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Horse therapy: horses help people tackle their mental health issues

Horse therapy: horses remind us about our humanityIt’s so cold that pigeons have sought refuge in the barn; they flutter and coo in the rafters. Chunks of ice lie by a water trough with no hope of thawing. And in the center of the arena, six teens wearing thick winter coats jam gloved hands into jean pockets, trying to stay warm, but failing. Nonetheless, the therapist is in and ready to work.
He approaches one of the boys, looks at him intently, and with no thought of propriety, licks him on the cheek. "Ah, thank you," the teenager says, and turns to his companions with a grin. “I got horse snot all over me,” he says.
Welcome to equine-assisted psychotherapy at Berkshire HorseWorks, where people tackle their mental-health issues by getting up close and personal with thousand-pound hairy beasts with whiskers.
It’s an unusual way of dealing with depression, anxiety or post-traumatic stress disorder, so unusual that some insurance companies balk at paying for it, and some critics charge that there's scant evidence that it works. But the therapy is so popular that more than 700 programs worldwide have specialists certified through the Equine Assisted Growth and Learning Association, started by a Utah mom nearly 18 years ago.
As prey animals, horses are keenly attentive to non-verbal behavior and emotional states; this sensitivity helps keep them alive in the wild and allows them to act as mirrors to people in therapy. Horses also provide novelty that can attract people who need mental-health treatment but resist getting counseling in an office, proponents say.