When clients visit Flying Change Equine Therapy—an internationally recognized, metro-Atlanta-based equine-assisted growth and development program—they do many things: they build confidence and self esteem, develop relationship-building skills, learn how to communicate effectively, experience teamwork and cooperation, gain leadership skills, understand how to have empathy and respect for others and much more. What might surprise you is that they don’t actually ride horses.
“Equine-assisted psychotherapy (EAP) is mental-health treatment for those facing emotional and behavioral challenges—like eating disorders, addiction, depression and post-traumatic stress—and it takes place on the ground,” explains Lissa Corcoran, founder and executive director of Flying Change. She started the organization in 1996 with one equine professional, two private-practice therapists and her horse Daisy in her backyard in Athens. Today, with 18 horses, four equine professionals, four licensed therapists, two corporate teambuilding professionals, two locations (one in Vinings and one just south of Atlanta at Fruition Farm) and an ever-growing list of services, the nonprofit organization is helping children, adults and families experience new levels of personal growth and discover the tools they need to live fuller, healthier and more meaningful lives. And according to Corcoran, clients include everyone from abused and at-risk teens to corporate executives.
“Our clients come from all settings, income levels, educational backgrounds and cultures,” she says. “Over the last 13 years, we have opened our doors to clients across the board, from those who have experienced a lifelong struggle with mental and emotional health to the ‘worried well’—those who are essentially healthy but looking to grow and fully reach their potential.”
Flying Change clients engage in standard activities with the horses, such as grooming, feeding, riding and ground training. They also participate in games, journaling and art. “Clients take part in an equine-assisted activity and then discuss feelings, behaviors and patterns,” Corcoran says. “Often, clients lack language for how they are feeling or have awareness of their emotions and behaviors. Learning with the horses gives them an opportunity to safely put words to their emotions and their own behavior.”
When Corcoran started Flying Change at the age of 21, she did not have a formal understanding of or training in EAP. However, she knew firsthand how helpful horses could be in the healing process. Coming from a difficult childhood marked by alcoholism, addiction and divorce, as well as having struggled with abuse at the hands of her stepfather, she fell into a deep depression by her teenage years. She ended up in foster care and sank further into despair. And although she had the love and support of her entire family, as well as help from a team of experienced therapists, she could not find the strength or the words to discuss her issues. The only time she felt anything was during visits to a local barn. “In all those years of therapy, my time at the barn was really what kept me going and ultimately healed me,” she recalls. “Soft muzzles and warm breath, the sound of the horses chewing their hay—those horses could reach me and motivate me in a way that no time in a therapist’s office could.”
Today, Corcoran’s vision is one of the nation’s oldest EAP programs. The organization has seen as many as 50 clients a week and has offered hope and healing to everyone who arrives on its doorstep.
For more information, visit www.flyingchange.org.
A Story of Their Own
Almost all of the horses that Flying Change includes in its programs are rescued or donated. According to Corcoran, “We don’t look for a certain age or breed. For the most part, they find us. What makes them all so fantastic for therapy is that they have rich life stories that clients can relate to.” Whether it’s a horse that struggles with cribbing (biting down on a fence post and sucking in to release endorphins in his brain—like smoking for a human) or one that has been taken from its family and rescued before being sent to slaughter, their stories often resemble those of Flying Change’s clients. “Pairing a person and a horse with similar backgrounds, feelings and behaviors creates a powerful, non-threatening mirror in which clients can see themselves with compassion, understanding and objectivity,” Corcoran says. “By relating the horse’s experience to their own, clients are able to get in touch with their feelings, own their behaviors and beliefs, and explore new choices.”