Horses have many uses and the Equine Assisted Growth and Learning Association found another one.
The international nonprofit group of professionals incorporates horses in mental health treatment and personal development. And the program exists right here in Volusia County.
Dr. Dawn Yelvington is the clinical director of Healing Hearts Therapies & Equine. She does equine therapy in Pierson also sees clients at her downtown DeLand office. She is certified by EAGALA, including as a military provider.
“When the opportunity to return to Volusia arose, I seized it,” Dr. Yelvington said. “It has been a pleasure to return to my hometown and share my practice with this community.
Besides Pierson, Healing Hearts transports horses weekly to the Heroes’ Mile Veteran facility in DeLand, conducting group equine therapy sessions.
“I currently have six horses in my therapy program, and they all reside with me,” she said. “The horses are former performance horses who were no longer able to compete due to injury. I feel that these horses can reach clients on an even deeper level, as some of them have endured physical and emotional traumas before coming to us.”
Her practice is recruiting veterans and service members to participate in group equine mental health intervention aimed at treating trauma. Groups generally consist of six participants, meeting weekly for eight weeks. The services are provided by the VA Adaptive Sports Grant, which was awarded to EAGALA and is being administered through its military services partner organization.
Horses are highly sensitive, so clients can work through their life struggles by interacting with the horses without feeling judgment or interpretation by another person,” Dr. Yelvington said. “The horses are equal partners on the team and are left unencumbered to allow them to interact freely with the client.”
Horses are naturally a prey animal whereas humans are considered predators, she said. “This natural dynamic works well to highlight the parallels between human life experiences and how the horses react to the emotions that surface during the sessions. The size and power of the horses can help many participants develop self-confidence as they work through the program.”
She added clients have stated the ability to be outdoors, in nature, doesn’t feel like “therapy,” yet they are able to go deeper and talk more freely.
Client confidentiality is maintained throughout the sessions, but clients provide staff with initial and post assessments that allow them to measure how the equine therapy has benefited them. PTSD and depression symptons are measured as well as an evaluation of quality of life.
When asked what parts of the program were most helpful, client feedback includes comments such as “it was very apparent that (horses) could feel our fear and pain,” “(Horses) helped me have a different perspective on topics that I otherwise would not have discussed in traditional talk therapy” and “Animal and human connection: non-judgmental; authentic bond like no other.”
Dr. Yelvington added that “an interesting aspect of equine therapy for those who have served in the military is that the herd dynamic that horses employ can help clients better understand the dynamics of their own family, military unit and community. Horses also offer an emotionally safe way to work through trauma and strengthen relationships.”
Equine therapy is ideal for individuals who may not flourish in a traditional therapy setting, she said. “Many of our clients, particularly those who are dealing with military trauma or addiction, find themselves able to interact with the horses and begin to problem solve in a way that they have not with other therapy methods.”
Dr. Yelvington, who has been around horses her whole life, has worked with several interns from Stetson University and Capella University, both alma maters of hers. “I am enjoying pouring back into the community that helped me establish my practice. As a young girl growing up in this area, I never dreamed that I could take my love of horses and channel it into earning a Ph.D. degree and establishing a career that allows me to heal others through the power of horses.”
There are 500 EAGALA programs in 40 countries with 4,764 horses assisting 49,945 clients in 2019.