A Helping Hoof: The Horse as Guide and Therapist
by Kate Mueller

For over 40 years, horses have been coming to the rescue, guiding and educating people—from physically challenged children to veterans with PTSD, teens with emotional problems, and adults seeking personal growth. The first use of horses for physical therapy dates back to 1969, when the North American Riding for the Handicapped Association (NARHA) was founded. In 1999, the Equine Assisted Growth and Learning Association was founded, expanding the role of horses beyond the physical. NARHA is now called the Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship International (PATH); based in Colorado, PATH provides instructor certification, center accreditation, and educational opportunities.

What is it about horses that makes them uniquely suited to this sort of work? The answers are several. Most obviously horses are large animals—and dealing with a 1,000-pound animal requires leadership skills that smaller therapy animals can’t provide. Because horses are herd and prey animals, they are highly attuned to each other, to other animals, and to their environment.

Their senses are acute: with a 350-degree field of vision, they can see in front and almost all the way around their bodies; their mobile ears can take in sound information from multiple sources simultaneously. To survive in the wild, they have to work well as a group. Each horse has his or her “job,” and horse society is all about everyone working together harmoniously. As such, horses provide a model of how to be in the world, and they are also excellent mirrors. Sensitive as they are, they quickly pick up nonverbal cues from the humans near them and reflect what they are sensing.

Sarah Seidman, director of Vermont Horse-Assisted Therapy (VHAT), leads a horse ridden by a student in an after-school program for autistic children.

Those are the more subtle psychological aspects of working with horses. But in other more prosaic ways, horses are well suited for both physical and emotional therapy. For a child or adult with mobility issues—whether disabled through an accident or because of a condition like cerebral palsy or multiple sclerosis—riding a horse offers the exhilarating opportunity of freedom of movement. For someone with emotional or psychological problems, learning to care for and ride a horse means developing a variety of skills and sensitivities that are bound to help the individual heal and grow: consideration for the horse, adapting to an individual horse’s way of being, learning to follow instructions, and learning to be a leader. Plus, just being around horses can have a calming and centering effect.

Use of horses in education and therapy is a growing field. Currently in Vermont, there are about 10 places throughout the state (see sidebar) offering services ranging from equine-assisted coaching to hippotherapy—using horseback riding to improve coordination, balance, and strength (hippo is the Greek word for horse.)

Rhythm of the Rein Therapeutic Riding Center

Dianne Lashoones, founder and director of Rhythm of the Rein Therapeutic Riding Center at Water Tower Farm, has been around horses nearly her entire life.

“I rode my first horse at age 6,” says Lashoones, “and I was hooked.” While growing up, she had a quarter horse. But then came college and work, and for many years, horses ambled out of her life. Lashoones has a degree in physical therapy and for 34 years worked as a therapist in sports therapy, geriatrics, pediatrics, and adult special needs.

Students from Rhythm of the Rein competing at Upper Valley, New Hampshire, Special Olympics Equestrian Games in 2014: at back, Gabe rides Ellie with Mary Cobb walking; front, Ian rides Shiloh, with Dick Chase walking.

In 1988, Lashoones and her husband, Dick, decided to move to Vermont and bought the 70-acre Water Tower Farm, located just east of Marshfield. After years of not having horses, Lashoones now had the space to keep them and grabbed the opportunity. She got one—then another. But while riding one horse, the other, left alone in the stable, would “raise a ruckus.”

The solution: another horse. After a fourth addition, it occurred to her to breed horses to support her horse habit, so she bought a stallion.

Lashoones’s all-time favorite breed is the Tennessee walking horse. Lashoones and her husband began breeding these horses and through the ’90s ran a very successful horse-breeding operation, selling some two dozen walkers to Germany. Boarding, training, and riding lessons were also a large part of Water Tower Farm and continue to be to this day.

Meanwhile, Lashoones continued to work as a physical therapist. In 2009, Lashoones’s home health supervisor encouraged her to work with some of their pediatric clients on horseback—and from that beginning the therapeutic riding program came to life.

“Doing this combines the two sides of my life,” Lashoones notes—physical therapy and her love of horses. She is a PATH-certified therapeutic riding instructor, and Rhythm of the Rein is one of only four PATH premier accredited centers in the state.
On the day of my visit, Lashoones gave me a tour of the farm. The farm has both an outdoor riding ring and a large indoor arena, where many of the center’s classes are conducted. Lashoones says they board about 12 horses, and she has nine of her own; of which seven are used as therapy horses. [seven of the 21 horses are therapy horses] The horses undergo two months of training with trainers role-playing as students and assistants—presenting the horse with the challenges it is likely to encounter. If a student rider has severe disabilities, up to five people may be acting as spotters, presenting the horse with multiple distractions.

