Angela Martino is often consumed by anxieties and is being treated for an eating disorder and trauma. But when she rests her hands on the neck of a gentle, dark chestnut-colored mare named Indy, Martino is temporarily, at least, able to focus.
The 26-year-old Baltimore woman’s breathing slows and becomes more uniform. Her shoulders ease, if only by a fraction.
“I can’t always control where my thoughts go,” she told therapist Jen Kraus, who specializes in equine-assisted therapy on her Bel Air horse farm.
“But the time I spent with Indy was easy. My anxiety was lower. On a scale of one to 10, it went down to a six. I can’t remember the last time it’s been that low for even 30 seconds.”
Kraus, who grew up in Catonsville and has been riding since she was 8 years old, is a licensed social worker and the owner of Bay Meadow Farm. She performs equine-assisted therapy as a contractor for the Balance Point Wellness center that allows her to use the accumulated expertise from decades of being around horses to help people heal.
“Horses and humans are both herd animals,” Kraus said.
“When you add a person in with the horse, the person becomes part of the herd. Horses are highly sensitive to their surroundings. They don’t care what you look like or where you came from; they just care about who you are in the moment and how you’re interacting with them.”
Because animals have limited ability to remember the past or imagine the future, they can be useful for working with patients such as Martino, whose anxieties are constantly propelling her out of the present moment.
Most therapy sessions begin in a traditional way, with the 35-year-old Kraus chatting with patients about how their day has gone and how they’re feeling.
But at some point in the session, the therapist and client walk into the barn and begin an activity that doesn’t involve riding with one of the dozen horses on the premises.
“Many people confuse equine-assisted therapy with therapeutic riding,” Kraus said. “Therapeutic riding often focuses on improving physical health, while equine-assisted therapy can help improve mental health.”
A patient might groom a horse or guide the animal through an obstacle course using just hand gestures. Kraus asked Martino to build a circle in the paddock from purple foam noodles.
“Invite Indy to be in that spot with you,” she told Martino. “See if you can get her there without grabbing her halter.”
Martino walked across the paddock until she was a few feet in front of Indy, then turned to face the horse. Once she had the curious animal’s attention, Martino slowly walked backward until she was standing inside the circle. After a moment’s hesitation, Indy followed.
“Equine therapy has a positive affect on my mood,” Martino said. “I can notice little changes in Indy and then notice them in myself. It has allowed me to start talking about things in my past that would have panicked me before.”