The Therapeutic Value of Horses


Who Benefits from Equine-Facilitated Psychotherapy?

By Constance Scarf, Phd

The article was originally published on August 23, 2017 on Psychology Today and can be found here:

Most of us who own horses talk about their “therapeutic” value. Being in the barn grooming, feeding, and otherwise caring for our horses reduces stress, lowers blood pressure and improves overall health. Yet, it is the companionship with our equine partners that is the foundation of our growth in relationship to these animals. Being with our horses is the “therapy.”

The power of this relationship has not been lost on medical professionals. “Equine therapy” is a popular tool to use with a variety of populations. But what is equine therapy and how is it used?

Equine Therapy Defined

According to PATH International, the Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship, there are many different types of “equine assisted activities.” In its broadest sense, any interaction between a person and a horse is an equine assisted activity.

Equine-Assisted Therapy has a more specific goal. It is a treatment that uses horses to reach rehabilitative goals that are bounded by a medical professional’s scope of practice. Equine-Assisted Therapy is not an activity run by local horse clubs, church groups or trainers. Instead, it is overseen by a medical professional, usually a licensed psychotherapist or physical therapist. Equine-Facilitated Psychotherapy, which is used by addiction treatment facilities, veterans’ groups, and trauma centers, is always overseen by a licensed mental health professional. These types of therapies rarely involve riding the horse.

Benefits of Equine-Facilitated Psychotherapy

Especially for those who are unfamiliar with horses, working with horses can be an intimidating experience. Addicts, the population I work with, often exclaim, “They’re so big!” Indeed, as all horse-people know, trying to get a thousand-pound animal to do what you want is no easy task. If you are unaccustomed being honest and communicating clearly, the task becomes more difficult.

Horses can be an emotional mirror for humans. They respond to the feeling state we show. They are herd and prey animals, which means that they have a strong emotional sense and use this sense as a survival tool; they feed off of and respond to other horses in the herd. If one horse in a herd is scared, the others will become frightened. They respond similarly to humans. If a person approaches a horse with anger, the horse will respond by shying away or becoming stubborn. Horses never hide their emotions.

Because of these qualities, horses can be used to help people heal from a variety of psychological issues.

Identifying and Processing Feelings

First and foremost, horses can help individuals identify their feelings. Addicts in particular are known for numbing their feelings through the use of drugs and alcohol. When they get clean, they don’t know what to do with, or often how to identify, their feelings. This is a confusing and frustrating period for addicts. The horse, however, provides information to the client. If one walks angrily toward a horse, snatching its halter or lead, the horse will yank its head back and pull away. The therapist might ask the person, “What are you angry about?” Most of the time, the client will deny being angry and need to be shown the evidence of the horse’s behavior to identify the feeling. Addicts and other trauma survivors have to learn how to identify their emotions in order to work through them. Horses are a good tool for therapists to help clients do just that.

Horses can also open the door to re-visioning past traumatic events. Perhaps a plastic bag blows into the arena during a session, startling the horses. A client who has experienced child or domestic abuse might break down in tears upon seeing the horses frightened. It might remind him/her of experiences of powerlessness or helplessness, of being frightened, but having no-one to turn to. Any of these kinds of reactions is rich material for talk therapy and can be worked through immediately or in future sessions.

Work Ethic

Horses require us to work. We get up early to feed and water. We clean stalls. We earn wages to buy feed and tack and maintain horse properties. Domestic horses have to be groomed, exercised, and attended to.

It is the same in the human world. Most of us have to work. Whether it is raising children or going to an office, factory or running a business, we get up early and show up on time. We participate in tasks that are not always easy or pleasant. We attend to our daily needs and those of others. We pay bills, clean the house, and keep the car in working order. We work hard and enjoy our moments of respite.

We also have to work to maintain our relationships. We listen to our friends, show up for our families, and provide service to our communities. Working hard and showing up in a healthy way are skills that can be learned by engaging with horses.


Horses are majestic animals that are wonderful simply to be with. Horses are gentle and honest; they do not have the ability to manipulate or lie. One common treatment technique for those who were abused as children is to put the (now adult) individual in with a large horse and allow them to interact. Very often, the person will break down in tears and say something like, “I’ve never been treated this kindly by anything so big.” This is an experience the client can then take into the human world.