Being a therapy horse is both physically and mentally stressful, says Lashoones; it’s hard work carrying an unbalanced rider. “It’s like a person carrying an overactive toddler in a backpack, who keeps shifting around, making it difficult to walk,” she says. After the training, the horse is put to work but remains on probation for another two months.

Two other PATH-certified instructors work part-time at the center, Libby Hale and Melissa DeLuke Falk. In addition, Hale is a licensed physical therapist and Falk a licensed occupational therapist. Otherwise, the center runs on volunteers. “We couldn’t do this without the volunteers,” says Lashoones.

The center runs year-round and has about three dozen students. Lashoones works with a variety of populations, both children and adults: people with autism, cerebral palsy, multiple sclerosis, and genetic disorders; car accident and head trauma victims; and veterans with PTSD.

Jackson is able to ride with the help of a mechanical lift, given to Rhythm of the Rein by John Primmer and friends.


Because the special needs population requires a lot of assistance, classes usually have just one or two students, with four being the maximum. During my visit I watched a lesson with 9-year-old Jordan mounted on Shiloh, a pretty chestnut mare with white markings. Her owner, Dick Chase, a volunteer at the center, assisted along with a second volunteer, Amy Hayes. Chase stood behind Shiloh, holding two long lead lines running on either side of the horse up to her bridle. Chase explained to me that if Jordan was unable to get Shiloh to stop or turn at a crucial moment, Chase could override and give the appropriate tug on his extra-long reins to direct the horse—kind of like a student-driver car with an extra brake for the instructor. Over the course of the hour-long lesson, Lashonnes put Jordan through his paces—with Chase bringing up the rear and Hayes trotting alongside—directing him to guide Shiloh around obstacles in the indoor arena, turning left and right, stopping and backing up the horse.

As the director, Lashoones notes that she wears many hats, and one of them is raising funds for the operation. As a 501(3)c nonprofit, the center qualifies for grants, and she spends much of her time grant writing, she says.

Local fundraising is also key. Lashoones says that originally Medicaid readily covered hippotherapy, but the guidelines for those that qualify have become stricter over the years. Currently only about three of her students receive these funds for therapy. To help those who can’t afford the therapy, the center engages in annual fundraising ventures to raise money for scholarships. The center’s eighth annual benefit ride will be held on October 2, 2016.


Lucinda Newman, founder of Horses & Pathfinders, Moretown, stands with Abra Kadabra, Vermont Morgan mare and one of Newman’s five guide horses.

Horses & Pathfinders

Over in Moretown, Vermont, Lucinda Newman, founder and lead coach of Horses & Pathfinders, runs a very different equine-guided operation. Her program, founded in 2005, is aimed at individuals and groups who seek to expand leadership skills—for self-development, leading others, and being part of an effective team. It could be a group that needs to communicate and cooperate better or an individual seeking a new direction in life. Newman currently has four horses and boards a fifth on 10 acres, part of a former dairy farm located at the confluence of the Mad and Winooski Rivers.

Newman attended the University of Vermont (UVM), getting her undergraduate degree in environmental studies with emphasis on nature writing. She went on to get a master’s degree in environmental law in policy and advocacy at Vermont Law School, inspired by Robert F. Kennedy Jr.’s example—his keen concern about the environment and fight to restore the Hudson River.

Degrees in hand, Newman worked at the corporate level for Green Mountain Energy then consulted on program and funding development for the NGO sector, governmental agencies, educational institutions, and other businesses and was the executive director of the Composting Association of Vermont, founded in 2002, helping the organization get off the ground.

In 2001, Newman leased the property where her business is currently located. On the property stood an empty horse barn—the owner’s former wife had once kept horses. Newman’s landlord encouraged her to fill the empty stalls with horses, suggesting she find a couple of horses for him.

In her search for horses, Newman volunteered for Hourse (Human Organization for Unraceable Standardbred Equines), in Jefferson, Vermont, run by C. Terry Holden. On her first visit, Holden asked Newman to do barn chores and groom the horses—and then left. A novice alone with a large herd of horses, Newman experienced something of an epiphany: “I never felt so home anywhere and had such a strong sense of belonging.”

From Hourse, Newman brought back Poppe; a retired Amercan standardbred racehorse, he became her first equine guide. Newman also acquired a mare, who gave birth to a colt, Inra. This painted quarterhorse gelding with one blue “moon” eye is another member of her current stable of equine guides.

