitive man took them and then perhaps they were also eaten as we moved into harnessing them, engaging them for war, for work. This relationship was closer. Ty developed, as are some early writings in the literature that. We see the horse was engaged in Greek and Roman times and holistic or healing capacity, we have records from World War One and that the horse was used in Britain. They found that by engaging some of the wounded soldiers with those cavalry horses, often it would improve the soldier's mood. But then those that had lost limb, they found that putting them on the horse, they saw that locomotion, that sense of balance and movement began to improve. In the 1940s, a Danish equestrian suffered polio and she actually went to the Olympics. And I think she received the silver medal. And from there, Europe really got on board, making it an actual field, incorporating equine assisted therapy and writing. And here our association, which is part of international the Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship International. There are about fifty one years old as far as a governing professional body providing continuing education and the certification process. So that's kind of the emergence of the field here in America and around the world.


Wyatt: [00:07:56] Like what was the existing research of how to train a therapy horse like? Was there much there? And then how are you adding to it?


Judy Smith: [00:08:04] So there isn't much there? There isn't much. And. It's challenging because we're engaging a thousand pound animal with fragile populations and one of the current projects that my graduate assistant and I are working on is developing a reliable evaluation tool that we can begin to say, OK, these are the list of skills equine assisted intervention force engaged in therapy would look like goal for her research is to validate that tool that it can be used across the whole field.


Wyatt: [00:08:45] If you're interested in the scientific progress being made in the health and wellness field, Judy Smith and two other USC researchers will be featured in a virtual event at the end of September. This will be the first event of the Blue Plate Research Series, this new event series from U.S. Office of Research and the region's Blue Cross Blue Shield will highlight Utah State University's discoveries and research efforts in the areas of health and well-being. For more information about Blue Plate research, visit Blue Plate Research UTSU.


Wyatt: [00:09:18] You tell me more about that tool. What things isn't measuring?


Judy Smith: [00:09:24] First of all, is the horse sound. We don't want to use a horse in pain and take from that. Of course it's not fair, but also a horse in pain is reactive. You think about when we're in pain, we're not ourselves and that could create an unsafe situation. So first and foremost we have to evaluate is this horse sound, is this horse suitable in temperament? Some horses, because of their past experiences, they really don't enjoy engaging with people. And so we have to look at the temperament. And then once that has been determined, we have a horse with a suitable temperament and we have a sound horse for ground skills evaluation. We would want to see will that horse stand quietly tied or that horse lead for a beginner? Can this horse respond to basic cues, backing up, moving forward, moving over? How does this horse behave with other horses? We often put two or three horses in the arena while we do our activities. And so we don't want a horse that has a vicious nature towards other horses. So we look at about ten different domains. And then my grad student is actually developing the rubric that we can get a concise and reliable measurement and we're going to utilize heart rate monitor and perhaps probably other stress indicators like cortisol to determine even if this horse is not displaying an inappropriate behavior on uncooperative behavior. Is the horse experiencing some type of stress? What are the indicators if this horse is compliant or agreeable or actually participating in the activity?


Wyatt: [00:11:12] I guess is equine therapist even a position ? Somebody can have can you be responsible for the horses and also be the same person responsible for the patients?


Judy Smith: [00:11:23]  Well, you can be certified to become an equine specialist in mental health and learning. And in that role, your focus is the how to engage the horse in the process of the mental health or learning setting. And then you also are the voice of the horse in the mental health setting or even in the equine learning setting. The model is to engage to professionals because somebody needs to be that voice for the horse and be mindful of the safety factors for both human and horses. And then someone is focused on the on the client or the patient. So in hippotherapy, which is a mounted work of the horse, then as you partner with that speech therapist or that hottie or peaty, you also would function in any specialist type role. But the therapist then would also be certified in the engagement of the horse and hippotherapy.So the equine specialist is there for the horse and they might be participating in physical therapy or psychological therapy with another professional from those fields.If and if it's a if it's a mountain mounted activity, then it would have a certified therapeutic riding instructor present, OK? And that function is still the same.You need to have that background in equine behavior, but you also have to have that ability to understand the written horse and how to write because you're putting a rider on the horse.


