Marjolein Scheffers-Steinmann is a teacher and specialised therapist who works with school dropouts and kids that struggle with behavioural issues.
I had an inspirational chat with her about the healing power of working with horses and how equine-assisted therapy can help you improve your communication skills, embrace your otherness and discover your own innate abilities.
Horses make great companions for therapy because they can mirror and respond to human behaviour. And crucially, there’s no judgment with a horse.
What is equine-assisted therapy?
In it’s broadest sense, any interaction between a person and a horse is an equine-assisted activity. Most of us who have been around horses talk about their “therapeutic” value – being in the barn grooming, feeding and caring for horses reduces stress, lowers blood pressure and improves overall health.
Your companionship with your equine partner is the foundation for your growth in relation to this animal. Being with your horse is your “therapy”.
But equine-assisted therapy has a more specific goal: it’s a treatment that uses horses to reach rehabilitative goals that are defined by a medical professional’s scope of practice.
“My focus is on autism, anxiety and (extra)high intelligence,” Marjolein explains. “When there is anxiety, autism or high intelligence the brain works in a different way than what we call ‘normal’.”
Marjolein says that the difference is like that between an iOS and an Android operating system; they achieve the same things, but the way it’s accomplished is a little different. “A different system means you’ll have to push some different buttons to get the result you want.”
When you’re different and have needs that differ from the norm, communicating with others in a successful way can be challenging. “You need to learn how to cope and communicate with your own body. People with autism struggle a lot with this because they are so occupied with ignoring the impulses their body gives them,” Marjolein describes.
“They often don’t learn how to be in touch with their surroundings and communicate with people in an adequate way. It all comes down to learning how to be yourself, know how your brain works and learn how to navigate a world that isn’t made to fit your needs – because the world isn’t autism proof.”
That’s where Astor, the Dutch draft horse, comes in
Marjolein works together with her horse, Astor, to help her clients develop better communication skills and overcome their fears and anxieties.
Horses make great companions for therapy because they can mirror and respond to human behaviour. Horses respond within the same spectrum of physical and emotional responses that govern their own behaviour and this allows therapists insight into the inner psychology of their client.
As herd animals, horses rely on an acute stream of sensory data to sense safety or danger and to communicate with each other. They can also hear the human heartbeat from four feet away and research, on heart-rate variability, indicates that horses have a profound ability to synchronise their own heartbeat with that of a human.
It’s common for people to feel intimidated by the sheer size and power of a horse
And Astor is a lot of horse. At 165 cm (16.1 hh) he weighs approximately 1,000 kgs (2,200 lbs).
“For me, as a therapist, it’s a good thing that a lot of people find Astor’s size intimidating,” Marjolein reveals. “People pay attention to him because he’s not a Shetland pony you can just take everywhere. You need clear communication and good social skills to work with such a large horse. Astor helps people reconnect with their own body – because if you don’t, he might end up standing on your toe!”
The large size of a horse can become a metaphor for dealing with intimidating life circumstances. Marjolein tells me that a lot of Astor’s personality comes through in how he communicates with the clients and that helps them forget his size.
“He always comes over to greet people and he lowers his head for the tiny ones. He looks you in the eye, and being the large, curious horse that he is, attracts kids as well as adults,” Marjolein explains. “He definitely senses fragility in people and with the small kids he’s so patient and keeps his distance.”
Marjolein describes how Astor is very soft in his communication and that when he’s not treated with respect, he’ll shut down and ignore you. “He’s super sensitive that way. I always have to warn people with previous horse experience not to treat Astor like just another horse. He won’t let you merely command him; he’s doing his best to understand you and he expects the same in return. He sees himself as an equal in that way.”
Marjolein used to compete in dressage competitions but can’t find enough time to do that anymore because work keeps her very busy
But she does train classical dressage with both Astor and Andor to develop their strength and flexibility. She enjoys the work because in order to see progress a deep connection between horse and trainer must exist.
The classical training also helps Astor focus and channel his energy. “When we train dressage he is very expressive to me. He’ll kick the air (not directing it at me) when I ask too much or push him too hard,” Marjolein says. “I make videos of my training and when I look back I always see that I was asking too much and didn’t see his effort which led to his frustration.
