A wonderful partnership with Bridle Paths and Brain Injury Services (BIS) is emerging. Bridle Paths, a nonprofit organization based in Leesburg, Virginia, offers strength, support and healing to individuals and families through safe, effective, and high-quality equine-assisted activities and therapies. BIS Case Manager Iva Ward, MSW, CBIS, and Bridle Paths Founder and President Katie Fallon met at a Loudoun County Chamber of Commerce event and instantly connected. Katie has been an equine-assisted activities professional for more than fifteen years, and Iva a case manager for three years.
They began exploring what survivors’ needs might be for post-injury recovery, and developed a therapeutic equine curriculum focused on relationship, communication, and trust. Katie notes, “There is a wide spectrum of outcomes for people experiencing a brain injury. We wanted to address the emotional aspect of the injury, recognizing that people’s relationships and connections change.”
Why horses? There are two reasons, shares Katie. Horses are uniquely suited to helping participants address challenges. Horses are prey animals, attuned to their environments and to nonverbal communication. They live and engage in a herd environment that offers safety and community. Although difficult emotions can arise when working with horses – such as anxiety, distrust, and perhaps even fear – those emotions can be processed in a safe way when working with professional staff. Participants can employ problem-solving skills to address issues relating to boundaries, relationships, leadership, and communication, and then can proceed to learning new skills, finding trust, and taking responsible risks with the horses. These skills translate directly to experiences outside the barn environment, and enable participants to reconnect and relate with the world in a more authentic way.
To date, Iva and Katie have hosted three groups through the eight-week program. The groups, along with a staff member and volunteers, meet for two hours each week.The first few sessions starts with the group working on the ground with the horses. Iva and Katie describe the program:
Groups of up to four participants (supported and facilitated by BIS and Bridle Paths staff and volunteers from the community) begin by working on the ground, learning about how to interact with, care for, and build relationships with individual horses. Through herd observations, hands-on grooming, and horse care activities, group participants address challenges related to sequencing, attention, and memory that often accompany brain injuries. A consistent framework and progression of skills, reinforced through directed individual and group activities on the ground each week, helps participants to enhance self-awareness, communication, and emotional regulation. The series culminates in mounted sessions, for those who are medically cleared to do so, during which participants draw upon the abilities and strengths that they cultivated in the program to prepare their horses and support one another in engaging in mounted activities.
Iva shares, “Our clients gain a massive sense of confidence. It is rewarding for them to have something to give and to share. It is a safe environment to self-explore, and work on the social skills that have been impacted with the brain injury.” Since program completion, one participant has landed a full-time job and several have signed up to volunteer for the program.
Earlier this year, this program received funding through the J. Field Foundation; the foundation’s namesake, Jennifer Field, is herself a brain injury survivor. Funds were also received from the Community Foundation for Loudoun and Northern Fauquier Counties’ BENEFIT fund. These funds help support group sessions. Iva notes, “Each session is a little different. We work with the group to set goals and revisit the goals each time we meet. It is a trusting and sharing environment and each person realizes success, growth and understanding.” Brain Injury Services plans to offer this program to adults a few times throughout the year.
Katie Fallon, Iva Ward, and brain injury survivor and group participant Su Meck will present their program at the upcoming Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship International Conference and Annual Meeting in October. For more information on the program and how you can support this effort, contact: Iva Ward firstname.lastname@example.org. For more information about equine assisted instruction and learning visit www.bridlepathsva.org.