Healing with horses: HorsePlay Therapy of Saint Augustine serving children and veterans through equine therapy

By Sara Orr

When you traditionally think of therapy, your mind probably goes straight to a sterile small office with a lounge chair, desk and tissues.

At HorsePlay Therapy Center in St. Augustine, Fla, a strong team of trained professionals and volunteers work to transform what therapy can look like, using horses to aid in the mental and physical treatment of special needs children and military veterans.

The use of horses allows for an emotional and mental connection to the work the patients are doing. It also physically aids the children who need to train their motor skills.

This type of therapy allows them to be outside, working with their hands and they get to do something that feels like a hobby to them.

“There’s something about when you get with a horse. You bond with that horse. And they know what you’re feeling because they feel it, too. They’re feeling what you’re going through, and when they feel comfortable, they come to you. They’ll just come to you,” Nicole, a US Navy Veteran who was a patient at HorsePlay said.

Their services are divided into two main programs: Hippo therapy and Rise Up for Veterans. As defined by their website, “Hippotherapy is a treatment strategy used by specially trained physical, occupational, and speech therapists who position the child on the horse, analyze the child’s movement response and direct the horse’s movement accordingly.”

Photo courtesy of the Horseplay Therapy Center Instagram.

Katie Cammack-Eller, HorsePlay’s director of development and speech pathologist, told striking stories of working with non-verbal children whose first word was “go” to instruct the horse to move forward. These kids spend a lot of time in doctors offices.

Cammack-Eller tells the powerful story of a physical therapy patient who she knew personally since he had been born. This patient had received a lot of therapy growing up.

“He was told at birth that he would never be able to walk,” Cammack-Eller said.

However, since his time at HorsePlay, he has built his core strength and motor skills to walk with a walker.

“It’s a really powerful thing,” she said. 

The Rise Up for Veteran program offers services to veterans who suffer from PTSD and wounded warriors.

Cammack-Eller says that this program is specifically important to the St. Augustine area because of the number of military bases in the Jacksonville area. Equine-assisted therapy is a treatment that includes “equine activities in an equine environment in order to promote physical, occupational and emotional growth.”

Photo courtesy of the Horseplay Therapy Center Instagram.

Along with support for veterans, the barn also offers support for families of veterans, including groups for wives of deployed husbands.

There is a strong team with diverse skills who makes these programs happen. There are speech, physical, and occupational therapists who directly deal with children. However, there are also people who focus on training and caring for the horses that make these programs possible.

Cammack-Eller says that these people are just as essential to the function, as the horse’s temperament and ability to respond to the patients is essential to the success of the programs. When selecting horses to join the barn, they are tested in many ways to make sure they would respond well to a plethora of stimuli.

“It is important to know that the horses can deal with whatever might come their way, especially when working with the kids. We use all sorts of things to test the horses: drums, hula hoops, and other things like that,” Cammack-Eller said.

Once the horses are a part of the barn, they are constantly trained to be their best for the patients.  

This is one of the only organizations in Northeast Florida that offers services like this. It is also in HorsePlay’s mission that no child or veteran is ever denied treatment based on their ability to pay.

Click here to visit their site and learn more: HorsePlay Therapy Center in St. Augustine, Florida

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