She says she felt “very naturally comfortable around the horses because of my connection with animals and nature.” But because Newman didn’t have a background in horses— unlike Lashonnes she didn’t grow up with them—she notes that she was “a blank slate...open to what the horse was.”

Champlain Adaptive Mounted Program (Champ)

One of the oldest therapeutic programs in Vermont is Champ in South Hero. A PATH premier accredited center, Champ was founded in 1987 by Carol Melcher and Julie Horrigan, their goal to provide horseback-riding experiences for people with special needs from Franklin and Chittenden Counties and the Champlain Islands. At the time, Champ was the second such program operating in Vermont. In 2008, Champ moved to Good Hope Farm and has expanded to include holistic, recreational, and therapeutic horseback riding programs for adults as well as children with a range of physical, mental, and emotional challenges. Champ has nine therapy horses and eight instructors—seven women and one man, all PATH certified—and like many programs of this nature is volunteer driven, accepting volunteers as young as 14 years.

The nonprofit gives private and group lessons, Monday through Saturday, spring through autumn, and has summer riding camps.

Nate rides Currant, led by Pauline Gervais,
volunteer coordinator at CHAMP


Bridging her decade-plus organizational development work and business coaching by way of horse and herd, Newman coaches and guides on leadership and team development with a variety of groups, ranging from small businesses, such as Vermont Artisan Coffee and Tea to major corporations, such as Blue Cross Blue Shield of Vermont, to nonprofits, such as High Horses Therapeutic Riding, in White River Junction, Vermont. This summer, 34 educators and staff from Mosaic Learning Center, in South Burlington, will be participating in leadership development at Horses & Pathfinders, her largest group yet.

Learning with the horses is done on the ground, with various exercises with groups ranging in size from four to 24. Newman sometimes splits large groups into subgroups or “bands” as she calls them, much like what horses do naturally in the wild.

So began a period of study and observation for Newman to learn more about what she was experiencing. Newman read about and attended trainings on natural horsemanship but after a time realized this wasn’t what she was looking for: it was too mechanical, emphasizing, she says, external tactics, tools, and strategies for training horses. She was after something deeper.

She finally found her mentor in Ariana Strozzi who runs Sky Horse Equine Guided Education at Guided Education at Casari Ranch, Point Arena, California. So began an apprenticeship that has spanned 10 years. In 2005, Newman received her certification in equine-guided education (EGE) and continued on with advanced learning and apprentice teaching with her mentor, eventually teaching an EGE certification class in Vermont in 2014: “Horse Sense for the Leader Within.”

Since 2012 Newman has been on the faculty at Vermont Technical College, teaching “Therapeutic Programs with Horses” as part of the college’s four-year equine studies degree program. She says that, on average, eight people graduate (mostly women) and of those one to two focus on mental health or educational services with horses. One recent graduate of the program, Kim White, focused her senior presentation on work with horses and veterans. Both her parents are veterans of the Iraq War and suffered from PTSD. White is now working with Steven DePalma, a veteran of the Afghanistan War, who started the Veteran Barn Door Project, in East Hardwick, in 2015.

Newman likens learning from horses to active meditation. “It’s opening, being curious, and making choices through deep listening with not just the mind but also the body,” she says.

Vermont Horse-Assisted Therapy

The ride to Pease Farm Stable, where Vermont Horse-Assisted Therapy (VHAT) is located, takes you up a winding road to the beautiful 220-acre hilltop farm in Middlesex, with distant mountain views. Sarah Seidman, co-owner of the farm and founder of the therapy program, originally comes from west Michigan and told me that horses were a big part of her life growing up.

Seidman and her husband, Scott Harrower, came to Vermont in the mid-1970s. In 1987, they bought Pease Farm, one of the last two working dairy farms in Middlesex. The previous owners, brother and sister Gerald and Ellen Pease, continued to live at the farm, with Seidman helping Gerald to run the dairy and learning about farming. Gerald died in 2003, and Ellen in 2008.

In 2008, Seidman started VHAT as a nonprofit. “I’d always been interested in the special needs population, even back in college,” she says. “What drew me to it was I wanted to teach riding to more than just the kids who could afford it. I wanted riding to be available to kids in spite of the emotional or physical or mental or social challenges they had.” Seidman says that she has always been a teacher. She has a master’s in English and has taught people ranging in age from preschool children to college students, having taught English at UVM.

The program started in the middle of the economic crash, and Seidman says it has been tough going, but over time VHAT has “grown to be a valued part of the mental health community in central Vermont. We work with mental health agencies, and we work with the school systems, private counselors, and through word of mouth.”

