Equine Therapy. How Does It Work? feat. Janice Gilman of BINA Farm – Shrinking It Down

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Posted in: Multimedia, Podcast

Topics: Anxiety, Autism Spectrum, Mental Illness + Psychiatric Disorders

You’ve probably heard of pet therapy, but what about equine therapy?

Special guest Janice Gilman of BINA Farm Center joins Gene and Khadijah to help us learn about the many different kinds of equine therapy for kids. What make horses so unique when it comes to therapeutic treatment for Autism Spectrum Disorder, ADHD, anxiety, and more?

Plus, tune in until the end to hear everyone’s favorite horse films and TV shows!

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Episode Transcript


Janice Gilman; Gene Beresin, MD, MA; Khadijah Booth Watkins, MD, MPH

Jump to:

  • 05:39 – What is equine assisted psychotherapy?
  • 08:42 – What is hippotherapy?
  • 10:52 – What is therapeutic riding/adaptive riding?
  • 12:33 – What are the benefits that kids get through these therapies?
  • 14:00 – What mental health challenges and disorders can equine therapy help with?
  • 16:18 – How does adaptive riding connect with kids with ASD?
  • 20:03 – How can a school or organization visit BINA Farm?
  • 24:33 – Do you have a feel-good horse movie?


Janice Gilman  00:03

Equine facilitated psychotherapy is led by a mental health professional working with the horse on the ground. Individuals often feel more comfortable speaking about their feelings when done in the third person approach. We have a mini Pony, Angel, who is perfect for this work. People just look at her and they smile.


Gene  00:29

Welcome back to Shrinking It Down: Mental Health Made Simple. I’m Gene Beresin.

Khadijah  00:34

And I’m Khadijah Booth Watkins.

Gene  00:36

And we’re two Child and Adolescent Psychiatrists at the Clay Center for Young Healthy Minds at the Massachusetts General Hospital. Today, we have a special guest joining us to talk about…

Khadijah  00:47

Okay, we’re not here today to talk about dog therapy, or goat therapy. But…  equine therapy. Welcome to the show, Janice Gilman.

Janice Gilman  00:56

Hi, Gene and Khadijah. Thank you so much for inviting me to join you today.

Gene  01:01

So it’s great to have you on the show, Janice. For those listening chat, Janice is Executive Director for the BINA Farm Center, based in Lexington, Massachusetts, and little background on BINA farm. Your mission is to bring together individuals of all ages, with and without physical, developmental, cognitive or mental health challenges. And they do this by offering a variety of Equine Assisted therapeutic clinical recreational and vocational programs. So it’s really very broad in scope. And I want to point out that the reason we’re so excited to have you this because BINA really does serve all ages, including kids and teens. So we think today’s program will be particularly interesting for our parents, and teacher listeners. But before we start talking more about equine therapy. Could you share with us your background and how you came to be executive director at BINA farm?

Janice Gilman  02:00

I’m happy to I began began my career in the nonprofit equine therapy industry more than 10 years ago, I was the Operations Director at a similar program, which had a great relationship with BINA Farm Center. Sadly, that program closed prior to COVID due to the proc our host property owners passing. During COVID Coryn Bina, the co founder of Bina Farm Center, contacted me and asked if I was available to join the team. I did and shortly thereafter, I became the executive director.

Gene  02:38

And one quick question, do you ride?

Janice Gilman  02:42

I ride very little, not very pretty, very little.

Khadijah  02:46

So so most of our folks have heard of like pet therapy. And when they think of pet therapy, they think that pet therapy with a dog or some other small animal, but equine therapy, that’s something that we don’t often talk about. And specific to mental health. On BINA’s website it says that your program serve a range of disorders, including mood disorders, ADHD, autism spectrum disorders, and so much more. Can you share with me what equine therapy is exactly?

Janice Gilman  03:16

Sure. Yes. Although dog therapy is an animal therapy modality, which many people are familiar with. The equine therapy industry has grown in recent years. One significance between traditional animal therapies and equine therapies is our horses are between 300 and 15,000 pounds.

