Horses used therapeutically for cancer survivors

Monday, October 12, 2009 | 12:01 a.m. CDT

COLUMBIA — Wish, a 1,200-pound horse, charged after Zan with two bucking feet. Zan, another horse, ran from the assault in a brown cloud of dust while their two calmer comrades — Jetta and Zippa — blinked bulbous eyes and shook long necks of shining hair. 

Wish missed, and the other two seemed unfazed by the mischief.

It was these four beasts, clanking around the dusty arena at the MU Trowbridge Livestock Center Sunday, that four breast cancer survivors planned to confront.

They were doing so as part of a new form of therapy called Equine-Assisted Cancer Therapy, lead in Columbia by equine therapist and nurse practitioner Anna Schwartz.

"I'm a little nervous," said Laura Adams, a one-year cancer survivor who participated for the first time that day.

"For cancer survivors, this is a relatively new area," Schwartz said inside a heavy pair of boots, blue jeans and black western shirt. "Research on it has just started within probably the last four years, but it's extremely successful."

The therapy is emotional for cancer survivors, Schwartz said, and is designed to help survivors cope with the changes cancer brings to their lives.

"I wouldn't say that horse therapy is going to change their outcome from their cancer because it doesn't do that — at least we have no evidence," Schwartz said. "But it improves their quality of life, and it improves the emotional aspects of cancer and cancer survivorship."

Marci Crosby, equine program coordinator at MU in the Animal Science Division, which provided the four horses for the demonstration, likens them to mirrors.

"Horses are a really good mirror of your energy, your attitude and what's going on," Crosby said. "So horses are very reflective of maybe what you're feeling inside but not really expressing."

The therapy can include activities such as persuading a horse to jump over a block without speaking to it.

"The experience they have with the horse really opens them up and makes them aware of how the things that are bothering them in their lives and how they can maybe get over those obstacles and move forward," Schwartz added.

An example of this, Schwartz said, comes from a woman who participated in the program about a week ago. In an exercise, the horse led the woman with the halter rope, instead of the other way around. The horse came to represent that the woman wasn't in control of her cancer or her relationships.

"It's kind of overwhelming for them," Schwartz said.  

Horses, large and sometimes stubborn creatures, are metaphors in the therapy, Schwartz said.

"They really help people to overcome their fears and a lot of the obstacles they face in life," she said.

A crowd of about 60 filled the arena and Schwartz turned to face them with a microphone to her lips.

"The horse is working as the therapist, I'm the facilitator," her voice boomed from above. "The horse is doing the work."

The first exercise for the four cancer survivors was to put halters on their assigned horse's heads. A few minutes later, the women buckled on the straps, which sometimes fell over the horses' eyes and forced them to stare through the leather.

Schwartz then asked the women how they felt.

"I obviously know nothing about horses," Adams said. "My heart was racing and I was very nervous."

The last exercised involved a six-foot block of wood suspended on two small red buckets. The four survivors, who collectively named the obstacle "fear," had to try to lead their horses over the block without bribing, touching or speaking to them.

The women tried over and over again, but to no avail. The horses just sunk into the dust like broken tanks, blinking sluggishly and sighing with flapping lips.

The exercise ended when Wish charged after Zan once again with bucking feet. In the process, Wish backed over the block of wood, or "fear," and knocked it to the ground with a thump.

The solution, Schwartz concluded, was a new strategy to the obstacle.

"When you have difficult things in life, how do you change those patterns?" Schwartz said. "There's no right or wrong how you get that horse over the jump, but you got to get them moving."

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