High ACE Score? How Horses Help in Recovering from Adverse Childhood Experiences

Girl hugging hourse

– By JoAnn Richi

Baylie is eight years old. Born to a crack addicted mother and alcoholic father, removed from her parents at six months covered with bruises and cigarette burns, Baylie has spent her childhood shuffled from one foster home to another. She rarely speaks, makes little eye contact with adults, shows no interest in playing with kids her age, and recoils from any attempt at physical affection. Baylie’s ability to connect with anyone, or anything, seemed nil, until the day she met a horse named ‘Steady.’

Baylie got very lucky. Her court appointed therapist has found a way to combine her own love of horses with the little known, but rapidly evolving field of Equine Assisted Psychotherapy.

Once a week Baylie gets to go to the stables, be out in the sunshine, hold out an apple for ‘her horse’ to nibble from her hand, to pat, brush and talk quietly to him about the things she does not want anyone else to hear.

For children like Baylie, who have never been able to trust people, a horse can become a beacon of light in an otherwise dark world. Suddenly something big and powerful leans in, nuzzles you and looks you right in the eye. There is nothing to fear; this animal will not leave you, he will not betray you. With a trained Equine Assisted therapist, a child like Baylie can be gradually introduced to forming a relationship with this animal. This ability to bond, perhaps for the first time in her young life, will then hopefully expand allowing her to trust and connect with the wider world and to the people who exist within it.


Saguaro Lake Ranch photo2

At  ‘Human Resiliency, Horses & Healing: An Integrated Approach to the Treatment of Trauma ’ a 4-day  on-site conference, at an authentic 1940’s Dude Ranch, therapists and interested lay people had an opportunity to experience how horses help heal childhoods ravaged by trauma.

Surrounded by the majestic beauty of the Tonto National Forest, the intensive training was skillfully designed to catapult participants into the world of ACE, (Adverse Childhood Experiences) and the process of recovering from childhood trauma through the unique and dynamic approach of Equine Assisted Psychotherapy.



Vitae Seminars interviewed several experts in the field of trauma and its treatment with Equine Therapy, here is what they had to say:

Jamie Vinck, MC, LPC lives in Phoenix, works in Tucson and shows Arabian horses throughout the country. An avid horsewoman and Master’s level Licensed Professional Counselor, Ms. Vinck is eager to train others in the use of Equine Assisted Psychotherapy.

Passionate about horses Jamie Vinck utilizes these ‘1000 lb gentle giants’, as she affectionately calls them, in treating trauma in patients struggling with substance abuse in her private practice in Scottsdale, and at Sierra Tucson®, where she is the Chief Clinical Officer of this prestigious facility, a leader in substance abuse treatment across the world.

Equine Therapy is big in Arizona and therapists like Jamie Vinck are adamant that these massive, lovable creatures are just the thing to sooth the pain, and heal the damage, from the accumulated effects of childhood trauma.

Jamie Vinck & Dude

“Fear, anxiety and resentment are rife in individuals with substance abuse issues.” Ms. Vinck says, “Often these feelings stem from abuses in childhood, so they have trust issues, and their defenses are way up. Horses are very grounding and centering. This is exactly what people who have experienced trauma need.”

ACE research indicates that there is a 30% increase in alcoholism and, according to Dr. Vincent Felitti; the lead ACE researcher from the original Kaiser Permanente Adverse Childhood Events Studies, a youngster under the age of 18 with an ACE Score of 6 has a 4,600% increase in the likelihood of becoming an IV drug user in adulthood when compared to a child with an ACE Score of 0. (1)

Baylie’s ACE score is 7, which means that during her brief formative years seven distinctly traumatizing events occurred, possibly simultaneously, flooding her developing body and nervous system with stress inducing hormones, and setting in motion a propensity for a lifetime of physical, emotional and psychological difficulties.

The ACE study identified alcoholism and drug abuse as two of a myriad of issues associated with multiple traumas in childhood. Diabetes, arthritis, and even cancer have also emerged as potential medical ramifications of intense and chronic exposure to damaging emotional stimuli and /or physical abuse in childhood.

