Temple’s Touchstone Farm study to bring different hearts together

TEMPLE – There are hearts among us that have suffered lasting pain, but an upcoming study will explore how horses can show them how to love and be loved.

Touchstone Farm in Temple – a combination horseback riding and therapy center – will be the site of research into the effect of equine-facilitated psychotherapy on symptoms of post-traumatic stress in adolescent boys next month.

Each week, the three-hour therapy sessions will pair a group of five adolescent boys with their own horse to care for both mounted and unmounted. Boo Martin, executive director of Touchstone Farm, said the communication between the boys and their horses is crucial in developing their social skills and confidence.

“Some of these boys have never felt a loving caress,” Martin said. “When they are with the horses, they can experience that touch, feelings of love and empathy. All of these things are incredibly easy to foster in this situation.”

Touchstone Farm is comprised of educational horse riding, retreat center and horse therapy programs: Pony Farm, Stepping Stone Lodge and Horse Power. The nonprofit originated from a small riding camp in 1971, where Martin noticed the children with the most trouble in their lives had the strongest connection to the horses.

The 30 young men studied will come from the Wediko School in Windsor, a year-round therapeutic residential school for boys struggling with complex psychiatric, emotional and behavioral issues. The upcoming study will focus solely on boys assessed with symptoms of PTS.

Post-traumatic stress stems from a wide range of experiences including rape, domestic violence, physical abuse and other situations that create chronic, long-term stress.

The effectiveness of EFP is centered around the horse’s extreme sensitivity and reaction to the emotions around them. These boys have many complex emotions that can then be better understood by both themselves and the therapist present.

“These experiences with the horses is so essential to the healing process,” Martin said. “It meets you on the verbal level, the heart level and the visceral level.”

Martin will be joined by Winter Keeler, who is both senior clinical supervisor at Wediko and manager of Horse Power Therapeutic Horsemanship at Touchstone Farm. A select group of Horse Power volunteers will participate in all the sessions, with each volunteer working one-on-one with a horse/client pair.

Keeler has a powerful connection to the horses and has seen the positive effects they can bring throughout her time with Touchstone. Many of the 27 horses on the farm are trained in therapeutic horsemanship and have already worked with Wediko students.

“I have seen students have more pride in themselves. They are learning about care, responsibility and empathy for others. Sometimes they have difficulties feeling empathy for other people, but they can feel empathy for animals.”

She added that the boys, who may have had traumatic experiences among their own kind, can feel safe around these horses. The confidence that comes from working with the horses has shown reductions in anger, aggression and even speech impediments among other positive effects.

Martin and Keeler truly believe in the benefits of EFP, but now they can show it through hard data. The results will be assessed by the researchers from the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University and from Washburn University. Megan Mueller, of Tufts, and Leslie McCullough, of Washburn, are the principal investigators for the research.

A control group of five Wediko boys with symptoms of PTS not participate in the EFP sessions.

The study is funded by a $50,000 grant from the Horses and Humans Research Foundation, which previously funded research into EFP’s positive effects on children with autism.

Martin is thrilled to have research be an official part of Touchstone Farm’s mission to use horses as a healing modality. Part of this effort will be to train other riding centers across the country to engage in horse-related therapy.

The relationship between horses and humans has been a lifelong passion for Martin and her team of dedicated individuals. She hopes to see EFP as a reliable alternative to medication and other expensive treatments. To her, the strength to these animals can lift the spirits of those in need.

“This study is a real win-win. It is a personal and professional thrill to have this research happen here,” Martin said. “The funding and the right players are coming together to have a truly scientific and academic way to quantify my life’s work.”

For more information, visit touchstone-farm.org.