Equine-assisted Services give New Life for Sex Trafficking Survivors


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Equine-assisted services program helps survivors of sex trafficking gain control over their lives.

Look a horse straight on and you might see a little of yourself. If you two are strangers, he’ll show signs of wariness. If you respect boundaries, it’s all good, but if you’re too familiar, he’ll back off. If you’re confident and friendly, he will come to trust you. But if you’re jittery, he’ll get jittery too. And if you’re scared, so is he.

All this is why horses are effective “adjunct therapists” for people living with post-traumatic stress. By observing and learning how the horse reacts to them, they get a chance to observe how and why they react to people and life’s circumstances similarly. With additional professional help, they gain the insights and confidence to “change the tape” of their lives.

Three years ago, Chastain Horse Park – an Atlanta nonprofit and provider of equine-assisted services – approached Boehringer Ingelheim Cares Foundation about sponsoring the horse park’s community outreach programming. The Foundation said yes, and CHP contacted Wellspring Living – a nonprofit organization in Atlanta that provides recovery services for survivors of sex trafficking and those at risk – about providing its services to Wellspring residents.

“For someone who has been cut down and not given a voice, being able to work with a thousand-pound horse is a huge achievement,” said Kelcy Rainer, therapeutic program director at Chastain Horse Park, or CHP. “Most of the time they’re coming in very guarded. They lack a certain level of trust for anyone because of their past experiences.

“Equines have inimitable characteristics that make our platform and partnership unique,” she continued. “Horses are approximately a thousand-pound fight-or-flight animal. This intimidation factor is a double-edged sword: It can instigate fear, but when that apprehension or anxiety is overcome, empowerment and confidence are magnified.”

Working with horses is ideal for trauma survivors just as it is for those with physical challenges, she said. “A horse doesn’t care what color you are, if you have a stutter, if you’re non-verbal or if you have an amputation. They will treat you and any other person – with a disability or without one – the same exact way.”

Photo of survivor and instructor lunging a horse.
Participants learn to lunge a horse as part of the relationship building.

A good fit

Originally from New Orleans, Rainer grew up competitively showing American Saddlebred horses nationally and internationally. While a student at the University of Georgia, pursuing a degree in arts and anthropology, she volunteered at a PATH International Equine Assisted Activities and Therapies program. (PATH International, or PATH Intl., is the credentialing organization for accrediting centers and certifying instructors and equine specialists.)

After graduation, she became a PATH Intl. certified instructor and for several years served as the volunteer and development coordinator at Jackson Hole (Wyoming) Therapeutic Riding Association. She moved to Atlanta in 2011, joined Chastain Horse Park as an instructor in 2012, and became therapeutic program director in 2014. She earned her advanced certification through PATH Intl. in 2016.

Wellspring Living provides in-house mental health services to participants, both youth and adults. Through the equine program, CHP and Wellspring work together to create an experience that reduces clinical symptoms and provides tools to improve future decision-making skills, ultimately reducing and preventing re-victimization, said Rainer. “We felt that our mission aligned with that of Wellspring Living and that we could serve and facilitate their impact on survivors of sex trafficking and those at risk of exploitation.”

The women’s group attends sessions with Lauren Pierre, LPC, MAC, CPCS, a Licensed Professional Counselor, Master Addictions Counselor and Certified Professional Counselor Supervisor. CHP’s certified therapeutic riding instructors partner with Wellspring Living therapists and residential program coordinators to identify the following primary goals for women in the program, which include:

  • Learning healthy emotional management and coping skills.
  • Learning to replace irrational thoughts with more rational beliefs.
  • Learning to develop healthy, mutually respectful relationships.
  • Learning how to develop and maintain healthy boundaries for self and others.
  • Understanding the stages of grief and moving toward acceptance.
Photo of survivors interacting with horse representative of equine assisted services.
Wellspring residents make a visit to the park.