Wyatt: [00:13:04] Can we go into a little bit more depth of how riding on a horse can help people?


Judy Smith: [00:13:09] Physically, so the movement of the horse stimulates locomotion. That's a dynamic platform. It creates opportunities to develop core strength, to develop balance. But we also see through the new research that's being done, it stimulates both sides of the brain. So when a speech therapist puts a rider on the horse and begins to work through the different dynamics of language acquisition and language development, the movement sensation for the writer begins to fire that brain and light it up. And we also see the benefit of writing in the stroke. Victims who struggle with balance or spatial awareness is a challenge for them. The brain gets very active and alive with that movement of the horse.


Wyatt: [00:14:03] What are the most common issues that people come to equine therapy for?


Judy Smith: [00:14:08] There's really not one common issue. We have riders with a wide range of conditions within our veterans population. Could be a traumatic brain injury. It could be PTSD. It could be they could be struggling with anxiety, depression. We have riders who have cerebral palsy and we have many riders on the spectrum. There's been some really great research showing that equine interaction and writing has been very meaningful and beneficial for those on the autistic spectrum.


Wyatt: [00:14:42] What is it like for you to watch people as they go from maybe never riding a horse before to sitting on a horse for the first time?


Judy Smith: [00:14:52] We're all smiles. Sometimes, that first ride, they might be tense, the little anxious, the unknown. Here's this big animal I'm getting on this big animal. Usually, though, once we have them up there and by the time we get them in the arena and that horse begins to move, all of that anxiety melts away and the grins come out.I've witnessed individuals speak their first words through the therapeutic process in writing I've seen. Writers who couldn't focus learn to be able to focus and follow multiple step directions through that engagement with the horse and the process of learning to ride.


Wyatt: [00:15:35] I actually just had the opportunity to go get some video of some of the activities between horses and veterans. I'm so happy I got to see these interventions in action. And if you'd like to see some of the video I took, I'll be posting at soonish on the at instead podcast Instagram. OK, here's Judy talking a little bit more about her veterans program.


Judy Smith: [00:15:57] Pathways to Horsemanship is a program that's specifically designed to help the veteran develop a bond. So there are certain there are specific activities that they engage in that are designed to cultivate a sense of bond with their horse. Their first session is what we call the meet and greet, and that's a very low key, relaxed environment for them to meet who they're going to be going through the experience with. And not only do they get acquainted with one another, they have an opportunity to meet and greet our pathways heard. And as they move around, they come, they watch them first and observe the herd. And we talk about equine behavior. And I have them look at the different horse personalities that are in the arena. And then we go in and they actually introduce themselves and and meet each horse. And from there they're given the opportunity to choose one or two horses that perhaps they'd like to go through the six weeks course with. And then the journey begins. And once they commit to a horse, they're assigned to that horse and they go from start to finish in that relationship and that partnership with the horse.


Wyatt: [00:17:16] What does the horse get out of that partnership?


Judy Smith: [00:17:19] Well, first of all, our horses are responding very positively to our veterans. Obviously, we had a horse that didn't feel comfortable in how the program is structured. We wouldn't have them be involved. We just had our first cohort with the Salt Lake City VA last January go through. And then with covid, we had all these months of great. One horse who had been paired with a veteran was so excited to see his horse veteran this week. And you can tell that there was a recognition. And horses have incredible memories. They have better memories than we do. And because they are relational, they don't forget. And so that veteran just walks around the arena and that horse is just right by its side. There's no rope. He was taking his his nose and he was gently just rubbing it and placing it on that veteran's arm. And he just he just wanted to be there and to touch him, which was really unique for that horse.Obviously, that was very profound for the veteran that he had been working with to be remembered, to be missed, because the whole dynamic of the Pathways program is to give veterans an opportunity to reconnect as they reconnect and learn to communicate with the horse. They're able to transfer those skills into perhaps human relationships that have been challenging for them.