Equine-Assisted Therapy, particularly Equine-Facilitated Psychotherapy, can have positive results for those who are recovering from substance abuse, trauma, depression, or a number of other psychological issues. It can help individuals develop a work ethic, identify and process feelings, and learn how to trust. However, to be safe and effective, Equine-Facilitated Psychotherapy must be provided by a licensed medical professional. As problematic feelings and memories arise, someone with experience helping people process those feelings must be present. The professionalism of those engaged with equine therapies is what makes them both effective and safe.

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Program Director

The Program Director role is critical to our mission for 3 reasons:

  • It ensures a diverse, evolving service offering to meet the needs of our growing constituency base.
  • It ensures that we have a plan to reach financial self-sufficiency that will allow for the organization to grow through both program and capital expansion.
  • Through conscientious, innovative, passionate management of our programs, students, volunteers, and horses, this role has a focus on succession and development in all program areas. This focus will serve to ensure the continuity of our core mission.

The mission of the Stoneybrook Foundation Therapeutic Riding Center is to improve the lives of children and adults with special challenges through a therapeutic partnership with horses. The Stoneybrook Foundation was founded in 2008 by John and Deborah McCain in Acme, Pennsylvania. Originally run by volunteers with three horses serving about 20 students, the center now employs six staff, owns five horses, free leases another ten horses and provides therapeutic riding lessons to 155 students annually. The center’s therapeutic riding services encompass therapy, education, sport, and recreation/leisure.


Administrative Management

  • Point of Contact for Board of Directors, Governing Institutions, Students and Outreach
    • Partner with Board and Executive Director
    • Partner with Student and Student Representative Relations
    • Organizational Speaker and Representative for Community Outreach
    • Supportive partner with excellent communication and relationships with Facilities Manager and Business Manager roles
  • Strategic Focus
    • Target achievement of all Organizational Goals
    • Provide innovative thought to overcome obstacles
  • Communications
    • Verbal, written, speaking and presentation skills are required for role
    • Program Presentations, Strategic Presentations
    • Adhere to organizational Core Values, Communications Plan, & Employee Manual for self and staff
    • Internal Communications: Monthly Program Report to update staff and board
      • Goal Progression
      • Metrics and Analytics
    • Maintain appropriate and required records to support all duties
    • Financial Management
      • Oversee all financial management relating to budget planning for the center and successful achievement of budget expectations in conjunction with Facilities Manager
      • Annual Budgeting
      • Asset Management
        • Succession Plan with Forecast
      • Expense Management
        • Review center budget with Facilities Manager on quarterly basis
        • Procurement – quotes, contracts, quality, delivery
        • Grant writing and reporting

Organizational Leadership Representation

    • It is a requirement of this role that he/she fully embody the Stoneybrook Foundation’s Core Values directives and lead by example in all actions, motivations, and interpersonal relations
    • This position must act with integrity, honesty, and maturity, holding him or herself above reproach, as he/she is a program leader, expected to lead by example, and in the public eye, as a representative of the organization
    • This role will frequently be called upon to attend public events, public venues, meet with program partners, students, family members, to help promote the growth of the organization. These events may be outside of the normal working schedule and should be considered an expected part of the job.

Student Management

  • Student Registration & Documentation, Payment and Scheduling
  • Student Lesson Plans & Progress Reports
    • Ensure that all instructors keep daily notes for each student and prepare year-end assessment
    • Assess appropriate goals for each student and ensure communication with parent/caretaker/guardian

