Mental health awareness, and our ability to talk about it without stigma, has improved thanks to initiatives like Bell Let’s Talk and other similar programs. Social media influencers and celebrities sharing their personal stories have also helped ease the negative connotations surrounding mental health struggles.

One thing is certain: those of us who have mental health challenges are not alone. According to Statistics Canada, last year one in four adults reported moderate to severe symptoms of depression, anxiety or PTSD, an increase from one in five adults in 2020.

A poster for a mental health campaign.Various treatment modalities exist to ease suffering in patients, from traditional therapy to medications. And as Horse-Canada has reported, there have been multiple studies and anecdotal evidence that prove horses are another treatment option.

This comes as no surprise to horse lovers, riders, and owners who are accustomed to the psychological and emotional benefits gleaned from spending time at the barn. But many people who struggle with a mental health condition – depression, anxiety, PTSD, to name a few — may not know that therapy, programs and services incorporating horses exist, or are accessible to them.

Horses for Mental Health  (HMH), an American nonprofit organization launched in 2022, is looking to change that, and as May is Mental Health Awareness Month, it is the perfect time to spread the word about using horses to heal humans. With a mandate to increase awareness, public engagement, funds and access to programs incorporating horses for mental health, the group created the Seen Through Horses Campaign to spread the word.

Now in its third year, the campaign is comprised of 80 nonprofit organizations that incorporate horses into their mental health programs and services in 36 American states and one Canadian province. And they have the support of a host of horse-loving advocates and award-winning actors, athletes, journalists, musical artists and icons including Andrea Bocelli, Soledad O’Brien, Christy Cashman, C Thomas Howell, Jake Allyn, Whey Jennings, Alex Hall, Allie Colleen, Nigel Barker, Sheri Salata, Apolo Ohno, Emily Ward, Jeremy Gauna, Eli Alger, Jodie Morton and Tony Stromberg.

“We believe that a rising tide lifts all boats ‒ and as the sector comes together, we will be able to espouse one message at the same time, creating a greater impact than if it were done alone,” says Tyler Brklacich, director and executive producer at Horses for Mental Health. “As of May 14, we have collectively raised $211,500. And 100% of donations raised go directly to our 80 nonprofit Charity Partners to support their individual programs and services. The money raised does not go to Horses for Mental Health.”

For BC-based Freedom Equine Association, (FEA), which is the only Canadian nonprofit participating in the campaign this year, this type of media exposure is necessary and valuable. “We feel the growing need for programs such as ours and the seriousness of a global mental health crisis. Seen Through Horses has been pivotal in spreading the word that horses can help people,” says Simone Bourassa, director of FEA. “As a young nonprofit who began with very little funds, it has also been a wonderful fundraising event for our organization as well.”

FEA offers two streams of programs for people who experience challenges in mental health through equine assisted learning and wellness programs, as well as therapeutic horseback riding. These two streams of programming are open to all abilities and ages. People can self-refer, or may be referred by their doctor, psychologist or counsellor.

“In both streams, people spend time with our therapy horses and build a connection that supports mental and emotional awareness and wellness, reduces stress, builds confidence, improves interpersonal relationship skills and so much more,” says Bourassa. “We feel raising awareness that this type of program and support exists, is available, and can improve mental and emotional wellness for anyone who may be struggling is important. We want everyone to know that challenges in mental health can decrease and quality of life can increase with a facilitated connection with horses!”

How horses heal us comes down to the unique nature of the animals. “Their keen ability to pick up on nonverbal cues allows them to respond to our own emotions and unresolved issues. This unbiased feedback creates a safe space for clients to explore their inner selves,” explains Brklacich “Despite their size, horses create a sense of security and promote emotional regulation. Unlike humans, they are free from judgment, offering a clean slate for building trust and rewriting past traumas.”

He adds that the hands-on experience of interacting with horses goes beyond just talking about problems, making it engaging and memorable. “This approach can be particularly helpful for those who struggle with traditional talk therapy or cultural barriers,” he explains. “Therapists guide clients through this process, helping them connect their experiences with the horse to their own lives, ultimately promoting self-awareness and positive change.”

The Seen Through Horses Campaign coincides with Mental Health Awareness Month, May 1st – 31st, 2024.