Khadijah  03:38

That’s big.

Janice Gilman  03:39

Sorry, between 300 and 1500 pounds. 15,000 would be quite a big horse.

Khadijah  03:46

That’d be a ginormous horse.

Janice Gilman  03:48

A world record.

Gene  03:50

That, that’d be dinosaur therapy.

Janice Gilman  03:53

You’re very right. So between 350 and 1500 pounds, and depending on which equine therapy is provided, participants may or may not ride a horse.

Khadijah  04:06

Are there different types of equine therapy? I think, when I was looking at the website, I saw that there were several different types and how would someone know what type is right for them?

Janice Gilman  04:18

Right, so there there are different types of Equine Therapy. Then there are numerous equine therapy type programs, some which are clinical based, and others which are more recreational based. Depending on the individual’s diagnoses, their goals will determine which therapy would be best for them. And oftentimes doctors weigh in on suggestions as well.

Gene  04:46

So you have clinicians involved with the center that actually would help you determine what the problem is and what they’re trying to what what the doctors were the clinicians of various disciplines Want to achieve through the through the use of equine therapy is that is that a fair statement?

Janice Gilman  05:06

That is a fair statement. We do have occupational therapists, we do have physical therapists, that specifically in the clinical area, we also have mental health specialists. And then we have our therapeutic riding instructors, which is not clinical based. They are certified individuals that specialize in therapeutic riding, but do not hold any sort of licensure around a medical basis.

Khadijah  >05:39

To start can you tell us a little bit about equine facilitated psychotherapy, like what does that program look like?

Janice Gilman  05:45

Sure, equine facilitated psychotherapy is led by a mental health professional, working with the horse on the ground. So that means not riding. The pony or horses used to facilitate conversation and mirroring of behavior. Individuals often feel more comfortable speaking about their feelings when done in the third person approach, or without direct focus on them sharing their feelings. Having the poor part of the horse of the treatment allows that to occur, the mental health professional will observe or interact with the pony or horse, and observe their behavior and how it may be similar to their own. We have a Mini Pony, Angel, who was perfect for this work. She stands only three feet tall, loves affection, and has adorable patches of brown and white in color. People just look at her and they smile. In addition, there’s a tremendous benefit to being in the outdoors, walking our property. And also watching these majestic creatures just graze out in a paddock.

Khadijah  06:56

We often talk about how important it is to connect with nature and to be out in nature and house how much that really helps in terms of your mood and anxiety. And so when you were describing Angel, I was actually smiling picturing haven’t seen her but picturing what she might look like.

Janice Gilman  07:12


Gene  07:15

But but but just for the listeners understanding the therapists are working with the horse? And and it’s primarily with the horse, and not the kid or the adult on the horse that has a problem, or what?

Janice Gilman  07:31

So most of this work is done on the ground, and they are working directly with the participant or the client. What a lot of a lot of things that occur and I can give you one example is sometimes there is some observation component of it. Just sharing time together with the horse and having conversation. It takes that clinical treatment space out of the equation, that one on one direct focus and creates an environment that’s supportive, but also uses the horse’s behavior oftentimes as a mirroring approach to feelings or processing feelings. I can tell you with little Angel, I’ve seen a number of young, our young clients actually just sitting in her stall in a chair with her and her clinician or mental health therapist, and they’re just having their session with a little pony next to them. It’s incredibly empowering.

Khadijah  08:40

That’s awesome.

Gene  08:42

And so, um, so in occupational therapy, which takes place with BINA and horses are being used. I came upon this term hippotherapy. What, which is kind of weird. I mean, you don’t use hippopotami do ya?