The program

Wellspring Living residents attend a two-hour session every other week at Chastain Horse Park. Participants arrive, wash their hands, pick out a helmet, then meet the instructor and volunteers in front of the barns to review the day’s agenda. Curriculum topics include:

  • Changing negative thoughts. Horses’ instincts tell them to fight, freeze or flee when faced with danger or uncertainty, says Rainer. However, they can learn to stop and “rethink” those impulses. Similarly, “once a person becomes aware of ‘self-talk,’ they may find that some of their thoughts are getting in their way, and that they can get rid of old negative thoughts by replacing them with new positive thoughts.”
  • Identifying feelings. “Happy, sad, angry, worried, excited, grieving, frustrated, nervous, content, proud, guilty, regretful, suspicious, hopeful, jealous, embarrassed, scared, curious, hurt, shocked, overwhelmed, confident, disappointed, ashamed, shy, etc. Feelings can be confusing and sometimes difficult to identify. For example, emotions such as sadness or hurt can be disguised as anger.” Working with horses – which Rainer describes as “giant biofeedback machines” – can help those in the program put their finger on what they’re feeling in the moment.
  • Challenging distorted thoughts. An example might be a horse with distorted thoughts about people in cowboy hats, says Rainer. “Even if they have been abused by a cowboy in the past, they can learn that not all people in cowboy hats will hurt them.” The program encourages the female participants to ask themselves questions like, “What evidence supports the thought I’m having?” “Is there any evidence that this thought may be inaccurate?” “Is there another way to look at the situation?” “If someone else had this thought, how would I help them see it differently?”
  • Relationships. “Horses are all about relationships,” said Rainer. “If you have a good relationship with a horse, they will often jump higher and run faster for you.” Women in the program are encouraged to ask themselves, “What is more important – having strong relationships or getting people to do what you want?” “What makes a strong relationship?” “Whom do I have one with?” “Who do I want to have one with?”
  • Boundaries. “Horses have limits for doing what humans want them to do, especially when they lack confidence,” she said. “If we try to push, they may feel they have no choice but to fight or flee. There are boundaries we can see, like a fence around a yard, and some boundaries that we can’t see, but we can feel. We ask Wellspring Living residents to ask themselves, ‘What are my boundaries?’ ‘What do I feel comfortable saying or doing around people?’”
Photo of survivor at blackboard with horse outlined representative of equine assisted services.
Photo caption: Volunteers help the program run smoothly.

Making progress

“‘Milestones’ is a subjective term, and they can be reached quickly or slowly,” said Rainer. “It may be something as simple as a participant being paralyzed having to make a decision between a black or blue helmet for their first few visits.

“In the past, they have been robbed of these types of decisions and the ability to even consider making their own choices. We would consider it progress when that participant comes into the barn and picks out a helmet decisively and quickly. This may seem minute to many, but it could be a ‘milestone’ for many Wellspring Living participants. Another example would be a participant who initially is frightened to even enter the barn, but who, after several visits, is touching the horse and working near it.

“We approach working with the gals often the same way we do with horses: Never rush a horse into doing something that it is not ready and willing to try. When it balks at a new activity, retreat to the latest acceptable one.”

Horsemanship – not just riding – is the primary recovery tool, she said. “Ground activities allow participants to learn important skills, connect with peers, and develop a stronger student-instructor relationship.” Activities include grooming, tacking, leading the horse, learning anatomy, health and nutrition, and turnout. “Unmounted activities promote positive life skills, teamwork, confidence and fitness, and they allow us to keep a combined balance of horsemanship and mental health. Groundwork allows everyone to be on the same ‘playing field’ and to experience equal opportunity, and it eliminates anxiety about getting on a horse.”

Randolph Legg, president of Boehringer Ingelheim Animal Health USA Inc. and a board member of the Boehringer Ingelheim Cares Foundation, said his company’s philanthropic foundation is proud to support therapeutic horse lessons at Chastain Horse Park. “We know that animals and people are connected in deep and complex ways, and it’s inspiring to see that bond help people heal in a community where hundreds of our employees live and work,” he said. Boehringer Ingelheim Animal Health employs about 600 people at its U.S. headquarters in Duluth, Georgia, as well as hundreds more at sites in Athens and Gainesville.


1 – Photo credit: istockphoto.com/RainStar