Five months ago, Meghan Carty McFadden got a voicemail announcing she had gotten her dream job—on the same day that her son was born. The position was as an equine psychotherapist for Special Strides, a nonprofit working with special needs individuals using horses, therapy and the natural environment at Congress Hill Farm in Monroe.
Psychotherapy is a relatively recent addition to the array of therapies offered by Special Strides, which started off with occupational and physical therapy, added adaptive horseback riding, then carriage driving for people unsuited to riding, experiential learning, and finally psychotherapy.
Lori Landy, the occupational therapist who founded Special Strides in 1998, says, “Horses very gentle and nonjudgmental; they are social animals and easier to work with than people. It is easier to read the horse’s interaction with you than a person’s.”
About four years ago, Landy realized that Special Strides was not servicing the population of individuals with emotional, psychological, and psychiatric issues like trauma and physical or sexual abuse. She hired McFadden to fill this position when her first psychotherapist left.
For McFadden, the new job brought together the two passions of her life—horses and serving others.
Her parents, Elyse and Robert Carty, primary care doctors in Bordentown, McFadden says, “were always talking about how to better help people and wanting to serve the community.” She imbibed their commitment to service and recalls visiting her parents’ office, which for many years was attached to their house, to talk to patients and help elderly patients to their cars. “I was drawn to knowing everybody’s story,” she says.
Her interest in horses grew out of her determination, at age six, to conquer her two fears: of horses and of the tire jungle gym at the Peter Muschal Elementary School. “I had this goal: I wanted to get over all my fears,” McFadden says. And with horses, it was very easy: “It took one lesson, and I was essentially hooked from there.”
To expand her knowledge of horses and riding, she rode at different farms through elementary and high school. While at Bordentown Regional High School, she also found time to do lots of music: marching band, three choirs, and plays and musicals.
At 17, she started to volunteer the Reindancer Therapeutic Riding Program, which does equine therapy in New Egypt at the Laurita Equestrian Center. At first she helped out with walking and training horses, but then, she says, “the social worker there took me under her wing and had me help with what I could in the psychotherapy. I discovered I could combine my love for helping people that I had had since I was a kid with my love for horses.”
McFadden studied psychology at Rider University while continuing to volunteer in the Reindancer program. During her senior year, she interned there, and due to expertise she had gained at school, she says, “I was able to see more clients rather than just helping with the horses. I helped clients learn different techniques, like coping skills and relaxation techniques, using the horses.”
‘A horse will help you—just their presence—when you are working with them. They understand you more than anyone else.’
McFadden explains why horses are particularly useful as a therapy tool. In the wild they are prey animals, and the herd leader needs to be able to communicate danger down the herd line. As a result, “horses will naturally mirror or mimic emotions in the wild.” When the leader communicates a message of anxiety and fear, the horses will start to flee.
“What the herd leader communicates through their body language, we use that in psychotherapy,” she says. “The horses will mimic or mirror the emotions of a client, and the client gets to see their own emotions and natural responses right in front of them.”
If a client is feeling really anxious, for example, an empathetic horse will also feel that emotion and may get antsy, move around, or run away. “We use their body language to help provide a metaphor for clients of their own anxieties or fears,” she says.
Here’s how a conversation with a client might go:
McFadden: “What’s happening? Tell me how the horse is feeling.”
Client: “He is obviously feeling really anxious.”
McFadden: “How do you know?”
Client: “Because when I feel anxious I get antsy and I want to run away.”
McFadden explains, “These conversations you use as a gateway to what they are feeling. The very first session you are at the root of the anxiety or the depression.”
This happened in one of her first sessions interning in New Egypt, where she was working with a 10-year-old girl from a military family whose father had just deployed.
The girl was very anxious and behaving poorly, and McFadden was trying to understand why. She paired the girl with a pony who had some behavioral issues himself and asked the girl to lead him through an obstacle course. “He started to act up, which I knew was going to happen; and her first instinct was to wind up and hit him,” McFadden says.
McFadden grabbed the pony and asked the girl to tell her why hitting was her natural response, and the girl told her, “That’s how Mommy disciplines me when Daddy is gone.”
“Things come up quickly and you’re able to dive into what’s really going on rather than the surface level,” McFadden says, adding that “horses naturally make us calm down and feel more comfortable, so there’s not that wallop you may feel in a typical office setting.”
In 2013, McFadden, who was interested in trauma and abuse, both military and domestic, completed a master’s degree in mental health and military social work through an online program at the University of Southern California. The program required local internships each semester, and McFadden did three.
The first was at HomeFront’s Family Preservation Center in Ewing. At the second, which was at Garfield Park Academy, an alternative school in Willingboro, she learned how to intervene with different aggressive behaviors or in cases of social anxiety. The last one was at Preferred Behavioral Health, an agency where she did outpatient therapy for individuals and groups and stayed on for about a year after earning her master’s degree.
While preparing to get married, she took some time off and did a variety of jobs, including retail and riding instruction. Her husband does in-flight refueling of fighter jets in the Air Force, and has gone through six or seven deployments.
Eventually McFadden moved back into therapy and spent a year and a half at Oaks Integrated Care in Trenton, doing group and individual therapy with inner-city kids, mainly for behavioral issues. “I loved it; I liked the challenge of dealing with some of the behavioral needs,” she says.
But she always had equine psychotherapy at the back of her mind. “I liked working in Trenton but that wasn’t necessarily where my heart was,” she says. So she emailed Landy, who had nothing then but said she would keep her in mind if a position opened.
In June, when the previous psychotherapist left, Landy invited her for an interview.
McFadden told Landy, “Okay, but I’m 8 months pregnant.” Nonetheless Landy offered her a job, and she is now working two days a week and building up her practice. She specializes in trauma, depression, anxiety, and social and behavioral needs. “A lot of our horses are coming from different situations where they may have experienced a trauma, so they are really empathetic toward different traumas, emotional, physical, and sexual,” she says.
Because “things come up quickly” with horses, the therapy is relatively short term, six months to a year, as compared to psychotherapy in an office, where, McFadden explains, “you don’t have a horse there to represent your emotions—getting to really see that and conquer that head on.”
Special Strides offers financial aid via the Steven Werthan Memorial Scholarship Fund, named for a board member’s son who died at 5 or 6. “Anyone who goes in and needs services, we will help out. We’ve not said no to anybody,” Landy says.
The farm itself can play a surprising role, with its 100 acres of trails, its small herd of goats, and grazing horses. It might just offer a place where a client can hang out with the horses to relax. But it also offers opportunities for clients to bond with the horses by grooming them. “Taking care of the needs of someone else can be very empowering,” McFadden says.
Individual horses have idiosyncrasies that can make them perfect for specific types of clients. A horse with sass, who wants to stray from what people want them to do, may work well with children or teenagers who don’t necessarily want to follow instructions or direction. Or a horse may be particularly empathetic, like the one who nudged McFadden’s stomach when she was pregnant. Or another horse may be very patient and hence make a good teacher.
“A horse will help you—just their presence—when you are working with them. They understand you more than anyone else,” McFadden says. For example, once when a client was getting very nervous and seemed on the verge of a panic attack, the horse nudged the client, who said, “She’s reminding me to use my skills.”
Horses can also help teach coping skills, including different breathing and relaxation techniques. “You are naturally going to feel relaxed and open to learning new techniques with this beautiful creature next to you,” she says. “I’ve seen horses when I’m teaching breathing techniques, and they take a deep breath.”