Wyatt: [00:18:45] Um, can you give me an example of things you communicate to horses through body language?


Judy Smith: [00:18:53] So horses are very as a prey animal, very perceptive. We as predators in this symbiotic relationship, we are very unaware of the body language that we send. We may say, oh, we're relaxed and tight, but there's tension in our bodies that a horse could perceive and pick up on how we carry our shoulders. Looking at them in the eye, we can be really direct and assertive and that can be perceived as aggressive to a horse where we can be really soft and relaxed. And often we have veterans who are very, very military. So they have that command presence. They have very stiff body posture. And when they walk around the free working arena, they can be marching. And that horse is that is very aggressive posture. So the horse will respond to that by being very reactive. It may may even just run around free working pen because of that tension that's happening. And then as we help the veteran become aware of what's may be going on internally, that anger or anxiety or fear that might be going on internally, we're thinking, oh, no, I'm hiding that really well. But to a horse who has to survive by being perceptive and. Owing its environment, they see those subtle cues and they might equate them as a danger. So as we help the veteran become aware and become mindful, the whole grooming process is mindful grooming where we help the veteran relax and center and become in tune with the horses they groom. And through that process, they're able to relax that breathing. They're able to let out some of that tension and then really connect with the horse. And the horse responds to that.


Wyatt: [00:20:59] Just thinking about how I move through the world, it's like we all have different programmings. I just expect that people respond to the things in the same way I do, because experience I have. So this seems like a really wonderful way to get people to reprogram themselves for horses or I guess reprograms. Not a good word for people to become sensitive to the needs of horses so that they can notice the differences among humans as well. Does that make sense?


Judy Smith: [00:21:27] I guess that's a really good correlation of how the skills are transferable horses just by their presence, they invoke in the human psyche that sense of power and courage and and freedom. And it's very human to draw metaphors from what the horse is showing us and to draw conclusions or see ourself in a horse that's very human of us or the horse. They're just they're just a horse. And so they function the way they do in the way they see their lives just because of how they're hardwired. But for us, just their size can be intimidating and often. Overcoming that intimidation is a big hurdle for a person. And by, you know, my undergrad research focused on at risk youth, I looked at the benefits for at risk youth in developing the skill and relationship with the horse. And often I found as they got more proficient with their communication with the horse and successful in the horsemanship skills, their confidence grew. And it was amazing. Even though none of my study group, none of the young girls had any experience with horses at all, but they all had seen them on TV, or maybe they liked horses or went on pony rides when they were young. And and I think that gets them to the program. But what keeps them is the fact that. It is an opportunity to kind of let down your guard and be real because the horse doesn't form judgments, it's not judgmental. Now they have a great memory. And so that honest communication just provides amazing feedback. The horse has an incredible capacity to reflect what's going on. So in that free working environment or even in our meet and greet where we bring in our herd, if that person is really uptight, really nervous, you may see it in the horse being really anxious and really uptight. If perhaps that person needs some confidence and needs to step up their energy and be more assertive, you might see a horse that just won't move, won't do a thing. Here's this highly reactive animal and they're saying, no, you're kind of your persona is dull. I'm going to reflect what you're doing and show you what you're showing me in thinking about what the veterans are experiencing as they're going through this program. I kind of imagine all the emotions that I would have, you know, like I'm six four. And so I'm bigger than most people. I interact with horses.


Wyatt: [00:24:20] I mean, I'm sure they're intimidating to a lot of people, but I'm just not used to having a creature be larger than me. There would be some apprehension of that. And then, like, not knowing what I'm doing and then also the joy that I would have eventually when I got to ride or interact with the horse.


Wyatt: [00:24:38] So what is it like to see those veterans experiencing so many emotions together?


