by Maliha Khan
Harry Brown was a young child in the 1950’s when he was first introduced to horses in Astor’s Residential Facility.
He vividly recalls taking walks with his counselor at The Dutchess County Fairgrounds in Rhinebeck, NY, where they stumbled upon horse stables. As they would walk through the stables, the horses poked their heads out to see him and that’s how he first remembers being introduced to horses. That moment helped to shape him into the man he is today.
The residence at Astor was a very different place than it is today.
“The neighbors had donkeys that would wander onto Astor’s property. I would watch the older boys catch them and try to ride them. When I got a little bit older, I finally got my chance at riding one,” said Brown.
He and his counselor began walking to the fairgrounds weekly where he was around horses on a regular basis. “It started off with me feeding sugar cubes and carrots,” he recalls fondly.
One day, Harry was on one of his walks with his counselor and met a horse owner: “The owner of a horse asked me if I knew how to ride?” With his experience riding the donkeys, he exclaimed, “Sure!” with enthusiasm. “So they saddled me up on a thoroughbred, and got me on the racetrack, and I’ve been riding ever since,” said Brown.
Although now retired and living in California, Harry is still excited to see his horses. “Not just to see and ride them, but to care for them, ” he says. For him, his horses are both a distraction and therapeutic relief. “I know I could easily sit around my living room and watch TV all day, but getting out with my horses provides a calming distraction,” Harry says. “When I am with my horses, I’m not thinking about chores or problems. Personal issues and serious matters don’t consume me.”
This calming effect is not just unique to Harry, but has proven to provide relief for many people when they spend time with horses. Cori Nichols, owner of Nichols Field Riding Club & Hudson Valley Horseplay in Kerhonkson, NY, says,
“Horses provide a therapeutic effect on humans unlike any other animal.”
Many studies have been done to show the effects of building relationships with animals and horses. Nichols explains, “People experiencing aggression, defiance, or anger, release chemicals into their body which intensifies stress. Horse therapy has been proven to soothe and maintain a healthy chemical balance. When an individual is around the presence of such a large and powerful animal like a horse, connecting with it becomes one’s primary focus.”
After Harry left Astor, his early passion for horses was sustained in spite of a changing world around him. “I had been an altar boy for 6 years. I then moved into the projects in Roxbury, MA. There was no space for a goody two-shoes altar boy like me in the projects back then. But that was just half of my life as a teenager.”
Harry quietly continued his pursuit of horses. “I used to spend my weekends going to Suffolk Downs, which is a harness horse racetrack near Boston. This is where I became trained in learning how to groom and care for horses professionally for the first time. From taking care of the equipment to racing as well,” said Brown.
Over the next 40 years, Harry trained all kinds of horses ranging from hunter jumpers, thoroughbreds, and quarter horses, to name a few.
Horses became a constant in his life, and brought stability to him when he needed it most. “Whatever is going on with you is mirrored pretty quickly by the horses,” corroborates Rosemary Rouhana, LMHC, NCC, a specialist in Equine-Assisted Psychotherapy (EAP). EAP incorporates horses experientially for emotional growth and learning, psychotherapeutic benefit and the support of developmental assets,” Rouhana continued.
“Participants learn about themselves and others by participating in activities with the horses, and then processing thoughts, beliefs, behaviors, and patterns.”
“Its effects are immediate. When doing an activity with horses, the therapy happens in real-time. The efficacy of this process is attributed to the immediacy of the work to better oneself,” explained Rouhana.
Harry Brown understands how horses lend themselves so well to helping humans. He guesses it comes from a horses’ heightened sensitivity to human emotions. Brown explains, “Humans don’t realize that when they interact with horses, they are doing so with the horses permission. If a horse doesn’t want to be touched or approached by you, they will make it known by means of backing away or even go as far as throwing a rider off.”
Harry often struggled in a world of people, but he learned that the place he found the most comfort throughout his life was always in the world of the horse, and always will be.
Read more Astor Family Magazine -Spring 2018