SPRING GROVE, Ill. | When Elizabeth Freund saw her 13-year-old daughter interact with her horse, she was intrigued by the relationship between them.
Freund also observed her daughter's riding peers, and noticed they seemed to struggle with developing relationship skills during adolescence.
Freund — who has bachelor's degrees in psychology and criminal justice administration and is working toward a master's degree in psychology — said the relationship her daughter had with the horse was what saved her child from struggles during her adolescent years.
"The power it had to get her through her adolescence was overwhelming," Freund said. "The horse was able to reach her in a way that I couldn't and was the only one who was able to overpower the influence of her peers. That was probably the kernel, and I wondered if horses could reach abused and neglected kids that way."
Thus, Healing Tales — an equine facilitated learning program for trauma patients based at North Hill Farm, 1214 Main Street Road in Spring Grove — was born in 2011.
Because humans and horses are both prey animals — meaning they respond to trauma with a fight-or-flight instinct — the mutual understanding and connection between patients and horses has been effective in the trauma patient's treatment, Freund said.
Healing Tales works with all trauma patients, but particularly abused and neglected children. It is a supplemental treatment that works in tandem with traditional mental health treatment, Freund said.
Those who have experienced trauma may have a hard time keeping or rebuilding relationships with other people, Freund said, because if the trauma was caused by another person, the patient now subconsciously regards other people as predators.
Traditional trauma therapy depends on when the incident happened and helps build and develop coping skills to improve the quality of the patient's life. After that, the patient reframes and accepts the event and begins to enhance his own life.
However, it's often difficult for them to talk about their feelings and experiences because the traumatic event is stored deep in the brain and becomes a subconscious phenomenon, Freund said. She once worked with a boy with Asperger's syndrome who posed the same problem as a trauma patient.
"The boy talked about horrible, horrible trauma — the death of multiple family members, being homeless — and talked about it like he was giving me a recipe for bread," Freund said. "There was no emotion."
By the end of the boy's treatment with the horses, he was able to start the obstacle courses by himself, instead of having Freund come with him, and the beginning of a connection with Freund was starting to sprout.
With Healing Tales, trauma patients learn how to refine or sometimes redevelop skills for building relationships by interacting with horses instead of other humans, Freund said. They then apply those skills to connect with other people in their life.
Freund said Healing Tales' theory of the connection of the mental development of child trauma survivors and horses' social prey animal characteristics will be presented at the 2013 International Conference of the Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship.
Patrick Snyder, community and alumni relations coordinator at Columbia College's Crystal Lake campus, said Freund's work and ongoing research with the human-horse relationship is bigger than the school itself. Freund's bachelor's degrees are from Columbia College.
"It's a dramatic story of how animals and human beings can help to heal each other," Snyder said.