Taking the Reins

By Daniel Brumbach | November 15, 2019

A cautiously raised hand and a sharp intake of breath—veneration (with a touch of trepidation) is often transparent as first-timers approach the equines at Sebastian Riding Associates (SRA). This particular horse, Moe, offers a cursory sniff of the guest’s palm before returning his attention to the undisturbed patch of grass he’d led his trainer to.

But his indifference is easily forgiven. Moe is off-duty, as he is no ordinary horse—and SRA is no ordinary equestrian facility. Settled on a 19th-century farm in Collegeville, Pa., SRA is home to 18 therapy equines, ranging from a miniature dwarf who makes regular contributions to a local literacy program, to newcomer Moe, whose poise and patient temperament seem befitting of Riding Free, the brainchild of alumna Dene Mitchell ’05, ’13MPH.

In 2010, as Mitchell weighed topics for her graduate thesis, the Developmental Victimization Survey revealed a staggering 71 percent of children in the United States experience trauma. Responding to the lack of therapies suited for this population, Mitchell—who earned a Bachelor of Arts in Psycho-Biology and a Master of Public Health at Arcadia—launched Riding Free to help children and adolescents with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) build trust, self-confidence, and autonomy.

While SRA offers a variety of programs for individuals with physical limitations and cognitive disorders, Riding Free is the first to provide trauma-informed care. Participants start with a range of symptoms: low self-esteem, poor decision-making skills, mistrust in authority. Many, Mitchell laments, feel unworthy of happiness.

Then, they’re introduced to a towering, 900-pound equine like Moe. And the student who “didn’t need help” shows reliance by allowing an instructor to hold his hand; the rider who jumped off a horse to catch a bug reveals that she befriended insects while locked in a cage as a toddler; and the boy who begs to ride Oreo admits it’s because the mare looks like him and his mother—black and white.

“Pieces of empathy come out; it’s an experience of happiness and safety they can always look back on, no matter where life takes them,” said Chris Hanebury, executive director of SRA. After her daughter with Down syndrome passed away, Hanebury was exploring equine bereavement programs. Fate led Mitchell to SRA.

Riding Free’s structure is simple: Month one, students learn communication and partnership. Month two, riding. By the third month, they’re overcoming obstacles on the course and off.

The outcomes, however, are anything but simple. You see it in the participants’ posture, as they flood the stables with shoulders up; in their focus, as they take on leadership tasks; and in their mood, as they rekindle their enthusiasm for new experiences. Guardians have reported improved grades, health, and emotional regulation. Some participants reduce their medication; all reduce their chances of substance abuse, addiction, and depression.

Mitchell’s seven-year study—investigated alongside Professor Emerita of Public Health Dr. Andrea Crivelli-Kovach, with Arcadia University serving as the Institutional Review Board—concludes this fall, when the team will determine if Riding Free met its goals. Here, Mitchell discusses the program’s inception, progress, and impact thus far.

What prompted you to focus on PTSD?

I was working full time, earning my master’s at Arcadia, and got involved with SRA because I needed to do something good. I was so inspired by how their students overcame limitations. I originally planned to study chronic illness, but once I started volunteering, I knew I wanted to focus my research on animal-assisted therapy. In 2010, there wasn’t much out there as far as complementary therapies that could draw kids with PTSD out of their shells. That was the spark that lit the fire.

Where did you start?

I fell in love with program planning at Arcadia, and had to have a rigorous background in evaluation, epidemiology, and research to launch Riding Free. It takes about a year to develop a solid program; then, you have to have the right support to put it in motion.

Everything came together at once. I was getting weekly reinforcement of how equine therapy worked as an SRA volunteer, and Dr. Crivelli-Kovach was all for me developing Riding Free for my internship and thesis. I conducted a year’s worth of research and focus groups, trying to align our plans with evidence-based practice. We started by running one student through a 12-week lesson plan, but it took less than four sessions for us to realize it was going to work. Now, we’re working with more than 30 participants in the study alone.

Why horses?

If you’ve ever worked with children with PTSD, you know that a lot of these kids don’t have the spark of joy that most people have in their childhood. The horses are bringing that back.

– Dene Mitchell ’05, ’13MPH

For a child with internal fears and anxieties, approaching a horse is so empowering. They learn to be a teammate and partner. A lot of children with PTSD have low self-worth; that changes when they prove to themselves that they can do amazing things. The bond they develop is just incredible, especially when you see how withdrawn they are outside of the stables, how poor they may be doing academically, or how they struggle in their relationships.

When do you start to see these changes?

Students work with horses through an obstacle course, overcoming challenges. They’re in control, which is something they’re not used to having. Our hope is that they realize their choices and behaviors are in their hands.

Through their relationships with their instructors, they also begin to trust adults again. By the fourth week, they’re verbalizing and showing improved social skills. For anyone with PTSD, learning how to be part of a community—to matter to someone, even if it’s a horse—is so important.

What challenges do families face?

Children come to us from different walks of life, but are often from low socioeconomic or single-income families. These families often don’t have programs or funding available to them. One of my missions has been to make sure we always have scholarships for participants—even after they complete their 12 weeks.

We were also finding that many caregivers of children with PTSD felt alone until they came to SRA. I had two Arcadia interns help develop the framework for a support group. Our interns from Arcadia have been amazing—Cody Brenneman ’19DPT, MPH also helped us develop a vocational program for people with disabilities to develop life skills and employment characteristics.

Do you have a favorite success story?

A boy came to us with extreme anger issues and bouts of violence. By the end of the program, he had come off eight of his medications. His mother told us that this was the only place that he felt at peace.

We’ve heard from caregivers that their kids are showing interest for the first time since their trauma. If you’ve ever worked with children with PTSD, you know that a lot of these kids don’t have the spark of joy that most people have in their childhood. The horses are bringing that back.

What are your next steps?

Our hope is to publish, then look at conferences. Chris, Dr. Crivelli-Kovach, and I presented a mid-point analysis at the American Public Health Association’s international conference in 2015, and we’d like to do that again.

Riding Free has grown so much from that pilot student in 2012. The program has almost doubled the clients at Sebastian’s, to the point where we needed to construct a second arena. We just finished a two-year capital fundraiser. That spark I mentioned earlier? It’s really fueled this group. It couldn’t be better.

Mitchell serves as director of Grants and Sustainability at SRA, teaches program planning as an adjunct professor of Public Health at Arcadia, and has conducted research for major oncology and pharmaceutical organizations.