Horse-Assisted Therapy in Vermont

Champlain Adaptive Mounted Program
(premier accredited)
Jean Desranleau, executive director
57 East Shore Rd.
South Hero, VT 05486
802-372-4087; www.vtchamp.org

Eqnimity: Equine Facilitated Learning and Coaching
Janis Cooper, owner
178 Sherman Rd.
Waitsfield, VT 05673
802-496-2730; eqnimity.com

High Horses Therapeutic Riding
(premier accredited)
2727 Christian St.
White River Jct., VT 05001
802-356-3386; www.highhorses.org

Horses & Pathfinders: Equine Guided Education Leadership and Coaching
Lucinda Newman, founder & lead coach
6899 Rte. 100B
Moretown, VT 05660
802-223-1903; horsesandpathfinders.com

Reining Hope: Adaptive Equine Assisted Activities & Therapies
Kristin E. Mason, founder & director
574 Sunset Dr.
Morgan, VT 05853
802-895-9166; www.reininghopeaeaat.com

Reinbow Riding Center
430 Robinson Rd.
Shrewsbury, VT 05738
802-492-2226; www.reinbowridingcenter.org

Rhythm of the Rein Therapeutic Riding Center
(premier accredited)
Dianne Lashonnes, founder & director
Water Tower Farm
386 Rte. 2
Marshfield, VT 05658
802-426-3781; rhythmoftherein.org

Southern Vermont Therapeutic Riding Center
(premier accredited)
Amber Thibodeau, executive administrator
3 Cross Country Circle
Wilmington, VT 05363
802-221-4409; www.sovtrc.org

Vermont Horse Assisted Therapy
Sarah Seidman, founder & director
Pease Farm Stable
307 Culver Hill Rd.
Middlesex, VT 05602
802-223-4828; peasefarmstable.com/vermont-horse-assisted-therapy/

Veteran Barn Door Project
Steven DePalma, founder & director
1908 Mountain View Rd.
East Hardwick, VT 05836
802-917-3550; www.veteranbarndoor.com

VHAT has about 24 students who come for individual lessons, 16 students in afterschool programs, and another 16 in summer camp programs. Classes are kept small for safety and to maximize learning, usually no more than two at a time; the maximum is eight. “A lot of our kids are nonverbal and have severe mental and physical challenges,” Seidman notes. VHAT also works with adults, with one student well into her 70s.

VHAT has two afterschool programs: the spring program is for special needs children and the fall one is for students with autism, each with eight students. What makes the programs unique is that each child is paired with a teenaged mentor. “We use teens at risk,” says Seidman, “teens who have their own challenges, as the aides in our programs. It’s a one-on-one pairing.” She says the teens are proud to help, and the work gives them a perspective on their own problems: they realize that others have it a lot worse. The program provides a community for the teens, both among themselves and with their young charges.

Seidman is a PATH-certified instructor and a level 3 Centered Riding instructor. On her staff are Susan Mitchell, Becca Reggio, and Chrissy Rohan. Both Mitchell and Reggio are PATH certified, and Mitchell is also a certified Centered Riding instructor.

Centered Riding, developed by the late Sally Swift, whom Seidman studied with in the mid-1990s, is based on body awareness and mechanics, says Seidman. “It’s getting in sync with the horse so that you are not obstructing your horse’s ability to do his work,” she says. She added that they use many concepts from the martial arts in riding: “We use centering and breathing, and we use a broad visual focus we call soft eyes.”

Students in an after-school program at VHAT astride their mounts, Pease Farm, Middlesex.


VHAT has 11 therapy horses, among them two rescue horses, Rigby and Rumor. I found the use of rescue horses in a therapy program both intriguing and surprising. Knowing that rescue horses can be fearful or anxious, I wondered how that would work with a novice and challenged rider.

Seidman says that children who have been traumatized are often drawn to rescue horses. She notes that a rescue horse is not necessarily going to be sweet, friendly, and trusting. “When you match an apprehensive horse up with a kid, you can talk about why she’s looking at us worried and even angry,” says Seidman. “It’s because she’s been through something and she’s lost her trust, and the kid who is coming from that same situation can relate to that.” With an anxious horse, says Seidman, the rider still has to exhibit leadership to be safe and yet needs to be sensitive to the horse, who is not completely trusting for a reason.

Synergistic healing resonating on many levels—a horse wounded by people is rescued by people and becomes the rescuer of wounded people.



Kate Mueller, editor of Vermont Woman newspaper, lives in Montpelier, Vermont.