Equine Therapy Isn't Really About the Horse

The case for relying on the people who want you to rely on a herd animal.

I feel like I need a therapist to process the experience of searching for a therapist in New York City. I’ve consulted all the places they tell you to consult and sought references from old doctors — nothing helps or narrows down the endless sea of names and practices. So, predictably, I wind up turning to an old friend, the internet.

During bouts of insomnia, I book appointments with a psychiatrist on ZocDoc, only to cancel when a receptionist calls to confirm. I deliberately avoid WebMD, which takes a few threads of paranoia and weaves them into a full-blown tapestry of suffering, and search for cheaper, alternative options: I should go vegan. I should run until the point of exhaustion, hydrate, slam a protein shake, then do it again and repeat ‘till my shit is figured out.

Massages: I should get so many massages.

Aromatherapy: I should have so many candles popping off 24/7 in my apartment that it smells like a Bon Iver album sounds.

Weed: I should smoke it. But also not smoke it.

SoulCycle: I should pay 40 bucks to stay very still while expending energy.

Therapeutic Alpaca: They look soft!

I should write more. I should drink less. I should move out of New York. I should move to New York. I should move out of New York, move somewhere different than New York, then back to New York again. I should hold my writing implements differently. You name it, I could do it and, with time and effort, I could achieve a new kind of mental stasis. Salvation is only a new routine away. That’s the operating theory anyway.

Much of my online scrolling seems to explore how leaving this city might affect my mindset. Inspired by one of those myriad “Upstate New York Exists” trendpieces, I log into Airbnb to write an acquaintance, “If I may ask, how much does your tiny but marvelously laid-out cabin cost? What is the mortgage payment or do you rent? I wonder, what’s the distance from Ulster County to the airport? I know it gets boring in the winter but just how boring are we talking here? Is there enough culture, by which I mean: Is there anywhere to get a decent slice of pizza?” I think about how the presence of nature and animals — I am from Kansas and grew up with mad animals running around 24/7 — slows me down.

So, in the course of this rummaging, I come across something pretty interesting on the website for Old Stone Farm, a Town & Country-centerfold resort ranch in Rhinebeck, NY, a town whose properties I had been virtually poking around. They have horses at the farm specially trained to whatever extent that is possible to help humans come to grips with their own feelings. I like animals. I want to meet these horses.

I arrive in Rhinebeck on a Wednesday morning, my boots crunching on the rain-soaked gravel. No one is around. Since the car I was planning on driving broke down the night before my trip, I take a short cab ride from the Rhinebeck train station to Old Stone Farm — the cabbie and I get to chatting about baseball, revealing that he had published a book a few years back about the history of bench-clearing brawls. It was the morning, and I wasn’t furious at the world. Things were looking up.

Old Stone Farm is a lovingly restored farm sitting on 236 acres of prime upstate New York real estate, sitting minutes down the road from one of the Hudson Valley’s most chichi locales, flush with spa services and an interminable barrage of locally-sourced meals. The private rooms are decorated sparingly but tastefully with the kind of vintage furniture that would never last long in a Greenpoint antique store. Quilts, crocheted pillows, and those ornamental lamps that don’t provide a lot of light but shade everything in the sexiest way possible were winked toward wealth. The beds are vast and elevated several feet off the floor by carved, intricate club foots. And then there are the porches — my god, so many fucking porches — and the lean-tos and all kinds of rustic accoutrements and places to have a long, pensive sit.

I meet Waddy Francis, the property’s general manager, who seems wary of my intentions to write about the Epona experience but is nice anyway. Francis, a thin middle-aged man with a bald spot crowning the sprouts of his rust-colored hair tied back in a ponytail, had spent decades in the Caribbean working at a resort property in the Bahamas. He had recently returned to the area — he’s from New York originally — after the resort’s owner died and some financial chaos ensued. “It was time,” he said as he walks me through the detached, modestly decorated kitchen and then into the guest house. My room, which is open and furnished with a thoroughly quilted king-size bed, faces the main paddock where a number of chestnut horses roam in russet-tinted grass. Adirondack chairs are perched in the grassy levee that sweeps beneath the guest house, pointed toward the horses and a small pond with some ducks floating around it because of course. To the West is an old restored barn called “The Yoga Barn” and also property-owner Sherry Kahn’s farmhouse, which seems perfectly placid but is also affected with a slight Norman Bates vibe in the early evening dark.

After dropping off my bag, I meet up with Allison Kraft, a young woman who runs the Epona experience at Old Stone Farm, and we go to lunch at a bakery on Rhinebeck’s Market Street to talk about Epona and Kraft’s background. Unsurprisingly, Allison has felt a connection with horses since she was 5 years old, and that passion has carried her through a lot of adversity, including the dissolution of her parents’ marriage and an ACL tear she sustained when one of her horses, Jesse, threw her off seven years ago. Her ambition carried her into the world of dressage and, eventually, to Montana State in Bozeman, a school that offers a prestigious Equine Science degree. Naturally curious about the place of the horse in the world of therapy, Kraft reached out to Shelley Rosenberg.