“Training Astor is mostly trying to contain his energy, he’s so powerful and energised and ready to just go-go-go!!! When we go on a hack, all he wants to do is gallop!”
Marjolein describes that both her horses – Fjord horse Andor also works with her – like to joke around and play with the clients. This makes their clients feel more comfortable around the horses and encourages them to try new things without becoming paralysed by the fear of making a mistake.
“It’s a huge positive realisation for them when I show what they’ve overcome – like leading Astor on a walk – and they realise, Wow if I can do this with such a big horse, I can do so much more than I thought!” she says.
Working with the horses helps the clients feel more positive, gain better social skills, develop better communication skills, believe in themselves and gives them insight into what they want in life.
For Marjolein, the guiding principles in her work are to accept the person as they come and to see past the behaviours they display. She works tirelessly to be 100% clear in her communication with her clients and to build a safe place for them to grow.
The most fulfilling part of my job is to see people grow and find themselves. And having happy horses is just as important so that the clients and horses can benefit from each other.
Marjolein didn’t always know she wanted to do equine-assisted therapy
“It took me a long time to find out what I wanted to do. I had a difficult time deciding on a field of study so, eventually, I chose the one that provided me with a lot of options – where I could find a job in a wide range of care facilities, such as with the elderly, mentally disabled or kids,” Marjolein describes. “It wasn’t until a few years later, when I added a teaching degree to the mix, that I accidentally ended up in equine-assisted therapy.”
When Marjolein finished her studies, she and her husband fostered a couple of kids with troubled backgrounds. “In those years I had my first horse and the kids would come with me to feed the horse,” she explains. “That’s when I started to see the benefits of being around the horse for the kids and I bought a pony for them to take care of. And that’s where it all started!”
A few years later she bought Astor, who was 2,5 years old at the time. She noticed that he was keenly interested in kids but hadn’t been trained to ride yet. “That’s what started the therapy as it is now; my clients still mostly work with the horses from the ground,” Marjolein explains.
There are no cookie-cutter solutions in equine-assisted therapy
Marjolein doesn’t roll out any kind of standard exercises for each client. Instead, she customises the tasks and challenges for each person, depending on what their goals are – some want to overcome fear and others want to learn how to communicate.
The challenges can also look deceptively simple at first glance; there’s nothing particularly challenging about doing a slalom exercise, where the client leads the horse weaving between cones. “But if you remove the lead rope or the halter or a fence to keep the horse in, it becomes a much bigger challenge,” Marjolein explains. “And it’s the same when a client is on Astor’s back. There’s no bridle, bit or saddle. I’m not there to teach riding, my job is to encourage communication.”
Marjolein tells me that some clients who struggle to filter and understand the messages and impulses of their own body, benefit from leading Astor on a walk and doing little exercises, such as making him go slower without stopping or making him go backwards.
To come for an equine-assisted therapy session, you don’t have to have any previous experience with horses
Marjolein actually prefers to work with clients who don’t have any equine experience because they tend to be more open to communicating with the horses and don’t have to work on letting go of their expectations of “good” horse behaviour – since they don’t have any.
A session is typically done one-on-one with the client, Marjolein and one of the horses. When it’s helpful and necessary, parents also participate. Marjolein told me of a memorable situation where she and Astor were working with two parents who seemed to have their parenting jobs clearly divided between them.
“However, working with Astor revealed that the dad – not the mom – had really great communication and leadership skills,” she describes. “They were both so surprised; it just clicked suddenly.
“After this insight, they were able to divide the parenting jobs more appropriately, so that they both had roles that suited their innate abilities better, rather than trying to do the tasks typically labelled as ‘mom’ or ‘dad’ jobs.”
I asked Marjolein who she would recommend equine-assisted therapy for and she encourages anyone who really wants to learn about themselves – and has the guts to do pure and clear communication in a super effective way – to give it a try.
In order to work on your own personal growth, in this particular way, you need to have the courage to face your (dis)abilities and fears.
