The partnership of Bart and Amanda
The partnership of Bart and Amanda

 Animal Assisted Therapy : ” It needs to be a partnership”  by Jesse Buchanan   CHESHIRE

- Leading a horse isn’t as easy as it looks, especially when you’re only 12 years old and you’re trying to lead Bart, a former show horse who’s a bit spoiled, headstrong and weighs about a 1,000 pounds.
As Amanda Richardson led him around a circuit of safety cones at Hunter’s Glenn Morgan Horse Farm on South Meriden Road she had some trouble with the cone closest to the road. Bart doesn’t like turning his back to traffic so he’ll stop short of the cone he’s supposed to turn and paw the ground.
“He has a bad habit of digging up the ground with his hoof,” Richardson said.

She works with Bart as part of Soul Friends, a non-profit company begun in 2003 that provides animal-assisted therapy to children with depression, grief, trauma and emotional disorders. Soul Friends founder and president Kate Nicoll said the six-week Horses Inspire program has been run twice before and last month received a $3,000 grant from the Meriden-based James H. Napier Foundation.

Nicoll, a social worker, said she doesn’t “use” animals in her therapy.

“I prefer ‘partner,’ ” she said. “It has to be a partnership.”





The horses program is open to girls ages 10 and up and involves grooming and ground training rather than riding.
Horses, being prey animals, are extremely sensitive to the attitude and demeanor of humans, Nicoll said. The children have to exhibit self-confidence in order to lead and must be attentive to the horses’ non-verbal communication.



“If you lead a horse and are timid and have low self-confidence, the horse will lead you,” Nicoll said.
The current group of seven girls begins and ends each weekly session with a group discussion about goals and methods. At first, they lead their horse through a course with the help of a trainer.
“The goal is by the end of the six weeks to lead the horse by themselves, which sounds easy but is not,” Nicoll said.

The weekly sessions are combined with traditional one-on-one therapy in some cases, Nicoll said.

Animal-assisted therapy can act as a link between the child and her therapist. Children who have attachment issues can build a relationship with the animal to rebuild confidence, according to Nicoll.

Children can also project their own feelings on the horse when they do not feel comfortable talking about themselves.

“Animal-assisted therapy is very effective when talk therapy hasn’t worked or when talk therapy is too threatening,” Nicoll said. “It’s not just sitting in the office and talking… you can talk, talk, talk and sometimes not change your behavior.”

The test for the children, Nicoll said, is putting something like self-confidence into practice by working with a horse.

“It’s really in those interactive activities that kids really integrate those experiences of improved body image and boosting self esteem,” she said. “It’s interactive psychotherapy.”

In addition to horses, Soul Friends has dogs, fish and even a guinea pig which assist in therapy.

Richardson’s mother, Christine Pastore, said her daughter has been more expressive about her feelings after going through the horse program and she’s going through it again this year.

“She really enjoys working with animals,” Pastore said.

Richardson’s half-sister and grandfather both died in the past few years.

“It’s good for her dealing with grief,” Pastore said. “She’s not one to talk about her feelings.”

It’s clear that animals cheer people up and can engage people who have otherwise




withdrawn, but some doubt the long-term benefits of animal therapy.

Scott Lilienfeld, a professor of psychology at Emory University in Atlanta and columnist for Scientific American, said there isn’t sufficient research to claim that animal therapy has a lasting therapeutic effect. He’s not ruling out that possibility, but says more and better studies need to be done.
“We often find a short-term activating effect,” he said. “Lots of things will cheer people up in the short term.”
Lilienfeld said some of the benefit from animal-assisted therapy could come from the animal trainer’s attention to the patient rather than from the animal. The current research hasn’t addressed that issue, according to Lilienfeld.

Since animals are not human, they cannot understand or relate to someone in the way another person can. Lilienfeld said people sometimes need a psychologist who can understand what they’re going through.

While animals can help people reengage and revive their enjoyment of life, Lilienfeld doubts whether some of the more expensive programs, such as dolphin therapy, justify their cost.

Nicoll agrees that more research needs to be done regarding the long-term effects.

“There haven’t been great longitudinal studies,” she said. “People are right to have questions about it; that’s why I keep doing research.”

The horses program is made available free to children through the Napier grant. Other Soul Friends programs are billed through a patient’s insurance, Nicoll said, and patients are referred from schools, clinics and the Department of Children and Families.

Animals are more than a psychoanalytical tool for Nicoll, though.

Seven years ago, she woke up partially paralyzed from the neck down. For about a year she lived mostly on her couch and said her dog Sam responded to her pain by licking her hand and sitting with her.

“Before I became immobilized, I didn’t appreciate the emotional life of an animal,” Nicoll said.

While the Soul Friends animals are certified to do therapy work, Nicoll said there is value in dealing with an animal that isn’t trained to always accept a person.

In group therapy, Nicoll, Amanda and the other girls discussed what to do about Bart’s ground-pawing. Giving him attention only reinforced the habit, they found; ignoring him and his request for attention seemed to work the best.

“That’s part of the therapy,” Nicoll said. “The child has to work on their non-verbal communication.”

Tails of Joy is a non-profit volunteer association based in Manchester which provides animal-assisted therapy. The group was founded 12 years ago and president Ellen Jennings said she’s seen a growth of animal-assisted therapy programs in the past two decades.

“It’s definitely becoming more widely accepted,” she said. “More and more places are open to it.”

Animal-assisted activities are related to animal-assisted therapy but do not have the psychotherapy component. Jennings said MidState Medical Center in Meriden, Hartford Hospital and Connecticut Children’s Medical Center have therapy animals that visit patients and some come from Tails of Joy.

Studies have shown being with animals can lower blood pressure and ease conversation, Jennings said.

“Sometimes just petting the dog can be calming.”
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