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Mar 07, 2013

Horses as Counselors: Case Study

I have received many requests for more examples illustrating how horses can be of benefit in the counseling process.  So, here is another one!  Of course, a few changes have been made to protect confidentiality. 

Kate & Ruby

Kate is an energetic young girl who loves horses.  Kate’s mother was concerned because her daughter was struggling with issues involving self-esteem and social skills.  Kate had a prominent stutter and was reluctant to speak at school for fear of being teased by other children.  She was receiving speech therapy through the school district, but was not receiving services to address the mental health issues.  Kate’s mother sought equine-assisted counseling because she thought her daughter’s love of horses would help her be more receptive to the therapeutic process.  

A small dark bay mare named Ruby was chosen to help Kate.   This mare is a veteran therapy horse and a former champion from the rodeo circuit.  She seems to really like children and is a great horse for them to work with from the ground and in the saddle.  Kate worked with Ruby from the ground during the first session.  She was asked to introduce herself to the horse and to tell her a little about her life.  Kate spent most of the session standing next to Ruby, talking softly as she stroked the mare’s neck.  She spoke slowly and carefully, stopping whenever the stutter would appear.  When the session closed, Kate was asked to describe Ruby in one word.  Kate responded with the word “patience.”  She went on to say that she liked Ruby and didn’t think the horse cared about her stutter. 

Over the next few sessions, Kate progressed nicely and started to develop confidence and leadership skills.  She learned to halter, groom and lead Ruby by herself.  She eventually requested to ride Ruby.  This is where the story gets interesting.  Kate eagerly learned how to put the saddle and bridle on the horse and was soon climbing into the saddle.  She loved riding and seemed fearless.  But, Kate was still struggling with the stutter and was visibly embarrassed when it would happen during a session. 

Then one day we reached a turning point.  A riding “game” I use to help improve focus and attention span turned out to be the key to rapid improvement for Kate.  This exercise involves having the rider identify the horse’s footfall pattern at the walk.  The horse’s walk is a four-beat gait and rider is asked to count the hoof beats and eventually name which hoof is hitting the ground.  We soon discovered that Kate that did not stutter when she spoke in rhythm with Ruby’s walk.  Kate said she was concentrating on the rhythm and not the words during the exercise.  When she completed the exercise, the stutter would return.  With a lot of work in the saddle, however, Kate eventually learned to use her new found skill throughout each session.  Her confidence started to develop in leaps and bounds and she was eventually able to transfer the skill to other areas of her life.

Kate’s mother reported that she received a call from one of the teachers about Kate’s speech.  She expressed concern because Kate had started talking in a sing-song voice during class.  When the teacher asked why she was doing this, Kate replied that she was talking to Ruby to avoid her stutter.  The teacher was worried, but Kate’s mother was elated.  She explained to the teacher about Kate’s work with Ruby (and that Ruby was, in fact, a horse) and how the walking exercise helped her defeat the stutter.  Kate later explained that she was nervous when the teacher asked her a question in front of the class and used Ruby as inspiration to help her answer without stuttering. 

I love this story because it is the perfect example of how horses can benefit a client in a variety of ways.  Kate began working with Ruby on the ground and gained the confidence to actually ride.  Once in the saddle, she discovered a way to help herself that would never have been possible in the typical therapeutic environment.  While I do not know exactly why the horse’s rhythm at the walk helped Kate alleviate the stutter, I do know it helped a young girl develop self-esteem and gain the confidence to become comfortable speaking in front of others at home and at school. 

As far as the stutter is concerned - I would like to find out if anyone has had an experience like this one.  I would love feedback from a qualified speech therapist or other relevant professional!
Lisa Krystosek is a counselor in St. Louis, Missouri. She specializes in Equine-Facilitated Counseling to help adults, adolescents and children improve their lives. To contact Lisa, please visit

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