Using farm animals to help humans feel better

By on September 28, 2023

Frances Danner with one of the horse “therapists” (Credit: Brooke Mayo photographer)

Mane and Taill to host free workshops for high stress workers

When Christina Strayer and Frances Danner looked at the suicide rate for workers on the frontlines of public safety and public health, they thought, ‘What can we do?’ “It’s an epidemic,” said Strayer, referring to the high suicide rates in those professions.

As animal assisted therapists with Animal Assisted Therapy of the Triangle, Strayer and Danner use methods meant to improve physical, social, emotional or cognitive functioning—with animals as integral part of the treatment.

In order to create an environment where people learn stress management skills in a fun, interactive environment alongside farm animals, they are hosting a free weekly open workshop running from Oct. 3 to Nov. 21 every Tuesday from 10 a.m. till noon at Mane and Taill Farm in Jarvisburg. The sessions are designed for first responders, law enforcement personnel, healthcare workers and veterinarians.

“Traditional therapy groups for this type of thing haven’t been the most successful,” said Danner, explaining the concept behind animal assisted therapy. The workshop is a partnership between Animal Assisted Therapy and Mane and Taill Therapeutic Horsemanship Academy, a volunteer-based nonprofit dedicated to teaching children and adults with disabilities that is funded by a grant provided by the Outer Banks Community Foundation.

Typically, Strayer and Danner use the farm for formal one-on-one animal assisted therapy sessions with their clients. According to Danner, the difference between traditional talk therapy and animal-assisted therapy is the unique elements that animals bring to sessions. She explains that there are a multitude of tools and activities that can be used with the animals depending on the client’s needs.

Sometimes the therapists will take the client to observe the herd of horses, which they say mimics human roles and behaviors in society. To that end, they can use the animals’ roles in their communities to match up with situations and feelings that the clients may be dealing with. There is one horse that is pushed around in the herd, “so we can talk about being pushed around and walked over and stuff like that,” said Danner. “And then they’ll typically say, ‘Oh, me too.’ And then we can talk about that.”

Sometimes the therapists will conduct activities, like an obstacle course with the miniature horses, to teach about self-confidence, or they’ll do an activity with the fainting goats, to show how quickly they bounce back after they seemingly faint when their muscles tense up when they get overstimulated.

But many times it’s about letting the animals take control and use their innate compassion and understanding to allow clients to open up and heal, whether that involves taking a walk with the animals, sitting with the herd, or leaving the clients alone with the animal if they feel more comfortable talking with them.

“Horses are so intuitive. And they can hear your heartbeat. They can definitely tell what emotions you’re feeling,” said Danner.

At the pending workshops, it will be up to those that show up to decide if they want to do activities or if they just want to relax and spend time with the animals.

“We’ll leave it kind of up to the group that day, we’ll have a goal, like ‘today, we’re gonna learn a relaxation skill with the goats.’ But if the group shows up, and they just kind of want to process their week, or if they just need…the support from the animals and the other members in the group, it’s totally based on what they need that day,” said Danner.

Two years ago, Strayer first reached out to Samantha Iulo, owner of Mane and Taill, after her son and daughter-in-law had taken their children to an event and thought the farm would make a great partner for Strayer’s practice. She called and pitched the idea for the grant. Iulo was on vacation with her family and immediately greenlighted the idea.

Now, in addition to the workshop, Strayer has her local offices on the Main and Taill farm and sees clients regularly there. During the workshop, Strayer and Danner will be introducing what they call The Three R’s—Relaxation, Resiliency, and Reflection. According to Danner, what that entails depends on what the group is interested in.

“And our farm is incredible. It’s quiet, it’s, it’s so peaceful, and it’s just a really, really good spot to be,” Danner said. “So that was a big reason we thought of doing this workshop, because so many people when they come out here, like, ‘Oh, my God, I could just sit out here for hours.’ So even just being there, even if they don’t speak a word, it’s going to be beneficial.”

Strayer specializes in PTSD and has seen the powerful impact that animal-assisted therapy can have. Strayer, Iulo, and Danner say if this free workshop is a success, they are hoping to continue this program into the future. Through the grant, they were able to purchase a trailer to transport some of the animals, so in case any of the workers in these fields can’t come out on those days, they can bring the animals to them.

The workshop is “free, it’s open,” said Danner. “They can pop in for ten minutes, they can stay the whole two hours. They can come for one session, or they can come for eight. It’s not like you have to sign in and stay. It’s a come as you please, come as you want, come if you can type of thing.”

For more information visit Mane and Taill Facebook page.


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