By Emma Castleberry
Shannon Knapp has been providing equine-assisted psychotherapy and learning to the WNC region since 2003 through her organization Horse Sense of the Carolinas. In 2013, a group of youth from the Children First community at Pisgah View apartments came to the Horse Sense farm. “The staff of Children First and Horse Sense of the Carolinas were all crying at the bright, kind eyes of the kids in contact with the horses,” says Knapp. “Kids the staff had never seen smile before were beaming on horseback on a beautiful summer day. That was my personal moment of, ‘We must keep doing this.’”
Around the same time, Knapp was building a friendship with a Marine Corps veteran who was suffering from Post- Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). “Between him and the youth from Pisgah View, the die was cast,” says Knapp. She realized that Horse Sense of the Carolinas wasn’t able to reach some of the most at-risk populations that needed this type of therapy, so she founded the nonprofit Heart of Horse Sense (HOHS).
“Kids and veterans notoriously aren’t big talkers, so equine therapy really makes the difference for them,” says Knapp. HOHS was formed to support quality, professional, trauma-informed therapy for at-risk youth and veterans at no charge to them. “This resource is truly unlike any other in our community,” says Audra Morrow, director of community supports at Children First/Communities in Schools. “Equine therapy has proven results and Heart of Horse Sense works hard to make it accessible for the people who need it the most.” Each semester, student support specialists at Children First choose a group of students that will benefit from the regulation and relationship skills taught at HOHS. “It has been amazing to see the growth that these students experience after repetitive weeks of work with their horses,” says Morrow.
US Army veteran Matthew Estridge served five years of active duty, including about three years in Iraq. On his last deployment, he sustained injuries from an IED and upon his return was diagnosed with PTSD. “I was given a Purple Heart and honorably discharged from the Army in 2008 and that is when the real battle began for me,” he says. “Transitioning from military life to civilian life was a struggle.”
While receiving treatment at a Veterans Association hospital, Estridge learned about equine-assisted therapy and decided to give it a try. He has been visiting HOHS since late 2015. “They taught me and other fellow veterans how to work with horses without using force, fear or intimidation,” he says. “Being around the horses helped me understand how important it is to be present and that patience is a virtue. HOHS has been a foundation for learning new life skills to help me re-adapt to civilian life without fear of failing or letting people down.”
Since its inception in 2013, the work of HOHS has expanded to include education, screening and training in addition to providing these therapy services at their farm. HOHS screens and provides funding for other WNC equine therapy programs that meet its high bar for professionalism and expertise. “We require that all funded programs treat their horses as partners with dignity and integrity,” says Knapp. “We also require knowledge of trauma-informed practices for humans and horses, trauma’s impact on the horse and human brain, and how to reorganize the brain towards healing.” HOHS also provides public education about equine assisted therapy in addition to training other equine therapy professionals.
HOHS has supported the services for more than 2,000 youth and veterans in WNC who otherwise wouldn’t have had access to equine therapy. “HOHS has made all the difference for veterans tired of taking pills to treat their PTSD, and for youth who simply can’t engage with traditional attempts to remedy the impact of trauma,” says Knapp. HOHS is also a strong advocate for integrating rescued horses into the therapeutic process, rescuing abused and neglected horses and re-socializing them. “As we make a difference for these two populations in WNC, as well as for rescued and rehabilitated horses in the region, our community grows and prospers,” says Knapp.
For more information, visit HeartofHorseSense.org.