Horse Sense

By Amy Wilkinson

Struck by two tragedies within the same year—a riding accident and the death of her mother—Leigh Shambo, a 2000 master of social work graduate, found comfort in her lifelong love of equestrian sports. Inspired by the healing she experienced while working with horses, Shambo founded the Human-Equine Alliance for Learning (HEAL), a non-profit organization based in Chehalis, Wash., which uses horses to facilitate recovery and personal growth.

When did you develop an interest in horses?

I’ve loved horses—and all animals—since my earliest days. I was very fortunate that my family indulged my passion by starting me in riding lessons at age 7, then buying my first horse when I was 10. I can look back now and see how my childhood horse time was like a refuge from some of the dysfunctions of my family of origin. It’s a story I now hear from many people whose involvement with horses provided healing and solace that human relationships could not offer.

On the positive side, my parents always encouraged me to follow my dreams, although frankly they were shocked when I arrived at adulthood determined to make my livelihood by training horses and their riders!

How did you begin your equestrian career?

I completed my bachelor’s degree in animal sciences and held a variety of positions at riding stables, ranches, and training facilities, always living in beautiful natural environments.

What inspired you to start using horses for therapy?

A turning point in my career came in 1988 when I was 31. I was injured in a serious riding accident, and later that year, my mother committed suicide. Vulnerable and shaken to the core of my being, I began a process of healing physically and emotionally, entering therapy for the first time in my life. As I healed, I resumed working with the horses, and I could not help but notice how responsive the horses were to my process of inner change. I began to train differently, relying more on the energy of my healing heart rather than physical strength to build a deeper relationship with horses, and this actually resulted in much better training. It seemed the horses would do anything for me when my heart and mind were in the right place! As I taught these principles to my human students, I saw that it was profoundly transformative for them as well. It was at this point that I began to envision the potential for horsemanship as a human growth experience. I began to study more about human psychology and spirituality.


And then your career took another turn.

Yes. In 1996 the rural county that I live in was impacted by disastrous floods, and I accepted a temporary position as a para-professional FEMA counselor for flood victims. I did outreach and mental health referrals for people who were experiencing flood-related grief reactions or post-traumatic stress disorder. The agency I worked for noticed my ability to connect with people on a deep level— without overtly stating it; I was using those principles of heart connection that I had learned with the horses. I accepted a permanent job with that agency, Cascade Mental Health Care in Chehalis, Wash., and in 1998, they supported me in earning my master of social work degree at Walla Walla University.

After graduation I was delighted to learn about a “new” therapy approach called “equine-assisted psychotherapy and learning.” Now that I am part of an international community of practitioners in this field, many of us laugh together about how we each thought we had invented it! It makes a wonderful example of an idea that is truly in the mind of God.

Tell us about the non-profit organization you founded, Human-Equine Alliance for Learning (HEAL).

I founded HEAL in December 2000 with a small collective of horse owners and other therapists who had become excited about the potential for this type of therapy with their clients. HEAL focuses on raising charitable funds, grant writing for specific equine-assisted mental health programs, as well as educating the public and the mental health profession about the benefits of equine-assisted psychotherapy. HEAL has provided funding for dozens of low-income clients to participate in therapy or workshops. One of our most exciting projects in 2006 was a therapy group for adult women with severe trauma-related symptoms, funded jointly by HEAL and by Providence St. Peter Hospital in Olympia, Wash.

HEAL works not only with equestrians, but also with non-horse-savvy individuals. How do these two types of therapy differ?

Only a few of our programs actually involve riding, so most programs are open to people of all experience levels. What all of our clients have in common is a desire to build skills that allow them to experience harmony from the inside out, a desire to live in the authenticity of who they are, and to deepen their capacity for loving and respectful relationships, with horses and with people.

People who have little experience with horses are carefully guided in safety and reading horse behavior, and people who have lots of horse experience are guided to seeing horse behavior in new ways. Both groups are guided into relationship building with horses based on awareness of non-verbal body language and a new understanding of the dynamics of mental and emotional energy.

Did you need to supplement your social work experience with any special training to work with patients and horses?

Yes. In fact, it’s a very complex endeavor to work with a human and a horse simultaneously. It’s important for people to understand the need for proper training and experience in both the human and the horse aspects. In addition to my master’s degree and my years of equestrian training, I now have in-depth training from three of the major organizations in this growing field: the Equine-Assisted Growth and Learning Association, North American Riding for the Handicapped Association, and most significantly, Epona Equestrian Services in Tucson, Ariz.

At Epona, I completed an intensive, yearlong apprenticeship program, going on to serve as an assistant facilitator in their programs, and to earn their Advanced Instructor designation. Now HEAL offers its own training to professionals who want to work in this exciting and rewarding field.

In addition to training, there are insurance considerations for therapists who want to offer equine-assisted psychotherapy as practitioners must carry equestrian liability insurance and demonstrate that they can conduct equestrian activities in a safe manner and environment.

Have any studies been done to prove the effectiveness of equine-assisted therapies?

While equine-assisted psychotherapy is gaining popular acclaim and loads of anecdotal evidence of its effectiveness, there is very little in the way of well-designed studies measuring its results with specific client groups.

The project we co-sponsored in 2006 involving women suffering from severe trauma-related symptoms lent itself well to a formal research study on the efficacy of equine-assisted psychotherapy. Walla Walla University’s own Heather Vonderfecht [visiting associate professor of social work] was our research director. We will soon be sharing the results of this study with the funding sources, and we also hope to publish the results of this small pilot study. Our study indicates that combining equine-assisted psychotherapy with a cognitive-behavioral approach was highly effective for the group of women we treated.

What do you think horses and people have in common?

Horses are extremely social animals that live in family groups. Within this group, structure and consistency in relationships are extremely important, which makes them very similar to humans. We rely on these instincts in order to domesticate and train horses, who seem to be uniquely receptive to a bond with humans. Have you ever wondered why zebras aren’t similarly domesticated? They wouldn’t agree to it!

Due to horse’s nature as prey animals, they are easily frightened and won’t readily engage in relationships unless they feel safe—another similarity to humans. Because horses are non-verbal, we must rely on the discernment of their body language and subtle cues, the same signals which in humans will reveal their innermost feelings and level of closeness to one another. The learning that takes place with horses is readily translated into improved emotional vitality and stronger relationships. 

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Last update on May 1, 2008