A Magazine about the Hudson Valley’s local economy, published by Hudson Valley Current.

Horse-Assisted Healing in the Hudson Valley

by Melissa Orozco-McDonough   
Through the ages, horses and humans have formed quite a special bond. A horse is, after all, so much more than just a working animal, and we humans have come to recognize this through our interactions with them. Scientists have recently studied this close bond between human and horse and determined that there are central themes of co-being in these relationships, which they define as embodied moments of mutuality and engagement. These two species, horse and man, seem to domesticate each other simply through being together; it’s quite a magical thing. Norwegian researcher Anita Maurstad has said, regarding this relationship, that both the horse and the human become attuned to each other’s physical and mental ways of being, thus creating the state of co-being, living and working together in harmony.
Humans get to know the individual personality of a horse through an ongoing process of engagement with the horse, and vice versa. It has even been found that horses can be affected by the same types of stresses as humans, for example, negative reinforcement, boring day-to-day routines, insufficient rewards, and poor relationships. Both are hard working species, affected similarly by the overall quality of their lives. It’s because of this that horses and humans are able to form such a unique bond, helping each other to heal and grow. Deanna Mancuso, founder of Lucky Orphans Horse Rescue in Dover Plains, knows this bond very well, having experienced it firsthand with her initial rescue horse, Nitro.
Deanna’s father Frank Manusco with Nitro, the horse her grand-
father gave her. Photo courtesy of LOHR.
“My grandfather was in the army during the Korean War,” said Mancuso. “They used horses to move artillery and he enjoyed working with them. After the war, he suffered from PTSD, which led to alcoholism. When I was born, he wanted to come meet me, but my parents were concerned about the substance abuse and unpredictable behavior, so they wouldn’t let him,” she said. “When I was 11, he sobered up…I was finally able to meet my grandfather.”
“He took me horseback riding, and we rented hack horses. I got to know my grandfather and learned to ride all at the same time.” Tragically, about eight months after their introduction, Mancuso’s grandfather was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, having already been treated for both brain and skin cancer. “He wanted to give me something to remember him by, so he scraped together $2,500 and bought me a horse. Nitro is a perfect Skewbald Paint, with ideal conformation, however, he was abused. He had cigarette burns on his nose and the skin on his face was growing over his halter.”
“He had severe trust issues and kicked, bit and reared. After my grandfather passed, I begged my father to sell Nitro and replace him with a horse I could ride and show like my friends were doing. I cried when Nitro would throw me or bite me. My instructors called him dangerous. My father insisted we would not replace a life with another life; every life has value he told me. So today, 20 years later, Nitro is still in my barn and a pillar of Lucky Orphans, a beacon that brings all the broken horses and people to our doors.”
Mancuso founded Lucky Orphans Horse Rescue (LOHR) in 2008, creating a safe haven for abused and neglected horses, with a goal of improving the relationship between horses and people. LOHR is a no-kill rescue striving to improve the treatment of horses while strengthening an inter-species bond through education. LOHR is currently home to 46 rescues, whom upon arrival, are usually in a condition where they cannot even perform their normal duties and activities, let alone be ridden. LOHR rehabilitates each horse, offering them a new home and life purpose, along with a much better quality of life.
In 2013, Mancuso started EquiNorth, an EAGALA (Equine Assisted Growth and Learning Association) certified, Natural Lifemanship trained, mental health treatment team program. As described by Mancuso, “EAGALA is the global standard for equine assisted psychotherapy and human development. The EAGALA model is a solution-focused, on the ground, experiential team approach of Equine Assisted psychotherapy used primarily for mental/emotional therapies.” The EquiNorth motto is, “Finding your true North through the healing power of horses.” Mancuso adds, “Lucky Orphans also operates with the mission of people helping horses heal people.”
“It can be used for any therapy need including but not limited to anxiety, depression, grief and loss, family, bullying, suicidal tendencies, [for] domestic violence survivors and their children, PTSD, trauma, marriage counseling, as well as corporate development and team building.” Mancuso is also trained in Natural Lifemanship, which is a trauma focused equine assisted psychotherapy.  “It works to help the client move from their limbic system fight/flight response to logical processing in their neocortex.” LOHR has recently purchased a new farm, and plans to spend the remainder of the summer constructing the arena and preparing the property with an aim to be back in operation by fall 2015.
On the other side of the river in the small hamlet of Kerhonkson, another therapeutic horse facility is being established. Cori Nichols owns and operates Nichols Field Riding Club (NFRC). NFRC is a yearround facility on 72 tranquil acres, with a covered pavilion, outdoor riding areas, and numerous trails, including a “sensory trail,” currently in construction with hopes of completion sometime in August. NFRC offers “equine assisted growth and learning opportunities which are experiential by design,” Nichols said. “Depending upon our client’s individual needs, activities might range from unmounted to mounted, can include therapeutic horsemanship and/or therapeutic riding. We also offer Early Intervention Parent-Child Playgroups-with-Ponies.”
Nichols first learned about EAGALA from her business partner, Dorothy Novogrodsky, who is an Applied Behavioral Analyst specializing in work with autistic children and adults. “Together we’ve attended numerous clinics and workshops to broaden our scope of practice…We feel there are ‘so many roads to Rome’ when it comes to pairing persons with equines,” Nichols said. “NFRC plans to be EAGALA certified by the end of August and will then “be able to invite educators—physical, speech, and occupational therapists, as well as mental health practitioners of all kinds to coordinate equine assisted sessions appropriate for their particular client’s needs.”
With HorsePlay, a NFRC program, Nichols has “been involved with a number of powerful moments for individuals with autism spectrum disorders, developmental difficulties, executive function deficiencies, and/or emotional/mental health challenges.” The most outstanding thing for Cori has been the opportunity “to be witness to the connections being made between the horses and people, whether they be emotional, cerebral, spiritual or physical. The gains being made here, in our barn, our outdoor ‘classroom’ are being taken home with these folks and being applied in their lives and their relationships with others.” What these two particular species, equine and man, can do for each other is truly nothing short of sensational.
For more information on the programs mentioned visit: luckyorphanshorserescue.org, EquiNorth.org, and NicholsFieldRidingClub.com.