Judy Smith: [00:24:45] It's really a privilege and it's really kind of unique, when I first developed the model and when I was still in Oklahoma and working with the Tulsa VA, I went into it as I was building the model and thinking that, oh, it's going to be the dynamic of this equine human bond that's going to be a powerful kind of change agent and healing process. But it's also a peer mentor model. And so we have military members or veterans trained to be mentors. Not only do they pick out a horse and make this relationship with a horse, they also have an opportunity then to work with a peer mentor and then to be that relationship, human relationship for that veteran who is participating. And so what were the findings by early findings of the model, that peer relationship with that other mentor veteran and then the horse who had equal importance, which was wonderful because often our participants are those veterans, like we had two veterans, that one hadn't been out of his house in three months. The other one, the only way his wife could get him out of the house was she wouldn't get the mail and he had to walk to the mailbox. So know, these are individuals who were struggling, functioning in human relationships, and they had begun to detach from life. And the horse was just enough to get them out that door the first time. And they saw enough of opportunity that they felt, OK, this is a safe place. This is something that's really intriguing. I could see myself doing this. This is a skill that I like to gain. And once we can get them hooked, it just the relationships grows on their first ride, as it's called a trust walk. So they're not given the reins. They have their mentor veteran who is leading their horse. And that first ride they get on the horse and they just. Are very mindful of the movement of the horse they learn to relax in the saddle, it gives us an opportunity to help them to achieve balance and alignment. And they they trust that their horse will be safe under them and they trust that their mentor will also take care of them and their horse. And then after that, they get the reins and recall the reins, the lines of communication, and they learn to build on the ground skills, communication that they developed in this relationship with their horse. And then they transfer those skills to the written communication.


Wyatt: [00:27:25] Yeah, yeah. How did this program with the VA get started?


Judy Smith: [00:27:31] I made it happen.


Wyatt: [00:27:33] What did you do to make it happen?


Judy Smith: [00:27:35] One of the reasons why I was very interested in taking this position here was the university's desire to serve veterans as a daughter of a Korean War veteran and married to an Air Force veteran. And then our son is currently active duty and seen more than his fair share of combat. I just feel very compelled to serve our military in this way and helping with the force. And it was actually our son. I'd come home after I had some struggles and been hurt and was healing and getting ready to go back to Germany. So we had his horse. And after interacting with his horse and rekindling that relationship and seeing the benefit of it, he says, Mom, I know that you really are committed to at risk youth and that's been kind of your interest. But he said, I think veterans need horses, too. And so I went away from that thinking, Yeah. I can see that, you know, I see the importance of that relationship then and then I started actively developing and changing the focus of my research into better serving that population, even though these horses have been around forever and we've been utilizing them in a therapeutic setting for 50 plus years here in America, we just do not have the quantifiable data to support this and have it recognized as a legitimate billable modality in the treatment arena with all the other alternative therapies. And I came here realizing that this is a great opportunity to construct that controlled research laboratory and provide those parameters. Soon after I was here, I put things in motion to go after funding through the Department of Veteran Affairs adopted sport grant. It was not difficult to be awarded our first year because there is a great need in northern Utah. There's not any opportunity for veterans to be served in any capacity. They drive to Salt Lake or they can go to an outpatient patient clinic in Ogden. But there's a long wait list. We have a large population of veterans who need services and then a unique opportunity to incorporate the horse. Veterans connect to one another. Because of that shared experience and by engaging the horse, it creates a task that can connect veterans and get them engaged with one another again and experience some of that camaraderie that sometimes they lose when they're not service connected anymore.


Wyatt: [00:30:38] As I was face masked up getting footage of these horses, I got to listen in on Judy talking to one of her students. They were going over the progress that had been made in that day session. They were using a lot of horse words, and most of the time I didn't know what they were talking about. But it was just nice to see people caring about people and into horses. During my graduate program, I did a research project about how people incorporate podcasts into their lives during that project. I learned that the two main reasons people start listening to a new podcast was because one of their friends or a famous person told them to. So if you're famous or if you have friends, I need your help. Tell the horse lovers in your life about this episode. And if you know people who could use some more information about wildfire, tell them about last week's episode. Rachel Gulbrandsen helps out with instead social media. This episode of Instead was produced and edited by Nick Vázquez and me Wyatt Traughber as part of our work in the Office of Research at Utah State University.