Equine therapy for autism program seeks sponsors
By Jessica Creagan
FELLSMERE -- A horse is a horse (of course, of course) but sometimes a horse can also be an encourager, a friend, a life coach and therapist.
Cindy Devine, owner of Scarlett Stables in Fellsmere and founder of the nonprofit Florida Equestrian Foundation, has discovered that horses are perfectly equipped to work with individuals that may need to build confidence, lower stress levels, learn self-control and develop life and social skills.
Since 2012, Ms. Devine has worked with at-risk students, seniors, war veterans, victims of domestic abuse and children with autism, using horses and day-to-day routines at a barn to positively impact and enrich their lives. Sometimes the work is done in conjunction with certified therapists with specific goals, other times sessions are directed by Ms. Devine and her four-legged friends.
This year, Ms. Devine, her staff of eight horses and the dozens of volunteers that help the programs and stables run smoothly, is looking for sponsors to run a continuous program for children with autism.
"Indian River County doesn't have an ongoing social program specifically for individuals with autism like the surrounding counties do. We would love for our program to be the first social program for them in the county," Ms. Devine said.
"We have a huge waiting list for clients with autism and we're looking for 40 sponsors for 40 clients at $250 per month," Ms. Devine said.
On Feb. 23 at 4 p.m. potential clients, volunteers and interested sponsors are invited to tour the barn facility and meet the volunteers and staff with Florida Equestrian Foundation.
"Basically it will be a meet and greet so people can learn who we are, what we do and what they can do to support us," Ms. Devine said.
The open-stable event will also include hot dogs and s'mores over a campfire.
During the week, the sessions with clients are private and confidential and the length of each session depends on the individual and their capabilities, Ms. Devine said.
There are about 30 clients with autism currently participating in the equine-assisted activities programs during the week.
Something that individuals with autism, and coincidentally those with post-traumatic stress disorder, need to learn how to do is recognize when they are getting anxious or frustrated and know how to handle themselves in that situation, she said.
"Horses are flight creatures. If they are about to be attacked, all they can really do is run from danger. Because of this they are keenly aware of their environment," Ms. Devine said
In a session, if someone is having trouble controlling their angry emotions, the horses will have a physical response, sometimes backing away and hiding behind other things, Ms. Devine said.
Once a client sees the connection between their emotions boiling up and how it affects the animals, they can learn to identify when they are about to lose control and can work to calm themselves, she said.
This practice of identifying triggers to their emotions translates out of the stables and into daily life at school or at home, Ms. Devine said.
Sometimes clients also see benefits in increased language and tactile skills from working with the horses.
"One child has been coming for about eight months and when he first came, he was mostly non-verbal," Ms. Devine said.
"Now when he comes, he talks about the horses, talks about his friends at school and he's very aware of his body and his tone," she said.
"He knows he can't just blow up in anger and run away or the horses will do the same thing. He's much more aware of his actions," she said.
The equine-assisted activities programs don't necessarily mean clients will be riding horses; sometimes the tasks will be to groom or feed a horse, or even to walk with the animal from one place to another.
Napoleon, an 18-year-old Welsh miniature pony, is often the go-to guy for working with children as his size is generally less intimidating, Ms. Devine said.
"He just loves to be brushed," she said.
The list of programs offered by the Florida Equestrian Foundation also include Hi-O Silver, a social and interactive group for senior citizens, War Admiral, an alternative rehabilitation program for veterans and wounded warriors, Black Beauty, for victims of domestic abuse, Hidalgo, for at-risk teens, Seattle Slew, for education groups, retreats and team building activates, War Horse, a recreational men's horseback riding group, and Black Velvet, a women's empowerment group.
As a nonprofit organization, Florida Equestrian Foundation relies on volunteers and donations to cover the operational costs and chores at the barn. More information about how to become involved is available on the nonprofit's website.
The Florida Equestrian Foundation is based out of Scarlett Stables at 9745 141st Ave., Fellsmere. For more information about the Florida Equestrian Foundation, call (772) 538-3748 or visit www.floridaequestrianfoundation.org.