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Harford horses become therapy tools for people with mental and emotional trauma

On a 10-acre Harford County farm, horses are helping heal mental illness and emotional trauma.

For the past two years, Horsepower Equine Assisted Services has used horses to help clients work through anxiety, depression, Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, traumatic brain injuries and adjustment disorders. The client never rides the horse: instead, the horse is a tool the therapists use.

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"A lot of the things we're setting up are life scenarios," says Jennifer Kraus, Horsepower's founder and a certified life coach. "We'll have them set up a path or an obstacle and [tell them] it represents 'x' in your life, or this difficulty or something you're anxious about. It's transferable."

On a recent Saturday, Korinna Sieracki arrives at the Bel Air farm for her first session. She stares up at a brown quarter horse gelding standing on the other side of a fence.

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Korinna is spunky and outspoken, often sharing insights that belie her 10 years. As though the horse is picking up on Korinna's own personality, he puts his head over the fence, his ears alert. They are locked in a gaze.

"You can get as close or as far as you'd like," says Erin Tancemore, Horsepower's psychotherapist.

Still, Korinna doesn't move any closer than 6 feet.

The inaugural Horses Healing Maryland's Military riding showcase will be held Friday at the Maryland State Fair, demonstrating the progress veterans make through horse therapy.

Tancemore and Kraus work in concert before, during and after each session, Kraus focusing on the horse's body language and behavior, and Tancemore focusing on the client's needs.

Each session is tailored to the client, based on therapeutic goals and strategy. Any one session could use one or more of the farm's five horses. All interactions and work with the horse are ground-based.

Tancemore and Kraus may pick one of several activities, from setting up obstacle courses with the foam noodles, cones and metal bars in the farm's paddock, to grooming the horses.

They've played hot-and-cold with a rock, eventually moving it to sit on top of the horse's back, an exercise designed to get a client with severe social anxiety, hesitant to make eye contact, to look up more. The lesson that day: "When you raise your head your world expands," Tancemore says.

They've used finger paint on the horses, the client painting on one side to represent where he was before treatment and painting on the other side where he is now, to highlight the progress made.

The Therapeutic and Recreational Riding Center in Glenwood is holding an event called Raise the Roof from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. on Oct. 16 to launch efforts to raise $150,000 to pay for the arena's construction.

Horsepower clients have ranged from age 6 through their late 50s. The farm has also hosted family and support groups, leading participants through sessions designed to teach cooperation, teamwork and communication.

The Equine Assisted Growth and Learning Association is the training and certification arm for what's termed equine-assisted psychotherapy and equine-assisted learning. The group points to a growing body of research that shows it is an effective treatment for hard-to-treat disorders and behaviors.

One 2014 study published in the Journal of Child and Family Studies compared traditional psychotherapy treatment with equine-assisted psychotherapy in treating adolescent victims of sexual abuse and found lower levels of depression, anxiety and trauma symptoms after 9 to 10 weeks in treatment.

Another study of 90 hospitalized psychiatric patients with violent behaviors compared therapy using horses with therapy using dogs, group therapy or standard psychiatric inpatient treatment. The study found the largest decrease in violent behavior among those who participated in in the equine-assisted psychotherapy.

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"Not everybody responds to traditional office space therapy, where it's talk therapy," Tancemore says. "Equine therapy is experiential. Instead of talking about, 'What should I be doing?', we're actually practicing, 'What do I need to be doing?', reflecting upon it, and then assessing how that could carry over into daily life. And I think that's much more of a powerful modality for people."

That was the case with Korinna, who is working through the thing that makes her different and the frustrations it brings. She has cystic fibrosis, an inherited disorder that affects the body's mucous membranes in the lungs and gastrointestinal system.

Her life is far from normal for a tween, full of doctor's appointments and daily treatments at home. A recent hospital stay brought new symptoms, procedures and treatments. It left Korinna feeling scared and powerless.

Her parents brought her to Horsepower to begin working through some of the feelings and thoughts that fill her life as she navigates a complex medical diagnosis.

"She loves animals. So I figured this would be a great outlet for her because she doesn't like to just sit and talk," her mother, Kristi Sieracki, says.

Tancemore leads Korinna through the barn, introducing her to the horses. She points to a syringe that will soon deliver medicine to a horse, relating it to Korinna's own experiences in the hospital.

She takes her to a stall across the aisle, where an eye infection left a horse with a blue eye and a brown eye.

"She's a little different than the others here. And you're a little different than me or any of the others here," Tancemore says, referring to the family that has accompanied Korinna to the session. "She was born with the eye, but it was a medical condition and slowly it got worse and worse and she had to have treatment, just like you had to have treatment."

At the end of the session, Tancemore leads the horse out of the ring and hands Korinna the horse's rope. Korinna pets him and lets him graze as Tancemore asks Korinna gently probing questions.

"In your life do you always feel in control?" Tancemore asks her.

"No," Korinna answers, before sharing an experience from that recent hospital stay.

"So, [the horse] is now out of the hospital and needs to go to his home. Will you take him on this path towards his house?" Tancemore asks, pointing toward the horse's stall.

Korinna starts walking toward the barn, telling him no and giving the horse a gentle tug when he stops to graze on grass. Tancemore designed this scenario to give Korinna a feeling of control, a counter-balance to what she may otherwise feel during hospital stays.

She walks the horse, unassisted, into his stable. She is confident and at ease.

"How do you feel?" Tancemore asks her.

"Good," Korinna answers.

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