She goes on to say, “It’s also highly recommended for kids who have super low self-esteem. When that’s the case, we work on creating experiences of success. There was a kid with severe social anxiety who couldn’t go out of his house by himself because of his anxiety. After just two sessions, he took Astor for a walk around the block – all alone with me trailing a few metres behind – and he experienced no stress whatsoever.”
If you’re interested in equine-assisted therapy as a career, Marjolein recommends that you check out several therapists or centres because there are big differences in the field.
“Choose to study what scares you a little bit; it’ll give you the most opportunities to learn about yourself,” she explains. “You need to know and heal your own pain and struggles before you can help others.”
There are also many organisations that offer animal therapy to groups like sick children or the elderly and need well-trained and cooperative volunteers – typically dogs and cats but also horses and alpacas! Look for centres and organisations in your area to find out more.
Astor decides when he wants to work and when he wants a day off
Marjolein wakes her boys at 7:30. If you follow her on Instagram, you can see how, sometimes, breakfast just isn’t a sufficient motivator for Astor or Andor to get out of bed – and despite encouraging calls from Marjolein, they’ll just turn the other side and keep sleeping!
Marjolein spends her mornings with her class of kids who have dropped out of school due to behavioural problems, so the horses don’t do any client work until the afternoon. During the mornings, they tend to hang out eating free-choice hay and enjoying life. They live in a run-in stable and can spend as much time inside or outside as they please, so, when the weather is nice, they’ll head out to the pasture to graze.
Usually, a client will spend an hour with Marjolein and the horses – and, typically, the horses will have two client sessions in a day. “In general, Astor leaves his pasture all by himself when he sees us and comes over to say ‘hello’. To me that’s a clear sign that he wants to be with us. I don’t use treats so there’s no food motivation for him to come and be with me,” Marjolein explains. “If he wants to work, he may do so. If he’s showing me ‘not today’, I’ll pick Andor instead.”
She also thinks that Astor enjoys the tasks they do in with clients because he’ll come over and see what Marjolein’s up to. “When I put obstacles in the paddock, he joins me and tries to figure out what to do; he’ll try standing on the pedestal or on the tarp all by himself.”
I ask Marjolein what she does with Astor on his days off. “By now I know him really well and I let him tell me what he needs,” she explains. “Sometimes he needs to clear his mind by taking a short walk. Other times he wants cuddles and scratches. If he wants to have a mental workout I’ll hide some treats for him to find, either alone or with a client.”
Astor has been fighting hoof-problems that have required a lot of rehabilitation
When Astor started showing signs of pain and losing weight, it turned out to be a severe hoof infection. He’s been given special care to help the hoof grow back stronger.
Several times the growing hoof caused him to drop his specially made support shoes and the uneven weight distribution caused secondary problems. “On his worst days, I just opened the gate (after locking up little demon Andor) and let him explore and graze all by himself in total freedom. Since his feet were painful he never went more than a few metres from the gate.”
Click here to read more about Astor’s hoof struggles. Astor was on strong medication for several months and has experienced disheartening setbacks and recurring infection over the last few years.
“Now that he’s feeling better, a day off means he doesn’t have the patience the be kind and easy; he wants to work. So, we practice classical dressage or go for a long walk to explore new areas, just the two of us. Sometimes my husband will tag along, which Astor absolutely loves.”
I ask Marjolein what she loves best about working with Astor. “I learn new things from him every time we work together. It amazes me how well he can read the client’s needs,” she explains. “We’re more like co-workers than a therapist and her horse.”
Marjolein’s top tip for developing better communication with your horse
“Try to do your ‘normal’ training or work without a lead rope, halter, bridle or a saddle,” she advises. “Experience how your communication depends on external help provided by the tack you use.”
She warns that it can be confronting to see how dependent you are on a bridle or saddle to communicate with your horse and that initially a lot may be lost in translation.
When that happens, she urges you to stay positive and keep trying, “Don’t get frustrated and take it one step at a time.”
All photos in this article are courtesy of Marjolein & SAB Fotografie en media.