The 12 Step Program, based on Alcoholics Anonymous, has long been the foundation of substance abuse treatment and is currently utilized in treatment programs for most forms of addictive behaviors. Jamie Vinck, MC, LPC is highly aware of the effects of a high ACE score on the individuals she has been treating, and incorporates both the 12 Steps and Equine Assisted Psychotherapy in her work with clients at Sierra Tucson and in her private practice. Ms. Vinck utilizes a variety of unique approaches including photography in which the clients receive an image of themselves reflected in the horse’s eyes, and painted projection in which the client’s problems and issues are ‘painted’ on the horse, then lovingly washed off in a symbolic representation of self-forgiveness and the practice of ‘letting things go’.

“Horses are intuitive and expressive.” Ms. Vinck explains. “When someone looks into the eyes of a horse they see themselves reflected back. This is what we call a ‘mirroring’; an instant rapport, a bonding. It opens people up, and brings barriers down, and sometimes the outcomes, the successful breakthroughs are sheer magic.”

Ekholm Fry Healing with Horse 2014

From Finland with Love. Nina Eckholm Fry, MS.Sc.

Equine Therapist.

Although it has been around for a good fifteen years, Equine Assisted Psychotherapy is perceived by many as something fairly new in the United States. However; this therapy has been utilized, and widely recognized, in Europe for decades. Nina Eckholm Fry, born and raised around horses in rural Finland is a warm, friendly, eloquent young woman who found a way to merge her interest in psychology with her love of horses. A devoted equine therapist, Nina was recruited by Prescott College in Arizona to develop and lead one of the few Equine Assisted Psychotherapy graduate and post-graduate level counseling programs in the United States.

An outspoken proponent of Equine Assisted Psychotherapy, Nina’s approach is as unique and creative as this Finnish therapist and educator herself. Ms. Eckholm Fry took time out of her busy schedule to share her interest in, and knowledge of, the therapeutic use of horses in the treatment of trauma.

“In working with individuals who have experienced trauma, who have a high ACE score, trust and control are significant issues. Equine Assisted therapy expands the therapeutic environment. Suddenly the client is taken out of the usual confines of an office. When we bring a horse ‘into the picture’ we have more treatment options; we are outdoors, we interact with the physical world, we utilize the body in an active rather than passive manner, it opens up an array of treatment possibilities.”

As a former Red Cross Crisis Response Team member in Finland, Nina Eckholm Fry has witnessed severe trauma in children and adults and is highly sensitive to its effects on the body, as well as the mind. In agreement with the ACE research that illustrates a direct correlation between traumatic experiences in childhood and the propensity to develop significant health issues in adulthood, Nina often cites the neurological trails cut deep into the human psyche by the devastating experience of emotional and / or physical trauma.

“Trauma causes a disruption in the way a memory is encoded neurologically. It creates a kind of a ‘time warp’, an endless loop where whatever happened plays out mentally over and over again, forcing the person to relive the event as if it is happening in the present. It is a painful, vicious cycle that must be interrupted, and reinterpreted in order for the individual to fully recover.”

But, how exactly do horses play into that process of healing?

“Many of my students say;  ‘Oh, this does not feel like I am doing therapy’, Ms. Fry laughs,  ‘but I assure them that they are! No one ever said that therapy had to be done in an office with the client sitting here and the therapist sitting there, the client asking the question, the therapist having all the answers. No. It is not the therapist sits over here, client over there, client has the problem and the therapist has the answer.

Nina likes to refer to Equine Assisted Psychotherapy as a joint venture, and is excited about the therapeutic possibilities when the client and the therapist move beyond the confines of a traditional office setting and participate together in activities that ‘level the playing field’, that erase the unspoken, but often vaguely perceived hierarchy between the therapist and the client.

“When we are out in the field with the horse we are interacting relationally, we are doing things together; we can brush the horse together, groom it, and feed it. All of this heightens and enhances the therapeutic alliance, the connection to and the relationship between the therapist and the client. No matter what type of therapy is done, that rapport, that alliance is the bedrock, and an absolutely essential aspect of, effective psychotherapy.”

In returning to the topic of how horses fit into therapy, and why they are especially significant in the treatment of trauma, Nina Ekholm Fry, former first responder for the European Red Cross has this to say:

“When we do trauma work there has to be a sense of safety; in the body, in the setting before we can move ahead to revisiting, rather than reliving, traumatic events. And that’s the goal. When someone can remember a terrible occurrence without re-experiencing it, when it can be recalled as something unpleasant that occurred in the past, not something that is repeatedly happening in the present, then the narratives shifts and that terrible memory becomes a neutral part of the person’s life experiences. It is the difference between being trapped in a time warp of a nightmare’s endless loop and pure liberation. That is the goal: to be able to revisit a memory, without reliving it.

