Film director and songwriter Twila LaBar is a lifelong animal lover. But she didn’t know much about horses. “When I was eight years old, I fell off a pony and he sprinted away. I got spooked and never rode a horse again,” she said. And yet, over the mantel in her home is a charcoal drawing of a horse. LaBar says, “A few years ago, I saw this portrait of a horse and for some reason, I gravitated toward it. Although I had no idea why this drawing of a horse spoke to me, so I bought it to hang in my house.” Now, LaBar wonders if that picture was some type of foreshadowing. For over a year she has been working on a project about horses. Horseback riding (equine) therapy is the topic of LaBar’s latest documentary film, Where the Horses Heal the Soul.
The documentary centers around ROCK (Ride On Center for Kids), an equine-assisted therapy center for children, adults, and veterans with physical, cognitive, and emotional challenges in Georgetown, Texas. LaBar says, “We wanted to show how equine therapy can help heal people physically and emotionally.”
LaBar and her crew learned so much about horses and how they can help humans while filming the documentary. Physically, equine therapy is excellent for people with limited mobility because the movement of riding simulates walking. LaBar explains, “Riders have to move their pelvis and engage the same core muscles used for walking. For people confined to a wheelchair or who have missing limbs, the motion of riding can make them feel like they are walking again. Riding is also great exercise and strength training.”
Equine therapy also has emotional healing powers. LaBar explains, “Horses have a sense of empathy. They are able to connect with the rider and develop a rhythm.”
One of the keys to equine therapy is pairing the rider with the right horse with the right temperament and gait. LaBar says, “It’s a very selective process. Not every horse has the personality to be a therapy horse. They have to be calm and smart, not nervous or jumpy. In general, therapy horses tend to be older.”
To illustrate how people can benefit from equine therapy, LaBar is featuring four people that ride at ROCK. Two of them, Will and Todd, are war veterans who had difficulties transitioning to civilian life when they returned home from combat. Like many vets, both of them had fears, trust issues, and problems connecting with people. Before the beginning of filming in April 2019, Will had been having suicidal thoughts.
For both men, equine therapy has proved to be helpful. LaBar explains, “In combat, you have a leader and you have buddies that look out for you.” When vets return home, they may miss that sense of connection. Even if they have families and feel loved, they may not feel safe, calm, or protected. The relationship with the horse can mimic what they had in the military. LaBar says, “In riding, the horse also needs the rider to be a leader. Together, the horse and rider look out for one another. They learn to trust each other.”
Riding horses can empower people, especially people with special needs that society has placed limits. Hunter was born at 24 weeks with a brain bleed and cerebral palsy. Today, she is 38-years old and a member of the Texas Council for Developmental Disabilities. Hunter says that when she rides, “I feel like I can do anything, and I forget that I am in a [wheel]chair.”
Then there is Faith, who has Down’s Syndrome. Her parents were told by doctors when she was born that she had a zero percent survival rate. Faith began riding at two years old, and today is she is 14 years old and thriving.
LaBar is currently on post-production of Where the Horses Heal the Soul and is planning to enter the film in several festivals. The hope is to find a distributor and get the film on streaming platforms to reach a wide audience. “The film isn’t an infomercial, says LaBar. “Our hope is that it inspires people who have put themselves in a box or believe they can’t do certain things to see that they can.”
Beyond finishing the film, LaBar’s other goal get back on a horse herself one day soon. She says, “I am intrigued. Nancy (Krenek) keeps saying she is going to get me riding. After working on this film, I believe it’s true that horses are spiritual animals with healing powers.”
Interested in exploring other kinds of therapy? Here’s everything you need to know about ecotherapy and the healing abilities of the outdoors!
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