In the fall of 2019, a group of women experiencing postpartum depression, anxiety, trauma or other maternal mental health issues, gathered at the Shepherd Youth Ranch in Creedmoor, North Carolina, to work with therapy assistants that weighed 1,200 pounds or more. The women were participants in the Restoring Moms: A Journey of Healing with Horses program developed by April Parker in collaboration with Ashley Boswell, the founding director of the ranch. Parker is a clinical assistant professor in the UNC School of Social Work and Boswell is certified in equine-assisted psychotherapy and learning.
During the equine sessions, Boswell guides the women in a series of exercises such as leading the horses through an obstacle course and grooming. When participants are having difficulty with an obstacle, Boswell stops them and asks what the obstacle represents in their lives. These exercises are designed to promote self-awareness and self-reflection, which can ultimately improve functioning and well-being. Following each session with the horses, the women engage in process groups facilitated by April Parker. In the process group, the women gather at a table with snacks and cold drinks to share their stories and reflect on the thoughts, feelings and behaviors they experienced or observed during the equine session.
“It was amazing to not only see how I have healed during this journey but to also see the transformation happening to my peers, too,” said Anna, a program participant. “Seeing their healing happen before my eyes was just as impactful to me as my own healing.”
Restoring Moms was funded by a SPARC Program grant from the International Association of Social Work with Groups (IASWG).
Ashley Boswell, CEO and Founder of Shepherd Youth Ranch and Clinical Assistant Professor April Parker from the School of Social Work partner to help women heal from maternal mental health issues using equine-assisted activities and process groups. The women who participated in the Restoring Moms Project have very powerful personal stories of their motherhood journey. Read about one woman’s journey to motherhood. Her story will resonate with women and birthing people who have experienced infertility, traumatic after birth experiences, feeling out of control and hopeless. But that is not where her story ends. She also tells us that she has become stronger than she ever imagined, more thankful for every moment, and will use all she has gone through to help others heal.
Anna developed a special connection with Sake, the largest horse on the ranch. Despite their size, horses are vulnerable prey animals that live in a hypervigilant state; their fight-or-flight reaction is nearly always flight, whether they are responding to clear danger or an unsettling vibe from another animal or human. Because of their hypervigilance, horses not only pick up on humans’ body language and emotional states but also provide immediate feedback to the people working with them. During the Restoring Moms equine sessions, Boswell shares her expertise as an equine specialist to teach the women to observe how their attitudes, emotions and body language affect their horse. In return, the horses provide nonjudgmental feedback about each woman’s behavior, emotional state and whether they are seen as a threat or a friend. Researchers have found human-animal interaction and connection can create a space of acceptance, safety and compassion that increases self-awareness that could prove essential for the healing process.
Horses are being used in an increasing number of therapeutic activities, including treatment for traumatic brain injury, autism spectrum disorder, sensory disorders and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Although equine therapy appears promising, research is still new. However, the innovative Man O’ War Project at Columbia University Irving Medical Center may help to strengthen the science around the therapy. The project has focused on the effectiveness of equine-assisted therapy to treat individuals with PTSD, but plans are underway to expand the scope to other mental health conditions and other populations.
Every woman has a story
The women in the Restoring Moms program have powerful personal stories related to their motherhood journey. Their stories resonate with those who have experienced infertility, miscarriages and loss, traumatic birth and difficult postpartum experiences. However, the women’s stories also reveal they have become stronger than they ever imagined possible, more thankful for every moment and that they plan to use all they have gone through to help others on their journey to parenthood. Anna has given permission to share her story.
Hello, my name is Anna. I am a wife to my high-school sweetheart, a mother to my two-year-old miracle and a neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) nurse of 12 years, and I am here to share my story with you. In 2014, my husband and I decided we were ready to start a family. We tried for two years without any success. An unexpected surgery in 2016 led to a diagnosis of endometriosis and infertility. This quickly closed the chapter of our trying and led us straight to in vitro fertilization (IVF). Prayerfully, we entered the doors of our fertility clinic with both fear and hope.
After a few delays in starting the process, we embarked on the journey of IVF. Numerous injections, countless ultrasounds and many lab draws over a period of three weeks led us to two embryos, one of whom was transferred on Aug. 3, 2017. Ten days later, I learned I was pregnant—a joyous moment!
Finding out I was pregnant was not only a joyous moment for me, but it brought a spark of happiness during a difficult season for my family–only a month earlier my father was diagnosed with advanced stage cancer. During this time my heart was filled with mixed emotions. While I was happy about my pregnancy, I struggled watching his illness quickly progress, not knowing if he would ever meet his grandbaby. Unfortunately, a month after finding out about my pregnancy, my dad went to be with the Lord.
I had a healthy pregnancy and went into labor at 37 weeks. Induced and unmedicated, I gave birth to a perfect baby girl…. After only a few moments with my daughter on my chest, she was whisked away for further evaluation and resuscitation. She was taken to the very unit in which I work and cared for by my own co-workers. She was put on respiratory support and started on IV fluids. [The next day] my newborn took a turn for the worse. She developed a pneumothorax, began to decompensate and needed intensive medical treatment. She was intubated, received a chest tube and was transferred to the NICU [of a larger hospital]. The worst wasn’t over, as she needed a second chest tube …. She spent one week in the NICU and was able to come home [eight days after her birth]. Though her stay in the NICU was shorter in comparison to other infants, it was intense and emotional, filled with high highs and low lows.
Having my long-awaited miracle finally home and in my arms was the most incredible feeling. I was fortunate enough to have 12 weeks of maternity leave. Although longer than most, it still wasn’t enough time for me to overcome the traumatic experience that I had been through. As my maternity leave was ending, I was emotional and very anxious to leave her. I knew these feelings were common for new mothers returning to work, but it was different for me. I would be returning to the same place where my daughter was cared for. Throughout my maternity leave, I visited my unit to help myself slowly face what had occurred. I thought it had helped but it had not. My return to work put me into a highly anxious state. Not only was I worried about leaving my baby, but each drive to work was accompanied with chest pain with anxious thoughts. My transition back to work was very difficult but was made easier by supportive co-workers. A few weeks after returning to work, I realized I needed additional help to address my anxiety and overcome the trauma I had endured.
Through Moms Supporting Moms, an online postpartum mothers’ support group, I connected with my amazing therapist. Therapy was more helpful than I could have ever imagined. As I began to heal and process what the last two years had brought upon me including surgery, infertility, in vitro, my father’s death and a NICU stay, I went to battle with my postpartum anxiety and depression. I took an active role in my recovery and attended a traumatic birth healing class. The most profound experience during my journey to healing was Restoring Moms. What I experienced during those sessions is something I will never be able to articulate into words but rather I will carry it in my heart forever.
Almost two years after the most frightening day of my life, I can look back and see how far I have come. I am a different person, and it has even changed who I am as a nurse. I can empathize with NICU moms in a way that I wouldn’t have been able to if I had not gone through my daughter’s NICU experience.
God has blessed me with my heart’s greatest desire; to be a mom. Because of therapy and programs like Restoring Moms, I can fully enjoy my life’s purpose…being mommy to my precious daughter.