Janice Gilman  09:02

We do not use hippopotamuses. You’re right. The name is a little interesting. And really what the approach is, the word hippotherapy is actually a Greek it’s Greek founded and in our Hippotherapy Program, it is on it’s performed riding a horse. And the objective of using hippotherapy as it primarily refers to how occupational and physical therapy and speech language pathology professionals use evidence based practice and clinical reasoning and the purposeful manipulation of an equine movement. So for example, a lot of our clinicians select particular horses in their treatment plan based on their gait, how they move, and how it engages the individual’s body to perform the treatment plan. And the main goal is for the participant while on horseback is to have neurological and physiological input to their bodies. It stimulates movement of their body through the horses movement, and while seated on horseback. We treat individuals in early intervention as young as two years old through adulthood. Children especially welcome this form of treatment, as it doesn’t feel like treatment to them. It takes them out of the traditional treatment room and into nature with animals that they are in awe of.

Khadijah  10:52

So, so that’s, that’s really incredible. And I know now we understand, some people might confuse therapeutic riding with hippotherapy. So can you tell us a little bit about the therapy riding program you guys say?

Janice Gilman  11:05

Yes, so our therapeutic riding program, some may have heard of it called adaptive riding. The two terms are interchangeable. They are led by a certified therapeutic riding instructor, not an occupational or physical therapy as it’s not a clinical base therapy. A lesson is comprised of two parts, a 15 minute horsemanship component that involves spending time with an assigned horse. There are many benefits to doing this, including offering a transition time, from a child’s busy day at school or other therapies into a calming environment of the farm to learn about and care for our horses. Following those 15 minutes therapeutic adaptive riding occurs, the participant rides the horse with the objective of learning to ride skills through a customized approach based on their individual goals and needs. For example, staring horse offers fine motor work, giving the horse verbal commands, exercises language, and for some riding works on building their core and overall physical strength. Interactive games are also often incorporated to the lesson plan for social enrichment. And just because they’re plain fun.

Khadijah  12:33

So, what benefits – like what are the benefits that these kids get through these kinds of therapies?

Janice Gilman  12:39

Depending on the client’s goals, the benefits can range from speaking their first word, to building their core strength. In some cases, just a few sessions of Equine Therapy can produce improvement. Let’s take equine facilitated psychotherapy, there are individuals who have reduced anxiety and depression through psychological changes. Studies have shown that animals assists animal assisted therapy reduces cortisol, the stress hormone. In addition, spending time with animals may lower blood pressure. Also, this social psychosocial effects of Equine Assisted Therapy come from the horse’s ability to recognize human emotions and provide an intentional response. Now we we may have learned this in school, but horses are prey animals by nature. So they’re very in tune to energy and behaviors around them. And through this work, and identifying on self reflection, working on self reflection, maybe working on mood regulation, these it can result in improved self esteem, improved self presence, independence, and also feelings of freedom.

Gene  14:00

So what kinds of mental health challenges or disabilities or benefits for kids. You know, I mean, I think I think there’s been in the past a lot of publicity or talk or and material on autistic spectrum disorders. You know, you could tell me, but I think that was one of the early uses of Equine Therapy. But what other emotional behavioral issues are there? For example, kids at risk? Kids with PTSD? Kids who’ve been traumatized? Kids who may have anxiety or depression, I mean, the whole range of mental health disorders or challenges. What about those others? How are they used?

Janice Gilman  14:48

Yes, we we see a number of participants with ADHD, anxiety. We also have a number of our clients are on the Autism Spectrum Disorder, a number of them have cerebral palsy or including post traumatic stress disorder, and various other trauma related experiences in their lives. This environment with horses, outdoors, nature, is a wonderful environment to process those feelings with the horse with the professional guidance of the clinician, it creates a very safe environment or environment is very supportive and inclusive. And, honestly, the client base that we see the list is vast, it could be mental health challenges. It could also be physical challenges, it could be a recovery from a cancer. From experiencing cancer, there’s a lot of fear and anxiety that comes through that process. And we help people transition through that through the use of whether it could be riding, getting outside in nature or having a support system through a mental health professional.

Gene  16:18

So since Autism Spectrum Disorder is probably one of the longest with the oldest uses of equine therapy, can you tell us a little about what what, uh, riding a therapeutic riding program or Adaptive Riding does to kind of reach, reach out and connect with kids with ASD?

