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Cancer survivors get back on the horse

After a successful pilot program last summer, Riding Beyond, a horse-therapy program in Ashland, is seeking volunteer workers, as well as participants who are suffering the traumatic stress of breast cancer treatment.

The creative program uses therapy horses to help overcome typical post-treatment symptoms of emotional withdrawal, self-esteem issues, depression, rapid heartbeat, shallow breathing, digestive issues and other problems, says the program's director, Trish Broersma.

Volunteers will be trained in four-hour sessions on Wednesdays, May 28 or June 4. They will work with participants and therapy horse Mystic in three sessions, June through September, at a ranch near Ashland.

In addition to working with the horse, volunteers will join in sessions of storytelling and poetry writing with participants, which, says Broersma, "explore the large patterns of their lives and find new directions."

Breast cancer treatment typically brings on post traumatic stress, little different than that suffered by combat veterans, says Broersma. Working with a therapy horse has been proven to reduce blood pressure and heart rate, bring on deep breathing, enhance blood oxygenation, open up willingness to be touched and, she adds, bring better balance, strength and endurance.

Testifying to the "devastation" of cancer treatment, volunteer coordinator Merrily Curtis says her mother "never fully recovered from two episodes, 30 years apart, and couldn't stand to be touched ... (she) was very emotionally fragile."

Volunteer Susan Bennett says women in last year's pilot program approached horse therapy with some apprehension, practiced mounting on a barrel, then gradually got used to the real horse with brushing and touching, as they developed a deeper sense of connection.

"It brought them out of their shell," she says. "Mystic is very gentle and approachable. She opens the women up. It's exquisitely beautiful. The horse is very attuned to them."

Mystic is known to nuzzle at length on the spot where women had tumors removed. The apex of treatment is mounting the horse, facing to the rear and laying your torso against her rump.

"You get into this synchronous breathing with the horse and start taking deep breaths. It's really relaxing. Your tension disappears," says horse walker and volunteer Jen Lieber.

What happens biologically, says Broersma, a certified therapeutic riding instructor, is that the vagus nerve, which runs from the stomach to the brain stem, is stimulated, allowing deeper respiration and heart rate and developing an "energetic connection" with the horse.

The therapy was pioneered by California horsewoman Katherine Hand, who was near death from breast cancer, gave away all but one of her horses and dogs, but spent time lying on her one remaining horse. Two days later, says Broersma, nurses found her turning around, with a much-improved heart rate and oxygenation of blood. In a year, she adds, Hand was "completely well."

"The horse's energy field is much bigger than ours," says Broersma, the former head instructor at HOPE Equestrian Center in Ashland. "Our heart entrains with the horse's heart, in a coherent and slower rhythm."

Sitting up and spreading her arms after a demo session on Mystic, Lieber exclaims, "I feel lighter, more open in my chest, more relaxed. I feel lucky to have spent time on her. It helps me feel really grateful. We call it Vitamin H, for horse."

John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. Email him at jdarling@jeffnet.org.

Volunteer Jen Lieber demonstrates part of a therapeutic experience that will be offered to women going through breast cancer treatment in Riding Beyond’s summer sessions. - Julia Moore