Kraft is short and muscular and wears her auburn hair down. She smiles a lot and has taken to the slow pace of the town and the resort, where she keeps her two horses and seems to be settling into the challenges of the job. “I’ve seen people change in just a couple of days,” Kraft says, detailing a session where a man exited and immediately ended a toxic relationship. Would Epona change me forever? I wondered. On the way back, we drive by the arena — you can virtually smell the fresh lacquer on the sparkling facility — and I walk around the property before returning to my room to write and file a music review.

At six, I walk to the dining hall for dinner and, for a moment, I’m the only person there so I chat with the server, a junior studying poetry at nearby Bard College. After a moment, a man and woman who are in their 30s — they are married to other people and travel as friends seeking “spirituality” —saunter into the hall and sit at a table on the far side of the room. They’re staying in Rhinebeck due to the proximity of Rhinebeck’s Omega Institute, where a Brazilian Christ medium named John of God is spending a few days in residency. Though the man, John, is a surgeon in Baltimore, he tells me that John of God’s “visible surgeries” — an invasive procedure that he performs in Brazil but is barred from doing in the United States — have cured thousands. I was amazed to realize that a wealthy man of science was in Rhinebeck to lap up mysticism that had a frankly dangerous and unsanitary-sounding surgical component. He spoke of his minutes with John of God passing as mere seconds and of a meeting hall that felt awash with divinity as soon as John entered.

Later on, a woman named Joan wearing a white headwrap entered the dining room, also fresh from John of God’s camp. I overheard her say she is in the late stages of a terminal cancer; John of God represents her last shot, a final reach for a miracle.

The next morning, I see the group at breakfast wearing flowing white linens. “We’re supposed to wear white all the time,” John tells me. “But I’ve been cheating.”

The list of horses who have penetrated popular culture range from sitcom characters like Mr. Ed to Secretariat, a horse name-checked in every discussion of the 20th century’s most dominant athletes despite not being human. Lord of the Rings, a book about the most epic bro-hike of all time, has an entire race of horses called the Rohirrim, a self-governed group presumably inspired by Swift’s Houyhnhnms. Last but not least, I think of the flaxen-maned horse from the Legend of Zelda series that played a crucial role in guiding the Link avatar around the verdant forests and ochre pastures of the video game’s native world, Hyrule. That Horse’s name? Epona.

Equine-based therapy — or, as its best known, Equine-Assisted Therapy (EAT) — is not at all a new concept. As therapy has become more mainstream, practices that incorporate animals have become more common and more advanced, which isn’t to say you’re going to see a lot of barns cropping up on Brooklyn lots. Horses can be expensive to own and to care for but, in areas where space costs less — paradoxically, many of them areas where therapy is less talked about— I would anticipate that the concept will continue to catch on. And the two women at the center of that trend will be a trainer named Shelley Rosenberg, who has written several books on the subject, and a therapist named Nancy Coyne.

Together, Rosenberg and Coyne formed the core of the first Epona program, which Coyne describes as “supercharged therapy” — the nonverbal response you get from a horse is much faster than the response you’d get from a conventional therapist.

“[Equine Assisted Therapy] supercharges therapy,” Coyne says. “The way that it does it is by engaging your body, mind, spirit, and integrating it all, reconnecting with nature, slowing down. A major factor is that we’re all kind of racing too fast and overstimulated and the autonomic nervous system, when it’s unbalanced in the direction of too much sympathetic nervous system, too much adrenaline, does not allow us to feel and does not allow us to think straight. The first thing about horses — and one of the wonderful things about horses — is that they help us slow down.”

Where Rosenberg is the savvy guide that’s necessary for this operation — she has ridden since a child, competed in a number of high level dressage competitions, and been long-listed for the Olympics — Coyne is the human brains of the operation. While Rosenberg’s blunt manner of talking has all the trappings of someone who is an “animal person,” the licensed therapist Coyne has the equipment to unpack the experience on a human level.

“Connection with nature and connection with animals have always seemed really important for mental health to me,” explains Coyne. “But I never really understood exactly why. In 2004 or 2005, I accidentally fell into collaborating with a woman who was working with horses and autistic kids. I walked into the barn and there was a little white pony looking at me. Her name was Phia. She was a famous therapy horse in the olden days. I fell in love.”

From there, Coyne linked up with Rosenberg, who was working in what is considered the Equine-Assisted Psychotherapy “mecca” in Arizona. Though Rosenberg was originally trained by a guru named Linda Kohanov — Kohanov’s practice in Arizona gave birth to the “Eponaquest” brand of learning — Coyne is sure to note that while Kohanov’s practice is important, she’s not a licensed therapist. While it’s unlikely that Eponaquest and its tree of offshoots will be a widespread practice anytime soon, Coyne’s involvement as a licensed therapist with 35 years of experience is a critical component to the process they are building together.