Nina thinks back to a case in Finland in which a colleague, also an equine therapist, treated a four year old girl.

“The child had been in foster care almost all her life. Every week she would get up on the horse, her therapist would cover her with a blanket and she would sleep for the first 20 minutes of the session.”

Nina smiled and shook her head, still in awe of what she had just described.

“That little girl had experienced so much trauma her ACE score was a seven out of a possible ten, yet laying on top of that big, soft animal, she felt so safe she could release completely, she could ‘let it all go’. That is the power, and the beauty, of equine assisted psychotherapy.”

Sarah Jenkins

Phoenix AZ Sarah Jenkins, MC, LPC Equine Therapist & EMDR Specialist

Sarah Jenkins, like so many Equine Therapists, grew up around horses. Hailing from Great Britain Sarah’s family owned 200 acres of land and ran a therapeutic riding facility. Her mother worked with the physically disabled utilizing ‘mounted work’ or riding, to strengthen and maximize her client’s motor skills. “I have always been with horses.” Sarah says, “And they are an integral part of the therapy I do in treating the devastating effects of trauma.”

Sarah Jenkins, a Master’s level psychotherapist and Licensed Professional Counselor has also added something unique and highly effective to her equine assisted trauma therapy: Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR). Fairly unknown twenty years ago, EMDR is now the treatment of choice in tackling the challenging array of anxiety based symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome or PTSD.

Long associated with the after effects of war, PTSD can actually effect anyone who has experienced a traumatic event at any age, in any place. The nightmares, insomnia, generalized anxiety, chronic tension and sudden frightening images triggered by associations of the original trauma can occur in children and adults who witnessed or experienced abuse, troops returning from a war zone, or stunned survivors of a natural disaster. EMDR is now recognized by the World Health Organization as evidence based practice, which verifies that after detailed examination of outcome studies the statistical data reflects that it is an effective method in treating trauma.

But how does EMDR, which generally involves having a client follow moving lights while allowing the mind to form new associations to entrenched memories fit in with equine assisted therapy?

Sarah explains;

“It is really an Integrated Model in which the use of the horse is combined in the overall treatment process. Both Equine Assisted Psychotherapy and EMDR facilitate the process of neurologically reinterpreting trauma. Some equine therapists talk in terms of metaphors; how a horse represents something significant on a symbolic level and that somehow mitigates the effects of trauma. I view it differently. As I see it; the connection to the animal is physical. Those physical sensations of touch, which occur when petting or grooming the animal, or the rhythmical movement of riding, and direct body contact between the client and the horse, all work directly on a neurological level.”

Her presentation on Equine Therapy and EMDR demonstrates exactly how Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing and Equine Assisted Psychotherapy can and does sooth and actually dissipate the long trail of the emotional damage left by childhood trauma.

Sarah sees a bright future for the use of horses in counseling and psychotherapy.

“Equine Assisted Psychotherapy is now where EMDR was two decades ago. Not too many people knew about it, and those who did, were not sure how it helped. I think it will have a similar trajectory as Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing. It will become more mainstream; it will be taught in more colleges and universities as part of their psychology and counseling programs. National licensure will soon follow as the research shows just how effective it can be.”

Girl hugging hourse

Baylie still has trouble looking at people, but she is learning to gaze directly at something that seems to respond warmly to her. Just as Ms. Vinck described as occurring to her clients, by seeing her own refection mirrored back in the big, welcoming eyes of her assigned therapy horse, Baylie is developing a sense of rapport, not only with the animal, but also with her therapist.

It took a ‘1000 lb gentle giant’ to soothe this child. The horse has a calming influence, and it seems to relax her. Baylie now looks forward to counseling sessions she used to resist, and has begun the long, slow process of transferring the trust she has for a horse aptly named; ‘Steady’ to a therapist who tried something a little different to reach, and to heal, a damaged child.
Three therapists; Jamie Vinck, Nina Eckholm Fry and Sarah Jenkins; all coming from different areas of the globe, now living and working in Phoenix, Arizona combine their love of horses and the practice of psychotherapy in helping their clients overcome the traumas in their lives.


To Contact the author, JoAnn Richi:  jr@joannrichi.com

To Read The Collected Writings of JoAnn Richi: www.joannrichi.com

‘How Horses Help in Recovering from Adverse Childhood Experiences’ ©2015 JoAnn Richi