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In A Small Missouri Town, Kids In Therapy Paint On Horses, And Everybody Relaxes

Clients at Northland Therapeutic Riding Center brush and hand paint with tempura colors onto Molly, a 29-year-old Pony of the Americas as part of their equine therapy.
Carlos Moreno/KCUR 89.3
Clients at Northland Therapeutic Riding Center brush and hand paint with tempura colors onto Molly, a 29-year-old Pony of the Americas as part of their equine therapy.

As a registered nurse and licensed professional counselor, Julia Kovac works with patients dealing with physical challenges, such as debilitating effects of strokes, as well as diagnoses of attention deficit disorders, anxiety, depression and trauma.

About five years ago Kovac acquired another credential — equine specialist in mental health. That's when she became tempted to use the word "magic" to describe the effect that horses have on her patients.

Kovac uses the 15 horses at at Northland Therapeutic Riding Center in Holt, Missouri, in multiple ways. But one program is particularly colorful: horse painting.

“The painting of the horses is not anything that I created, or we created, but it’s something that the kids love; it’s one of their very favorite activities,” Kovac says.

The magical element seems to come from the horses’ willingness to nonverbally participate in therapy sessions for toddlers through retirees, as well as their ability to reflect human emotions.

"Horses are the animals that have the greatest ability to mirror our own emotional state back to us,” Kovac says.

Painting is never the first activity her students do with a horse. They participate in weeks of ground classes to learn about horses and how to be around them. Then they advance to riding.

On a recent fall afternoon, four middle-school students gather around Molly, a light gray, 29-year-old Pony of the Americas. The youths had already logged at least 100 miles on horseback. Now they're ready for the final painting session of the season.

Savanah Strown, an Excelsior Springs eighth grader with bright green rubber bands around her braces, gently dabs green paint on Molly. Savanah is on the autism spectrum. Her mom, Amy Minich, says she struggles to read people, but that working with horses has helped her to understand humans.

“Before, if she misbehaved or did something that made me upset, she didn’t really understand that,” Minich explains. “But now, if I’m upset or crying or ask for a minute, she’s able to say, ‘Are you upset? What’s wrong?’”

Horses, like people, perform hundreds of nonverbal cues, Kovac says. And as animals that are only ever prey, never predators, they’re keenly aware of the emotions and vibes of the other creatures nearby, thus the mirroring.

But because horse body language is unlike human body language, students like Savanah must learn what emotion each twitch and lip smack indicates. They must also learn self-control in order to keep the horses calm.

“[Students] may have a therapist showing them images of other children that have different facial expressions but being able to do that with a nonverbal creature is a huge deal,” Kovac says.

She says painting is useful because it’s a “sensory opportunity. It is a huge opportunity to express themselves creatively and to do problem solving.” And, because it’s a group activity, it offers a chance for social interactions.

Savanah holds a white plastic tray with dabs of green, yellow, red, and blue tempura paint. She says a horse isn’t the easiest canvas to work on and that she discovered she can only move the brush in one direction.

Liberty seventh grader Adelia Garcia tries to explain. “Paper is just flat and canvases have a rigid texture. But horses, it’s harder to paint on them,” she says. “Their texture is different than paper or canvas. I don’t know why, but the feeling of the paint on the fur just feels nice. It’s just relaxing and it’s fun.”

Excelsior Springs seventh grader Cody Skidmore had never painted on a horse but agreed with Adelia's assessment. He started at Northland several months ago, because his parents thought the animals might ease some anxiety and loneliness he’s feeling.

Cody’s older brother is 18 and about to join the Navy. Because their parents are divorced, the brothers are rarely together as it is, and Skidmore says this makes him sad. He says that’s why he wanted to be with the horses.

“When I met Cody, he was kind of living within himself,” says Cody’s stepfather, Mark Carrel. “The experience has been good; it seems he has a lot more confidence now.”

Molly the horse appears to enjoy the painting activity, too. A quick check of her body language reveals that she’s relaxed: she’s standing on three feet, which indicates she doesn’t plan to run off, her ears are loose, she’s licking her lips, and her eyes are half closed.

Program director Karalyn Pines says Molly feels the brushstrokes as a mini-massage.

"And afterwards, she’ll get a little hose down, a bath, she’ll get a spa treatment. She’s living her best life today."

Though the winter months offer fewer activities at Northland, Kovak and the team will continue helping horse lovers live their best lives — just like Molly is.

Copyright 2020 KCUR 89.3

Anne Kniggendorf is a freelance writer based in Kansas City, whose work has appeared in local media outlets as well as in the Smithsonian Magazine, Saturday Evening Post, Electric Literature, Ploughshares, and several literary reviews, including two as far away as India and Scotland.