Janice Gilman  16:40

Yes, so we find that, you know, many children with ASD oftentimes have a sensories sensitivity, or require high inputs of of sensory stimulation, riding a horse through walking, trotting, gives them that input, and allows them to also channel some of that energy as well. We also see that a lot of children with ASD, being out in nature is a tremendous treatment tool, being on horseback getting the physical stimulation, and the calming environment really does benefit them. And also, we have seen many of times children speak their first words on horseback. The combination of the two approaches, is incredibly moving for them and also gives them the supportive environment and the the professional guidance to help assist through those challenges. And then also the physical also, there’s physical aspects of not just riding, but it may be some of our ASD participants who come to us, some of them to help translate may do a little barn chore, they may do something that’s more physical in nature, to help with the transition to help regulate the behavior before getting on the horse. So we have a lot of options available to us.

Khadijah  18:29

And I would love to hear more about some of the specific programs that you have at BINA farm for children. And while I’m sure you love them all, I’d also love to hear there’s one that specifically particularly resonates with you or that you’re particularly fond of.

Janice Gilman  18:45

So choosing one program is like choosing a favorite child or a favorite horse in my case.

Khadijah  18:51

Just love them differently.

Janice Gilman  18:53

Yes, yes. Each of our programs are special and unique and offer gifts to everyone who participates them. So I would say this. Once we know that the once we know what the participants goals are, we have met with them. And we are able to identify what those goals and objectives are. I also want to mention that oftentimes when we set these goals, if a participant has an IEP through school, we do ask for that information. And we take that into consideration when we are building goals and objectives for the individual. Sometimes, sometimes they’re simply at the right place at the right time with the modality that we’re working with and within our team. And we often see great strides in in this culmination of objectives and strategic approaches for treatment plans.

Gene  19:57

And you know, BINA farm offers group programs, right?

Janice Gilman  20:02

We do. Yes.

Gene  20:03

And so how can how can a school or an organization get involved? And what are what do you mean by a group program is like, human pack animals riding horses, which are pack animals? I mean, you know, we are all pack animals, but, what is the group program?

Janice Gilman  20:24

Right. So, most often, there’s a couple of opportunities with us for group based activities. Some, if we are approached by a school, a school may come and visit and asked to do a field trip. Or however, we’ve been asked to participate in a to create a program that is specific, that will be incorporated into their curriculum. And we’re happy to do that as well. And then what what oftentimes is some participants want to come for the therapeutic benefit, some want to come for more of the clinic, the clinical benefits of our program. And then we use volunteers to support those groups. We have also a program that we is called equine assisted learning that is very much a group based program. And also that is, when we bring I would say approximately the group generally ranges between four to eight participants together, we often do this work with residential schools that it’s led, this particular program is led by someone who has a mental health background, but also has an equine services and learning certification. So they have been trained how to implement this not only their clinical experience, but also their equine knowledge, and leading a group through activities. It could be team building related activities, it could be individual leading, it could be group discussion. That is another program that I actually didn’t mention previously. However, now you know about Equine Assisted Learning. And, but most schools usually reach out to us and share with us what their objectives are or what their goals might be. And we talk about what might be the best activity or program for them.

Khadijah  22:45

I have learned so much. But is there anything that we didn’t cover today that you think would be really important for listeners, and specifically, particularly for families to know about, BINA farm center?

Janice Gilman  22:58

Yeah, yeah. So um, I actually want to mention, we have a garden, we have a community garden on our property. So it’s not just all horses, we do have a garden. And this is perfect for those who don’t want to necessarily get involved in horses. We in they just if they want to come to our property, they could do some gardening, we have a number of parents who, while their children are riding or getting their treatment services, they tinker around in our garden and we love that we tend to grow vegetables that horses and humans enjoy. So it can be a very relaxing way to spend time a lot of parents who are raising children with unique challenges, they too need a little bit of a respite. So we encourage them to take that opportunity while their child is in the care of our team to spend a little bit of time with themselves, relaxing and you know, maybe digging through the dirt, getting their hands dirty in nature.

