How Divine Canines and Healing with Horses Promote Mental Health with Animal Therapy

Two animal-assisted healing programs helping those in need

By Darcie Duttweiler
Photos by Jenna McElroy
Austin Animal Therapy

“Equine therapy allows us to have a safe space to practice the communication we need to live in a community with other humans without the baggage that comes with doing it with other humans,” Healing with Horses Development Director Arianna Roman explains. We’re in a pasture while 1,700-pound, 18-hand Percheron gelding — that’s all to say, he’s pretty dang big — Levi tries to push another horse out of the way to get her attention like a bratty kid brother would.

Roman explains that horses are such communicative and social creatures that feed off of our own body language and energies. They make amazing therapeutic animals and teach students how to feel confident in voicing their boundaries and respecting others.

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​​“If they can tell Levi to get out of their space, that’s pretty empowering moving into the person-to-person world,” she says.

Animal-assisted therapy has been said to lower blood pressure, help alleviate stress and reduce the symptoms of anxiety and depression. Much like horses, dogs are also effective therapy animals because of their sensitives to human emotions. When we pet animals, especially dogs, relaxing hormones are stimulated, which is why it’s so calming to be around friendly four-legged creatures.

“Dogs just bring smiles to people’s faces!” Divine Canines Executive Director Max Woodfin says.

Divine Canines

Formed by Tori Ott Keith and her dog’s trainer, the famed Lee Mannix, Divine Canines has been providing several programs to the Central Texas area for 18 years. Now comprised of more than 100 dog-handler teams, the program services more than 120 facilities and visits thousands of children, veterans, students and the elderly on a regular basis.

Ott Keith was inspired to start the program one day when a little girl approached her huge Great Dane Eudora and asked if she could pet her. Eventually she started crying and then laughing and exclaimed how she was having one of the worst days and it was now one of the best. Meanwhile Mannix, who was internationally known for his exceptional training skills, had an experience at a hospital with a loud therapy dog and an unprofessional handler that made him realize he wanted to create a program to do dog-assisted therapy the right way. Together, the two created several programs all with one goal: to make people feel better.

“Truly anywhere there are people in need, we will consider going,” Woodfin says.

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That means the team goes everywhere from senior living centers, hospitals, the Austin State Hospital and Austin State Supported Living Center, rehab centers, VA outpatient facilities, schools, universities and more. The dogs help kids with learning disabilities through their Barking Book Buddies program, where the children read to the ever-patient pooches. They are also very popular with study break sessions for college students during strenuous finals.

What makes a Divine Canine? According to Woodfin, any dog that can bring a smile but also be adaptable to different situations is the perfect therapy dog. Unlike other programs, Divine Canines does not discriminate against dog breeds or ages.

“We don’t select dogs — we train them,” he says.

Dogs and their owners go through a rigorous vetting and testing process to make sure they’re up to par, and all of the training is based on Mannix’s model prior to his untimely death in 2010.

“Lee believed in gentle training. The training is based on treating the dog with kindness and gentleness, and that has remained our philosophy today,” Woodfin says.

Be on the lookout for more information on this year’s Barks for Beers event, which takes place in May and is one of the organization’s largest fundraising efforts.

Healing with Horses

Founded in 2011, Healing with Horses ranch was founded as a Professional Association for Therapeutic Horsemanship, International (PATH, Intl.) member center by Patty D’Andrea — a PATH Intl. Advanced Certified Therapeutic Riding Instructor and Certified Equine Specialist. In 2018, the facility became a PATH Intl. Premier Accredited Center.

All of this is to say, the program has been thoughtfully crafted for the sole purpose of changing lives of those in need.

Like many other equine therapy centers, Healing with Horses follows the PATH model, but the program developed by D’Andrea, a longtime advanced therapeutic riding instructor, was designed to be at least 90 minutes long to help develop the bond between student and horse. Nestled between Toll Road 130 and FM 973, the 43-acre ranch also has a robust five-mile trail system through a forest and over a peaceful brook, which means students aren’t just confined to a barn or riding arena — they get to commune with nature on their horse and deepen that relationship outside of the arena.

“We really focus on the behavioral health and mental health of our students. No matter the reason the student is here, whether they’re here to work on gross motor skills or fine motor skills, we always focus on the behavior health aspect with every student,” Roman says. “Because we all could use a little behavioral health intervention in our lives.”

Working with students of all ages (from six to 76), Healing with Horses offers programs with licensed counselors and PATH certified equine experts for at-risk youth, veterans and people with disabilities (including wheelchairs). The ranch currently has 19 horses in its herd, some of which were donated — Hercules is even a retired police horse. Classes include adaptive riding (where students learn the physical aspects of riding), equine assistant learning (in which students learn coping skills and resilience through horsemanship, like asserting boundaries and clear communication) and equine facilitated psychotherapy counseling programs.

“Something we work on with our students is that they have boundaries and things, and the horses have boundaries and things, and they have to negotiate that,” Roman explains.

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“Sometimes you have to be a coach to your horse, especially when they have a behavior that is not good. Our horses are really great teachers — they don’t do exactly what we want them to do all of the time.”

Those in need can apply for the programs on their website, but there currently is a lengthy waitlist due to COVID-related capacities and volunteer shortages. The nonprofit is always in need of enthusiastic volunteers, so Roman advises anyone to sign up, no matter what your horsemanship ability is.

Healing with Horses will be celebrating its 10th anniversary all year long, with several big events slated for late January, a Donation Derby, and a big party at the ranch, so stay tuned for more.


Read More From the Wellness Issue | January 2022


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