A love for horses from an early age and his passion for human health inspired Sonja Bigalke Bannan to start his own business. The University of Hawaii at Mānoa Thompson School of Social Work & Public Health, an alumna owns and operates Heart Horses, a unique therapy center on Oʻahuon the North Shore, which offers therapeutic horseback riding and equine-assisted psychotherapy.
Being surrounded by horses gives customers insight into their own feelings
According to Bigalke-Bannan, survivors of traumatic experiences can live in a state of hypervigilance, constantly on the lookout for danger or threat in ways that harm their health. Learning to break free from this state is difficult and overwhelming, and horse-assisted therapy can help.
“Horses are naturally hypervigilant and their senses are better than ours, but they can also calm down quickly, so they can teach humans how to come out of a state of hyperarousal,” she said. “By developing a connection with a horse, people can learn to ground themselves.”
Developing your childhood bond with horses
Bigalke-Bannan took over Heart Horses from a previous owner after earning her Masters of Social Work from uh Manoa in 2014.
Her fondness for horses began at the age of six when she took riding lessons with her Brownie troupe. Later in college, she taught conventional riding lessons when she received a request from a faculty member with Parkinson’s who wanted to learn to ride. Then a legally blind student also asked to participate.
“Working with them has been so freeing,” she said. “It was so inspiring to see what people can do if given the chance and the right support.”
Assist customers with various conditions
Heart Horses has helped a variety of clients, ages 2 to 84, with a wide range of health issues. People with mobility-limiting conditions such as Parkinson’s disease and cerebral palsy, or biobehavioral conditions such as schizoaffective disorder or bipolar disorder, or neurodevelopmental conditions such as spectrum disorders Autism and Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder can all benefit from equine therapy.
“Horses reflect human emotions — their behaviors reflect the energy and intent of the person,” Bigalke-Bannan said. “Being around horses gives clients insight into their own feelings and allows them to become aware of patterns and behaviors that may be hindering their ability to find effective solutions.”
Heart Horses offers several therapy modalities, including therapeutic riding and equine-assisted psychotherapy. Therapeutic riding can help clients improve motor function, sitting posture and balance, decrease muscle tension and relieve symptoms of anxiety and depression.
In equine-assisted psychotherapy, “talking therapy” sessions take place inside the riding arena or riding arena with the horses. While the patient and therapist discuss the patient’s trauma and try to process it, the horse is free in the paddock and can choose to interact with the client as it wishes. The presence of the horse can help the patient feel safe during therapy.
The social workers who facilitate these sessions are trained in the use of these techniques and become certified in the conduct of these therapies. Bigalke-Bannan is certified in Equine Therapy by the Equine Assisted Growth and Learning Association and Equi-Lateral, and is an Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing Therapist.
Partnerships and volunteers
In addition to referrals from psychotherapists and doctors, Heart Horses partners with several community organizations to help clients. They include the Wounded Warrior Project, Pearl Haven, a residential facility for teenage survivors of sexual exploitation or trafficking, and Sprouts, a program that offers physical therapy and occupational therapy for children.
All clients become empowered to deal with their health issues through the process of working and communicating with horses. “Everyone who comes here learns horse science, horse safety and horse care. They groom their horse and get familiar with the equipment,” Bigalke-Bannan said.
The facility’s many volunteers, who help care for the horses and maintain the facility, come from all over the island and as far away as California and Canada. Additionally, as an Adjunct Instructor in Field Studies, Bigalke-Bannan supports future social workers at the Thompson School of Social Work & Public Health. Heart Horses serves as a field placement site for MSW students.
The most rewarding aspect of Bigalke-Bannan’s work is providing a space for people to be calm and quiet, and separate from the rest of their busy lives. “The farm is a very peaceful space. It provides a wonderful backdrop for healing and personal growth,” she said.