Can horses heal broken spirits? Can they lift the troubled souls of human companions and set them on trails toward peace and reconciliation? Are horses miracle workers, or are they stoic teachers that lead humans to unleash the power of their own imaginations and spirits? If you ask Shiree Sansone of Chester County, PA, the answers are emphatically yes, yes, yes and yes. Sansone and her business partner Barbara Rosoff turned their lifelong love for horses into an opportunity for cancer patients—and their families—to experience the therapeutic benefits of working with and riding horses.
"Several studies have explored the positive therapeutic effects of horses on people," Sansone explains. "They're known to be great healers." Rosoff agrees. "To me, horses are the most therapeutic creatures in the world."
The two women started Horse Power for Life because they are convinced that horses can lead humans to places where they can find answers, hope and healing. "We are offering free horsemanship programs to cancer patients and their families," Sansone says. The idea is that over the course of the 16-week program, students will focus on the horse, instead of the devastating illness they're fighting.
"Everyone has lost someone to cancer," Rosoff says. "In the last year, I lost someone close to me, and it all just came together when we started talking about this idea."
The program leads students through all aspects of horse care, from basic grooming, to leading horses, to riding—if the students choose to ride. "We will customize this program for all students, based on their comfort level around horses, and their physical situations," Sansone explains. Some people may not want to ride, but may just want to understand more about horses. Rosoff, who has extensive experience training both horses and riders, and working with disabled riders, is the Program Director.
Sansone and Rosoff have moved quickly from the brainstorming stage of developing Horse Power for Life, to incorporating the program and applying for non-profit status. It all started this past June, with research into therapeutic riding programs targeting the population the women were interested in. They found a lot of programs developed for young people with physical disabilities, but few programs in the country brought people with life-threatening illnesses into the horse/human equation. And yet there is ample evidence that this type of program offers specific, measurable benefits.
Level Playing Field
Dr. Allan Hamilton, a professor of surgery at the University of Arizona and Executive Director of Arizona Simulation Technology and Education Center, is convinced that horses can improve the doctor/patient relationship, and level the playing field for patients confronting serious illnesses. He uses horses to teach medical students how their non-verbal communication affects patients. And he uses horses to help patients discover their own abilities to deal with illness.
He has found that bringing cancer patients together with horses can create a unique, life-changing experience. In a BBC special about his work, he described one such encounter, between a horse and a young girl, who came to the program shy, hesitant and diffident. At the end of the program, the girl's attitude had changed dramatically, and her confidence bloomed. "She was so much more confident about her horse and herself and that's what they have to learn, that cancer is a big, powerful thing, but they can learn skills to help them be in control rather than out of control. They can be a participant, rather than a victim."
Vision to Reality
Sansone says that she and Rosoff started with little more than a vision and her horse—Bobby McGee. Sansone has competed in hunter shows with Bobby McGee, and knew that, with a little work, he would be a perfect fit for Horse Power for Life. They are also using two horses that have been loaned to them, Detour and Appy. They lease space at Warwick Hill Farm, which has both an indoor and an outdoor arena, in Elverson.
They spent much of the summer developing their marketing, and organizing their resources. "We started doing brochures, handing out material at horse shows, etc.," Sansone says. And they were thrilled when they got a call from Sandy Piliero, who had been diagnosed with breast cancer earlier this year. Piliero became the program's first student, and they could not have found a more enthusiastic pioneer.
"I had wanted to take riding lessons for some time," Piliero says. She lives near a horse farm, and had been intrigued by the horses there for years. "I was having lunch with my neighbors, and the next thing I know, my neighbor sends over a package with the brochure from Horse Power for Life." Her neighbor had been at the Ludwig's Corner Horse Show, where she got the brochure. "The program is wonderful, in that the training they give you on the ground first is phenomenal." She says she was intimidated being around such a large animal, and didn't really notice much about the horse, Detour, beyond his size. "I was so nervous I didn't look him in the face so much."
But things changed in her second week. She started looking at the horse, and she recognized something both primal and new. "There is such a connection. At one point I realized he was paying attention to me, and the look in his eye was just amazing. I knew we had connected."
Piliero says that Horse Power for Life has made a difference in her life. "My family—they tell me they see this light in me now. They're just thrilled," she says. "It doesn't get much better than that." Her experience with Detour reinforces what many clinicians have observed in therapeutic settings.
The Horse As Mirror
Psychotherapists Adele and Marlena McCormick use horses in therapy. In their book, Horse Sense and the Human Heart, the authors explain how horses help people. "The horse acts as a mirror, reflecting us back to ourselves, and thus is a powerful assistant in the pursuit of self-realization. Many people who experience this firsthand come away thinking something uncanny has happened. It is a concrete way to see universal forces at work within our being. What we uncover is our own inner essence, in bold, living color."
The McCormick's say that horses are keen observers of body language, and are capable of extraordinary responses to the people they encounter. "Interestingly enough, our horses have been attracted to and curious about most individuals suffering from any kind of problem. They know something is wrong, and will alter their normal behavior to make contact, approaching more slowly and carefully than with the rest of us, knowing when they are kind but wounded. Time and time again we have watched our horses offer simple gestures of comfort and affection."
Rosoff says that horses are very astute when it comes to recognizing human emotions, but they are not universally prone to responding. Just like humans, horses have individualized ways of processing what they see, based on their own experiences. "Some horses will reach out to people who are sad or in pain, but for others, it might be too much for them," she says. On the other hand, horses don't judge people based on physical characteristics. "They don't care if you're bald, or if you're fat," she says.
They've proved that Winston Churchill was right when he said that there's something about the outside of a horse that's good for the inside of a man.
Helping Families Cope
"When a diagnosis of cancer hits a family, it hits on so many levels—physical, emotional, psychological, spiritual and financial," Sansone explains. "Our program is open to any age, male or female," she says. They wanted to make sure the program could be offered free of charge, because so often cancer is also an expensive disease.
It's important to involve the whole family, because the whole family is affected by cancer. She and Rosoff have both had family members who were diagnosed with cancer, and they wanted to do something to make a difference in the lives of people fighting this devastating disease. Horses, they believe, can teach profound lessons, not the least of which is to live in the moment. They have designed the program to be safe, comfortable and empowering for their students, who will receive certificates for each level of horsemanship they achieve in the 16-week program.
To anyone who has been smitten by the calm I've-seen-it-all gaze of a horse, or who has stood beside a horse and believed the horse was literally seeing into her soul, or who has been transfixed by the innocent power and staggering grace of horses at play, the concept of horse-as-healer is not a great stretch. To Sansone and Rosoff, it's a stretch that will enable families to reach for the future with renewed optimism.
To learn more about Horse Power for Life, check out their website:www.horsepowerforlife.org