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Training Psychotherapists with Hooves
Wednesday, January 3, 2018


Kristy Wood led the gentle quarter horse through the Noodle Forest, a jungle of foam rollers hanging from an archway.

The horse passed through calmly, even though the afternoon breeze sent the noodles brushing against her, creating popping noises as they did.

So far so good, noted Hugh Blue as he watched the horse make its way through.

Wood and Caroline Dayton were training one of four new 1,200-pound therapists for Swiftsure Ranch Therapeutic Equestrian Center.

The ranch south of Bellevue was given the opportunity to purchase the horses to replace aging horses that were ready to be retired, thanks to a $25,000 grant from the Wood River Women’s Foundation.

And Wood and Dayton had scoured Southern Idaho, checking out horses on Facebook, following up on leads given them word of mouth  and going from ranch to ranch  looking for suitable candidates with sweet temperaments, good gaits, and a penchant for remaining well-behaved no matter what.

They found Lucy, a former barrel racer, in Middleton. They found Romeo, who had been used for horse riding lessons.   

“The woman who owned Romeo wasn’t sure she wanted to get rid of him, but she liked our program so she decided to sell him,” said Wood. “He has a nice canter for therapeutic riding.”

Now, with the reins in hand, they needed to turn the horses into a combination of mental health therapists and physical therapists—not by putting them through counseling skills and psychopharmacology courses but by introducing them to the things they would encounter as they turn into counselors, PTs, and even best friends for the children and adults who benefit from equine therapy at the ranch.

Neuroscientists have determined that there are remarkable similarities between the limbic, or emotional, brain of horses and humans. That makes it possible for horses to serve both as mirrors and teachers when it comes to a child or adult learning to understand himself, his emotions and the way he relates to self and others.

Horses can help teach communication skills, assertiveness, creative thinking, problem solving, teamwork, relationship skills, confidence, even resilience. And their gait mimics that of a human being—a trait that provides invaluable for those whose limbs are weakened due to such things as Parkinson’s Disease.

Sometimes the lessons learned on the back of the horse are more easily absorbed and remembered than those between humans. What’s more, horses are patient and forgiving, offering second chances when riders get it wrong.

To make sure their new horse was up to such demands, Wood and Dayton passed a rope around Lucy’s feet and over her back. The quarterhorse remained mellow, her ears forward.

“She doesn’t blink. But we don’t want her totally shut down, either,” said Wood.

“She’s aware what’s going on, but she doesn’t flinch,” added Dayton.

Over the course of the next few hours, the two Swiftsure Ranch trainers tried Lucy out in a variety of circumstances. They rode her up to a post holding a cone, let the horse eyeball it, then backed off. They brought her back to it as Wood took the cone off the pole touching the horse with it.

On the third swing around, Wood retrieved the cone once more and threw it in the air.

Lucy remained relaxed, showing no sign that she had been upset by the sudden move.

“We work in steps, setting her up for success,” Wood said. “We try to think of everything a kid would do and try it on her.”

Wood pulled Lucy up alongside a set of stairs from which a rider could mount.

When Lucy passed that test, she parallel parked the horse between two wooden platforms designed for riders to mount their horses.

Wood jumped on it, seeing if it would startle the horse. She reached across the back of the horse. She took her helmet off and waved it around. Then she mounted the horse.

Lucy stood quietly, well-behaved.

As Wood began walking the horse around the corral, Dayton walked alongside, her hand on the saddle as volunteers are trained to do.

“She’s aware that I’m here, but she’s not pulling away from me,” Dayton said.

Wood tried out a variety of vocal commands making sure the horse would react properly if a child who doesn’t have enough leg strength to physically command her.

Then, with the help of Hugh Blue, the two women took her down the Sensory Trail, a riding path where children can exercise their senses of touch, sound and color on horseback by performing a variety of tasks including throwing a ball on a Velcro board  and interacting with a touchy-feely board.

Kristy rode Lucy up to a line of chimes, tapping them lightly with her finger. When Lucy showed no signs of being spooked, she took a hammer and banged on one of the chimes.

“She’s bomb proof!” she said.

“I think Lucy will be ready to go in a couple of weeks,” Wood said, “The others may take a couple of months. Hoppy the pony was used to kids who liked to go go go. So we’ll have to get him to slow down.” She paused, giving Lucy an affectionate slap.

“We’re very lucky, blessed we were able to get these horses,” she added. “It makes it easier because without our horses we couldn’t do what we do.”


Swiftsure Ranch’s winter session begins on Monday, Jan. 8.

The ranch offers free equine-assisted programs for children and adults dealing with a wide range of challenges, including muscular dystrophy, speech and language delays, post traumatic stress and learning disabilities.

The ranch, which sits off Highway 75, at 114 Calypso Lane, currently has 169 active riders who take part in 3,108 lessons a year. Volunteers are a big part of the operation, logging 2,574 hours this past year. For more information, visit

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