Instructor Management

  • Communication
    • Hold monthly staff meeting for all Instructors to communicate trainings, news, recognition, metrics, program strategies, succession plans, etc.
  • Recruiting
    • Develop and implement strategies to recruit and hire program instructors, as required by current and planned program offering
  • Schedule
    • Schedule all staff to ensure full program coverage
    • Ensure that a contingency plan is in effect to avoid any program interruption
  • Training
    • Create and maintain staff training programs to ensure that all members are able to safely and successfully engage clients in center programs in accordance with all compliance requirements, policies and procedures
    • Continually review and update training materials to assure that instruction staff is performing to expected level of professionalism and safety
    • Budget and plan for external trainings and certifications required to support current and planned program offerings
  • Development
    • Provide in class observations and critiques of instructor lessons two times annually
    • Provide support, guidance, and feedback for instructors with challenging riders or situations
  • Performance Reviews
    • Provide formal performance reviews twice yearly; with documented presentation, summary of discussion, and plan of action, if needed
    • Create and issue Performance Improvement Plans (PIPs) for any instructor that is failing to perform in role
      • Ensure remediation and / or follow up actions occur
  • Recognition
    • Establish & execute a staff recognition program

Volunteer Management

  • Communication
    • Hold yearly volunteer recognition meeting for all volunteers
  • Recruiting
    • Develop and implement strategies to recruit volunteers to support current and planned program offering
  • Schedule
    • Schedule volunteers to ensure full program coverage
    • Ensure that a contingency plan is in effect to avoid any program interruption
  • Training
    • Create and maintain volunteer training programs to ensure that all members are able to safely and successfully perform in accordance with all compliance requirements, policies and procedures
    • Continually review and update training materials to assure volunteers are performing to expected level of professionalism and safety
  • Development
    • Create volunteer incentive program that allows volunteers to grow and achieve ‘certificate’ or levels of knowledge
    • Provide support, guidance, and feedback for volunteers who support challenging riders or situations
  • Recognition
    • Establish & execute a volunteer recognition program

Program Leadership

  • Program Management:
    • Ensure that all programs are well defined, delivered with a high degree of quality, and under continual assessment for optimization
    • Ensure that the center delivers safe, effective, and respectful equine assisted services meeting the needs of all program participants
  • Program Plan: Maintain a Program Plan for each offering and create a standard program plan template that includes the following:
  • Program Content
    • What is the program, how do we deliver it, who is our constituency and what are program compliance requirements (ex: PATH)?
    • What are costs, rates, staff training materials, schedule, staffing plan or requirements, horse plan or requirements?
    • Continuity plan
      • Resource plan (staff, horses, etc)
    • Marketing materials
    • Ongoing strategy
    • Measures for success
      • Related Goals
      • Related Metrics
  • Program Strategy: This role should have a continued focus on the development of new programs and services that should be driven by the following 3 factors:
    • Program should be identified as a top priority through a high demand for the service or program, the development of a critical partnership relating to it, or a means to organizational financial stability to ensure continued operations
    • Program should help to address a community or constituent need that will provide direct and tangible benefit for the parties involved
    • Program should help the organization to achieve financial independence by providing a service or product that is self-funding past the initial investment period
  • Program Proposal: In alignment with organizational goals, establish new and directed programs, services, and products to extend our offering, according to our mission
    Create a standard strategy template for new proposals that includes the following:
  • Program Delivery: Ensure that the program is delivered, according to the Program Plan, and that the Program Plan is maintained, as changes occur
  • Program Financials: On a quarterly basis, ensure that proposed program financials are reviewed and that costs remain in alignment with Program Plan and Budgets. If costs increase by more than 10%, propose updated Program Plan for presentation to Executive Program/Director and/or the Board of Directors, to ensure that program is still feasible, based on budget and priorities
  • Program Compliance: Ensure that The Stoneybrook Organization is fully compliant with all Program Entities including PATH Accreditation, Federal, State, County, Local requirements and any other agency for which compliance is mandatory

Human Relations

  • Program Team Management:
    • Be responsible for the recruitment, employment, training, scheduling, management, and, if needed, release of program personnel
    • Ensure that job descriptions are developed and updated, that regular performance evaluations are held, and that sound human resource practices are in place.
    • Provide staff coverage to ensure that student and service needs are met without interruption
    • Ensure that program staff performs as directed to maintain high level of quality across all related areas
    • Maintain a climate which attracts, keeps, and motivates staff

Communication and Community Relations

  1. Skill in building customer-oriented relationships and responding to/resolving problems with clients, partner agencies and community organizations
  2. Network with other agencies, nonprofits, community contacts, and regional and national therapeutic riding centers to stay on the leading edge of the industry
  3. Ability to perform responsibilities and adapt to changes in a highly interactive, dynamic environment

This position requires the ability to perform work in a highly interactive environment, residing in an outdoor facility. Role must be able to provide physical support and assistance for students and horses. Role must be physically able to operate a variety of machinery and equipment such as tractors, snow blowers, power tools, and hand tools. Position requires the ability to physically maneuver over and/or upon terrain, surfaces or physical structures.