In terms of breaking down what exactly happens in this therapy or why it works, well, that’s a different thing. “We’re just in the infancy of scientific study,” Coyne admits. But she does have a theory:

“What happens is the horse has a natural state of autonomic balance that is much slower and much more calm than a human. We used to think that the only thing that happened if a human is anxious or scared or angry — the sympathetic system is overcharged — is that it will affect the horse and the horse will react by mirroring that or getting antsy. If you’re not calm, one of two things will happen: Either the horse will show you that you’re not calm or the horse will try to calm you down.” Coyne opens this up into a more general description of what’s happening between the person and the horse: “That’s one of the factors that is so useful; the electromagnetic field of the horse is so much bigger and stronger than your own that it trains the human’s autonomic nervous system to lower the thermostat. You become less anxious; PTSD veterans will say, Oh my God, I’ve never felt so calm in my life!”

Being herd animals, horses are wired for trust and they have an unusual ability to absorb and metabolize human emotion. Over the course of several discussions with people involved with the program, I hear some pretty remarkable testimonials. For instance, at Rosenberg and Coyne’s Costa Rica workshop, a young boy with Asperger’s finally became aware of his disease and its consequences for the first time. Coyne tells me about a skeptic who had visited their facility only to have a small interaction with a therapy horse that the subject considered life-changing. Can she explain it? She cannot.

“As a psychiatrist, I have to tell you, I’ve seen how quickly and deeply people’s suffering is relieved,” Coyne says. “It’s magic, and it’s very moving to me. At this stage of my life, I’m not so concerned with making a lot of money, but I want to be doing this work.”

It’s morning and I’m in the arena, which is brand new, sparkling, and surfaced with a layer of rubber pebbles to approximate dirt without the dirt. I stand and face my mount— a half-Belgian Heavy Horse named Topper whose blonde mane is worn in such a devil-may-care manner that he looks like the equine answer to Harry Styles. He watches as Allison works me through a series of breathing and focus exercises, not unlike a moderately intense yoga routine. “Focus all your attention on your head,” Kraft says as she stands behind me in the center of the dome. “Now your neck. Focus on your neck and move it down into your chest.” I’m not supposed to answer but Kraft quizzes me anyway. “Do you feel free? Do you feel calm? Is there something you’re thinking about?” Her tone is warm but stern; I’ve worked through many of these exercises before, but something about the setting makes me feel particularly weightless and removed from reality.

After we’re done with the focus drills, I move on to a therapeutic grooming exercise where I gain Topper’s trust by brushing his mane, digging the mud out of his shoes, and coating my hands in oily detangler to attend to his tail. I begin to feel why horse-based therapy has gained a foothold: Any time I’m tense, I can feel Topper tighten up and he gets distracted more easily. When I’m nervous, Topper is shifty and unfocused. One exercise features me leading Topper around the arena — at first with a rope and then later ropeless. When I feel locked in on him and his well-being, he follows my every zig and zag. The second my mind drifts, Topper takes off.

The session makes me feel straightened out in a way a long run or a particularly deep yoga session might, but I don’t exactly feel catharsis. It’s relaxing and not unlike practicing yoga with a mirror, as Rosenberg suggested. The key difference is that the horse mirror is supposed to hold up an emotional reflection, making you want to fix your mind, not your hair. But I don’t feel a connection with Topper that extends beneath the skin. This horse, it seems to me, can just speed read my body language and react to it. I’m not sure he’s got any deeper insights.

Then we reach the last part of the exercise, the part where I ride Topper bareback. I grew up in Kansas, so I’ve ridden plenty of horses but never bareback and — I’m not going to lie — I feel a little freaked out at the prospect of climbing Topper without a saddle or bridle. Presumably because we’ve established trust through the other exercises — the grooming, the breathing practices, the reinforced connection between horse and man — Topper takes the clamber shockingly well, and I ride him around the arena in a figure eight for about 10 minutes, his musculature shifting beneath me like I’m rafting a rapid. Kraft returns to the arena to help me off, and I bound down into the fine rubber dirt. An hour has passed in what feels a few minutes.

I give Topper a rub on the nose with a closed fist and step out onto the trail that leads back to the main grounds.

I would stop short of saying I felt underwhelmed by the Epona experience but it didn’t necessarily break me down so that it could be built up again, which is sort of how I assumed therapy should work. I was not reborn, just relaxed and given some temporary release. Wanting to hang out more outside, I agree to go for a hike with Jeff, a local guide and handyman who works at the resort.

Jeff points out a number of local plants and pulls deer bones out of the brush, bones that looked bleached but had just been thoroughly stripped by coyotes. Oddly enough, a Longhorn steer roams this part of the woods — a bankrupt farmer nearby had let a few escape his property before selling off what he could— and we find some of its droppings. Jeff, who is stout, tan, and wears a thin braid down his back, is a Michigan native and spent the greater part of a decade traveling the country in a van. He bends over a small stalk and tells me a little about the bud. “Apparently it has hallucinogenic properties but I haven’t tried it — yet.”

Sherry’s son gives me a ride to the station and pumps me for information about the Knicks, assuming that my irregular and characteristically offbeat contributions to a big sports website mean that I’ve become fluent in the fabric of the NBA and know all of its secrets. I get on the Metro North and sit on the river side, staring at the Hudson for the duration of the ride, not checking my phone until I’m at Grand Central.