Arc Human Services has saddled up with a Bethel Park nonprofit to provide equine-assisted learning experiences for the individuals they serve.

It was before the pandemic started when Grishma Solanki, Arc’s director of mental health and clinical operations, first reached out to Anne Davis, founder of Horses With Hope.

“We started our initial conversations before COVID, but it brought things to a standstill for quite some time,” Solanki said in a recent interview.

Now headquartered in Canonsburg, Arc serves hundreds of people with intellectual disabilities, autism and mental health challenges throughout Western Pennsylvania.

In late April, nine of their individuals participated in the equine program, which consisted of eight sessions.

“One of the best parts of this whole program is that it was the first group activity we were able to have after the pandemic,” Solanki said. “This was the first time a lot of our individuals were able to see each other again after a year apart.”

Davis said Horses With Hope has grown significantly since she started it in 2007. She typically has up to 50 weekly riders and other students for equine-assisted learning, which teaches essential life skills. The sessions with Arc is a grant-funded pilot program for Davis, called “equine psychotherapy,” with “measurable goals” achieved in each session, she said.

“I wanted to grow that side of the business,” Davis said.

“We work on behaviors, mental health and social skills.”

Solanki said the 90-minute sessions were an excellent opportunity for Arc individuals, some of whom have had no experience with horses.

“During the sessions, we talked about how horses really need humans to support them in their daily activities and routines,” she said. “Our individuals learned how to approach such a large animal, but still respect their personal space and boundaries.”

They also learned about grooming techniques and tools and “what horses look like when they’re allowing us to be in their space,” Solanki said.

Each session built upon those interpersonal skills, problem solving and communication, both verbal and nonverbal.

In one of the sessions, their individuals learned how to wave a rope in front of the horses as a technique to entice the horses to come to them. Sometimes, however, that didn’t work, and the horse would walk away.

“You have to have a certain stance with your body language and posture,” Solanki said. “The lesson there was, if we’re still not getting to the goal we’ve intended, when do we ask for help.”

Davis, who owns the horses, said the equine psychotherapy is meant for anyone, as interacting with the horses opens doors to “self-discovery.”

“Their behavior kind of mirrors what human behavior is,” Davis said of her horses. “

You can’t hide things from horses. They’re able to draw secrets from people.”

Davis said she saw much improvement from individuals with Arc throughout the sessions, which was exciting for everyone.

“It’s very humbling for me,” Davis said. “We’re very passionate about the things we do. I’m here just to help people improve their quality of life and to overcome what fears and anxieties they have, that possibly held them back for years and sometimes decades.”

Solanki also commented on the strides individuals were making throughout the sessions. She said one individual, Sean, who was never very talkative, acquired assertiveness and communication skills while working with the horses.

“He learned about himself, and it really increased his self-esteem and his self-worth,” she said.

The program also helped two other individuals who reside together in a group home and weren’t getting along very well.

“Since they’ve been out of the sessions, their relationship has really developed as a friendship,” she said.

“It really assisted them in their interpersonal skills.”

Both Solanki and Davis were happy to schedule another two sessions with eight classes in the fall, which will serve another 18 individuals.

“There was not one criticism we got from any of our folks,” Solanki said. “They called it an experience of a lifetime.”

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