At this time, the Program Director role will report directly to the Stoneybrook Foundation Board of Directors. Program Managers, Instructors, & Volunteers will report to the Program Director role.

The Program Director role is critical to our mission, as it ensures a diverse, evolving service offering to meet the needs of our constituency base. All candidates should have proven leadership, coaching, and relationship management experience.

  • Concrete demonstrable experience and other qualifications include:
  • Must follow the Stoneybrook Foundation’s Core Values directives.
  • Minimum 5 years of providing Riding Instruction, with a background of riding under a professional instructor and/or experience competing
  • Successfully complete pre-employment background checks
  • PATH Certified Instructor – required
  • Additional certifications and education aligned with current offering and planned program strategies
  • 3+ years of experience with equine management
  • Highly motivated and outgoing personality
  • Proactive problem-solving capability
  • Excellent interpersonal, oral and written communication skills
  • Ability to teach both group and private lessons
  • Must have significant background with horse health and care; previous horse ownership is a plus.
  • Valid PA Driver’s License; able to operate nearly any vehicle and pull a horse trailer.
  • Strong time and team management skills – able to develop program plans and strategies and deliver, according to them.
  • Presentation creation and delivery abilities
  • Solid written and verbal communication skills, both on paper and via computer
  • Solid computer skills.
  • Ability to work effectively in collaboration with diverse groups of people
  • Action-oriented, adaptable, and accountable for the responsibilities owned by this role
  • Sensitivity to and understanding of issues affecting people in communities served by Stoneybrook Foundation
  • Must be U.S. citizen or possess a valid resident/work permit, and maintain a valid Pennsylvania State driver’s license. Must pass a Pennsylvania Common Wealth Criminal History Report and background check. Must complete child abuse mandatory reporting training and obtain current child abuse clearances through DPW. Must pass workplace drug screening

Competitive salary will be dependent upon skills and experience


Apply by email to:

Attach the following in PDF and/or Word format:

  • Cover letter addressing how your qualifications match the position criteria
  • Resume
  • Three or more professional references we may contact and their relation to you


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Kick-off the Holiday Giving Season with a Matched Gift!

For most of us, Thanksgiving, Black Friday and Cyber Monday are the “unofficial” start to the Christmas shopping season.

This year, let’s make November 28th, #GivingTuesday the official start to the giving season!

#GivingTuesday is a global giving movement built by individuals and communities in the US and in countries around the world. This year, we have two really exciting giving opportunities that we’d love to share with you.
1. Facebook and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation are matching $2 million for U.S. nonprofits on Facebook!
Starting at 8:00am (EST) on November 28th, donations made through Facebook’s charitable giving tool will be matched up to $50,000 per nonprofit. Facebook is also waiving all fees, so 100% of what you give on the platform will help bring clean water to people in need.
Even outside of the match, the ability to support your favorite charities from within the social networking platform is an amazing gift, and we can’t wait to see the impact. As a reminder, you can find us on Facebook here.
2. The Stoneybrook Foundation accepts one-time and recurring donations via our Network for Good donation page! 
Whether it’s a one-time gift of $100, or a monthly recurring gift of $15 (that’ about 3 venti cappuccino’s at Starbucks per month), anyone with a credit or debit card can donate through our Network for Good Donation Page. You can even cover the transaction fees with your gift, so the Stoneybrook Foundation receives your full gift amount!
Your gift allows the Stoneybrook Foundation to:
  • Keep lesson costs low for students and families
  • Buy appropriately fitted equipment for student lessons
  • Educate staff to provide excellent instruction
  • Maintain the health and care for our very special horse partners
  • Grow our program to reach more people with special needs

Be sure to keep an eye on your email on #GivingTuesday. More information will be headed your way soon! Don’t miss out on your chance to be part of something life-changing!
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