Khadijah  24:12

Well, Janice, you know, again, this has been so enlightening and I have learned so much and I bet our listeners have to and we really want to thank you for joining us today. We have thoroughly enjoyed this conversation.

Janice Gilman  24:24

Thanks to both of you. It’s been a pleasure to be here today. And talk more about horses and therapies.

Gene  24:33

So to wrap up, um Janice, do you have a favorite feel good horse movie, or if not a feel good animal movie?

Janice Gilman  24:45

You know, off the top of my head. I cannot think of one however, I do have one. I do have one that aside that has made a big impact on me personally. Um, there is a movie it’s actually a documentary In called Buck. It’s a documentary about Buck Brennaman, who was a well known expert in the interactions between humans and horses. And he also inspired the movie The Horse Whisperer. And while it may not be necessarily a feel good, it is definitely educational and really gives you a wonderful insight into horses, as well as the best approaches of working with horses and gives you a tremendous insight into their own nature and ability and how humans interact and work with them.

Khadijah  25:46

Gene What about you? Do you have a favorite feel good horse or animal movie?

Gene  25:51

You know, I go way. I go way back. I mean, I remember as a kid watching My Friend Flicka. Made a big impression on me. And of course, you know, I mean, Roy Rogers, and you know, Silver, was very important. But you know, the ones that my I watch with my dog who loves watching, watching TV. Are this whole series of vet vet shows like, oh, yeah, Dr. Pol. Or, or, or Rocky Mountain vet, especially when their horses involved. I mean, if there’s any animal involved, you know, my dog is kind of glued to the TV as I am. And Khadija, what about you? Do you have a feel good movie? We’re at a movie.

Khadijah  26:45

Yeah, one of my favorite movies of all times is the Black Stallion the original with I think, I don’t know how young I was but but I remember watching it was my dad over and over again and I tried to get my son to watch it. And he just put in like the graphics apart like he just wasn’t into it. But it’s like one of my favorite movies. And recently for some reason I’ve been watching Heartland which is more of a they keep calling it a “dude ranch”, and I don’t really still understand what that is. But that also is like a very easy thing to watch. Like you kind of know what’s going to happen before the end, but you still want to watch it you can’t stop watching. So I’ve enjoyed that. But my favorite is probably the Black Stallion.

Gene  27:27

How about Black Beauty?

Khadijah  27:29

I like that too. But Black Stallion is my fav. Like the whole the whole challenge with the kid and the connection and the trust. It was just such a beautiful movie.

Gene  27:41

Well, and for those who are listening, we’d love to know your favorite feel good animal movie. So just email us and or tag us on Instagram @mghclaycenter. And thanks again, Janice for joining us today. This is incredible and for those at home. We hope as always said our conversation will help you have yours. I’m Gene Beresin.

Khadijah  28:05

And I’m Khadijah Booth Watkins. Until next time.


Khadijah  28:23

My other movie that I love, although it’s not a feel good movie is Old Yeller.

Janice Gilman  28:28

Old Yeller, yes. All of them make you cry. Right?

Khadijah  28:34

I love that movie. They really do. I felt like that was too much for the podcast though.



Music by Gene Beresin

Episode research by Spenser Egnatz

Episode produced by Sara Rattigan

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Gene Beresin

Gene Beresin, Executive Director

Gene Beresin, MD, MA is executive director of The MGH Clay Center for Young Healthy Minds, and a staff child and adolescent psychiatrist at Massachusetts General Hospital. He is also...

To learn more about Gene, or to contact him directly, please see Our Team.

Khadijah Booth Watkins

Khadijah Booth Watkins, Associate Director

Khadijah Booth Watkins, MD, MPH, is associate director of the Clay Center for Young Healthy Minds at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH), and the Associate Director of the Child and...

To learn more about Khadijah, or to contact her directly, please see Our Team.