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Special Section Archives The Altamont Enterprise, February 3, 2010

Health & Fitness Section

Centered Riding
Horses help Dr. Ross change the way patients think

By Anne Hayden

“Horses benefit everyone’s lives,” says psychologist Susan Ross, Ph.D.

A cognitive behavioral therapist and horse lover, Ross uses Equine Facilitated Psychotherapy, or EFP, to help some of her patients who are struggling with depression, anxiety, anger, personal-space issues, and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, among others.

 “We believe that, if you can change the way people think, their behaviors can change,” Ross said. At HillCroft Stables in Schenectady, not far from her Guilderland home, she combines EFP with a practice called Centered Riding, which uses body awareness, centering, and imagery to form a partnership between the horse and the rider.

Ross has been riding for the past 15 years, and moved her own horse to HillCroft less than two years ago. She was drawn to the stable because of its dedication to Centered Riding. The stable is designated as a center for the practice, and each year holds a four-day certification program for instructors.

“Everyone has positive energy inside of them, and they can use it to learn how to communicate with the horse,” explained Ross. There are no whips, crops, or spurs used on the HillCroft horses.

“There is no forcing. You ask the horse to do something, and they do it because they want to,” she said. Some days, if a horse is brought out for a session and seems a little “off,” said Ross, the instructor puts the horse back and gives it a rest day.

“Animals have off days, just like people do,” she said.

Centered Riding was founded by the late Sally Swift, who applied her body awareness and balance techniques to horseback riding. She trained in body awareness starting in childhood, to help her deal with scoliosis, a lateral curvature of her spine.

“As you learn and experience the principles through your horse’s motions and responses, you and your horse tune in to each other and work together in harmony,” according to Centered riding, Inc. “These techniques can increase confidence and enjoyment and release tension in horses and riders...They also help people cope with old injuries or chronic conditions that cause pain during or after riding.”

Many of the horses at HillCroft have been adopted or rescued from people who deemed them worthless or abused them. The owners of the stable, Sally Bauder and Karol McCarty, have nurtured the animals’ physical and emotional health, Ross said.

“These horses are helping people now,” said Ross. The connection between psychotherapy and Centered Riding is practically seamless, she said. There are many therapists who believe that simply being around horses is emotionally beneficial, and that is true, Ross said. However, she believes that working directly with the animal is far more constructive.

“I will see people in my office for months and months, and then see them once at the barn, and it will become clear as a bell what’s going on,” she said. She meets with a patient in her office, and then meets with a certified Centered Riding instructor to design specific exercises for each individual person she treats.

“I have wanted to do this for years, and haven’t been able to find another licensed psychologist who practices EFP in the state,” she said.

Ross spoke of a young girl who struggled with her temper and outbursts of anger. At the stable, with a pony’s lead rope in her hand, the girl was told that it was very important for her to keep the animal calm. In order to keep the pony calm, she had to remain calm herself.

“To keep the pony calm she had to learn how to stop, slow down, and settle herself,” said Ross. “Once she was able to calm herself while working with the horse, she applied the same techniques in other situations, at school, for example.”

Ross also told of a woman who had been diagnosed with ADHD, and was having trouble getting along with her co-workers. As she worked to put a horse through the exercises Ross asked of her, the woman became so focused on the task and completing it perfectly that she forgot to pay attention to the horse’s behavior and responses. The horse, in turn, did not follow her cues, which made her frustrated and angry.

After some processing, the patient realized that she often fell into the same pattern at work. She was so focused on not making a mistake that she was oblivious to the other people around her, and ended up snapping at them. Once she became aware of the behavior, she was able to correct it.

“That patient came to me about two weeks after she had her breakthrough and told me she hadn’t had a single problem at work since! It’s just awesome,” said Ross. Even people with chemical imbalances can learn to use energy more efficiently by working with horses, she said.

“A horse will give immediate feedback, because horses are intuitive,” according to Ross. If a person is too aggressive, a horse will blow them off; if a person is anxious, the horse will pick up on it and become skittish.

“This is more like a way of life than a way of riding,” Ross concluded. “You don't have to be riding to apply what you learn.”

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