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Finding Hope: Kuna-based Hearts to Horses offers equine-assisted psychotherapy for mental health treatment

Posted at 1:00 PM, Sep 04, 2023

KUNA, Idaho — We all know the importance of addressing our mental health, but what works for one person might not always work for another.

Dan Ault is a licensed clinical social worker in Kuna who offers equine-assisted psychotherapy at Hearts to Horses LLC. He offers hour-long therapy sessions at his Kuna property where horses are incorporated into outdoor individual or group sessions. It can be used to treat anything from grief and loss to past trauma, anxiety, and depression.

The practice has proven to help veterans like Nampa native Andrew Collins. With his experience serving overseas, Collins says he experiences PTSD, anger, anxiety, and depression. The equine therapy sessions have helped him learn to control his emotions.

"Normally with my PTS, I'm anxious; I'm ready for the fight, whatever it is," Collins said. "In here, I feel loose. I don't have to feel tense. I just feel relaxed."

Equine-assisted psychotherapy at Hearts to Horses

Ault says his clients range in age from four to 78 years old. He works with individuals, veterans groups, and some inpatient treatment centers.

Idaho nonprofit Courageous Survival helps connect veterans, first responders, and their families with local mental health resources and started bringing groups to Hearts to Horses last fall.

"Equine therapy is so good because it really helps keep people present in the moment with the horse," Jacki Briggs said. "So it really helps people struggling with PTSD."

The outdoor atmosphere is also more appealing to people who may not feel comfortable in a traditional talk therapy setting.

"I think, for me, that's where I get the most benefit," Collins said. "If I'm doing something therapeutic outside, it just does something to my brain and clears my head out."

For Collins, the outdoor sessions at Heart to Horses are a way to recenter, check in with his emotions, and address anger and anxiety.

"I come in pretty anxious, wound up, spun up, whatever," Collins said. "Then I leave in a calm, zen state that can last days, weeks, or months, depending on what was worked through. It just allows you to center yourself and then you have that sense of calm to carry you forward."

Andrew Collins participates in equine therapy

Ault has several animals at the Kuna property including several large horses, two miniature horses, chickens, and goats. Each client can choose the animal they want to work with during the session and the therapy can take several forms. They might walk with the horses, build things in the round pen that represent an emotional obstacle, or even paint and blow bubbles with the horses, which Ault says can relieve anxiety.

"When clients come out here, I don't have a preconceived idea of what they need," Ault said. "But most importantly, the clients are deciding what is best for them while they're in here."

Ault says one of the main ideas behind equine-assisted therapy is that horses reflect the emotions humans are experiencing. It allows his clients a chance to practice coping skills in real time.

"When we get out here, clients have an opportunity to get feedback from the horses, and if they like the feedback they're getting, they can strengthen that bond," Ault explained. "If they don't like that feedback, then what do they need to change inside themselves to get the feedback they're looking for?"

Collins says, in his experience, it can happen quickly.

"As soon as I'm able to shift my energy, the horse immediately responds," Collins said. "Because it's a heart connection and we're connected at that energetic level, so as soon as my energy shifts, it's going to shift with the horse."

And for veterans seeking treatment for PTSD, Briggs says interactions with the horses can have immediate physical benefits.

"It lowers your blood pressure; you have to be present," Briggs explained. "And when you're present in the moment, PTSD and depression live in the past."

You can learn more about Hearts to Horses here.