It’s no secret to anyone who rides horses that time spent with hay in our hair and mane in our hands is therapeutic (hence the well-worn Winston Churchill quote about how good horses are for people). Even if we don’t realize it, we’re engaging in our own sort of equine-assisted therapy every time we ride, in a very technical sense.
“Lucky isn’t too sure about that jump combination,” really means that Lucky’s rider isn’t too sure about it.
Kelsey Craig uses the ability of horses to jumpstart communication all the time in her part-time job at the North Carolina Therapeutic Riding Center.
“After seeing how well horses mirror our emotions and how they can see, even if we’re presenting a confident front, they’ll call us out on it every time if that’s not how we’re really feeling,” she said. “So after seeing that, I’ve tried to incorporate that into my riding and be really mindful of my feelings and how my body is making the horse feel.”
Craig has an undergraduate degree in psychology and a master’s degree in social work and works as a therapist in group, individual and in-patient settings. Her resume also includes cognitive and behavioral therapist to an off-the-track Thoroughbred named Timmy.
Craig began riding when she was 6 and showed in the junior hunters, attending at least one premier show a month throughout her childhood. For years she rode five horses a day nearly every day in the summer as a teenager to prep for shows. By the time she turned 18 and went to college at the University of North Carolina, Craig was burned out and decided to take a step back from riding.
In graduate school at the University of Pennsylvania, she found herself struggling to stay afloat financially, so getting back to riding full-time wasn’t much of an option. And besides, she said, the drive to ride was not a deep, infectious need the way it was for others.
“It was weird; I kept looking for something that would make me feel the way I did when I was riding,” she said. “It’s not a hobby; it’s a lifestyle. I tried kickboxing, and I hated every minute of it, but I went like four times a week. But nothing really got me. Horses are a thing of their own.”
It wasn’t until she began her career that she started looking to get back into the saddle again as a way to stay active and destress. She connected with a trainer who put her on a teenaged OTTB named Timmy who just needed some legging up.
Timmy came to Craig with a lot of unspecified baggage; his then-owner had taken him on and struggled with his intense anxiety, particularly away from home. Before that, he had been on the A circuit when he got loose on a longe line at a show and was injured. After that, Timmy wasn’t the same.
His owner tried to rehabilitate his feet, put him in professional training, and tried a brief discipline switch to dressage, but nothing worked. She tried to sell him to a non-show home, and he apparently faked an injury, which appeared when the new owners got him home and disappeared two hours later when he returned to the farm. At one show, Timmy tried to jump out of the ring in sheer panic.
At home, Craig said Timmy was incredibly well-behaved. He was a quirky, cautious soul, so Craig chose to think of him as a child in need of therapy.
“I kind of have a herd of misfit animals,” she said. “My husband [Andrew Winter] and I have a dog who loves both of us but tries to bite anybody else. I was like, what’s going on with this horse when he goes to a show that’s so different from when he’s at home? I tried to support him, both emotionally and physically. I try my best not to see long distances and support him to the base of the jump.
“I tried not to dominate him,” she continued. “He has more personality than any horse I’ve ever met, and instead of trying to break that out of him I just embraced it. I spent a lot of time with him. I don’t want to break his spirit; I want to nourish it.”
She soon fell in love with the plain bay gelding and bought him for $1. Since then, they have worked to gradually overcome Timmy’s fears and have become successful competitors, jumping 2’6″ on the C circuit around Craig’s base in Burlington, North Carolina. At home, a confident ride from Craig will get Timmy over 3’6″, even though she thought he maxed out at fences a foot smaller.
“He just kept getting stronger physically and emotionally,” she said. “You know how people refer to their horses as unicorns? They’ll say, ‘This horse is a saint; he’s perfect.’ Nobody’s ever described Timmy that way, but I think he’s growing his own unicorn horn. He’ll do stuff now where I’ll see a long distance and he’s like, ‘Don’t worry, I got this,’ instead of telling me I don’t know what I’m doing.”
It’s hard to prepare for Timmy’s bad days away from home, especially since she never knows when one may strike. She did pick up on one trick that seems to work in the ring if Timmy begins jigging: singing to him.
“I was literally singing to him—I mean, quietly—I didn’t want people to think I was also a little off,” she joked. “But he responds well. I just try to be present and be mindful of my emotions. I remember the first time we won a class I cried out of happiness. I don’t even think I cried at my wedding.”
Craig said Timmy is her heart horse, and her time spent with him has made riding essential, and Timmy helps her reset after a stressful day at work.
“There was a day I had a patient threaten to murder me in a very graphic way at work,” said Craig, who also works in in-patient therapy. “It was one of those days where I thought, I’m not sure how I’m going to be OK tomorrow. By the time I got home, I had stopped to see Timmy, and I was fine again. At that moment something flipped, and I realized, ‘This is equine therapy. That’s what I’m doing.’
“Horses pick up on all these things that we don’t, and I can’t even explain all of it,” said Craig. “I think they’re magical.”
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