Cracker Horses ‘Repurposed’ As Mental Health Counselors
By Dr. Sandra Wise // July 25, 2012
(VIDEO: By Jeremiah Baumbach)
CENTRAL FLORIDA, USA – Orlando-based Emmy-nominated videographer Jeremiah Baumbach is currently editing hours of video that he and his crew have shot over the past year highlighting Florida’s official heritage horse, the Florida Cracker.
Documentary Depicts A New ‘Purpose’ For this Unique Equine Breed
His planned documentary does not, however, focus on the proud heritage of these beautiful animals, whose ancestors were introduced into North America in 1521 by Ponce de Leon and then became an integral part of the agriculture and cattle industry upon which Florida was built.
This film will show no archived footage from generations ago, showcasing the talents of these Florida Cow Ponies as they herded free range cattle in the palmetto flats and cypress stands of old Florida or as they provided transportation for early pioneer families. Nor does this film feature facts about their dwindling numbers during the decades after they “lost their jobs” following the enactment of fencing laws in the 1930s.
Indeed, the documentary will not even depict the Florida Cracker horses’ currently recognized talents—talents well-known to those who ride this small, agile, and tough little horse, whether on easy-going trail rides or as modern-day cow horses on the few ranches that still are worked by mounted cowboys—more accurately called “cow hunters” in Florida terminology.
Instead, this ambitious documentary by Baumbach defines and describes a new “purpose” for this special breed of horse—a purpose for which these smaller, curiously-cautious, intelligent equines are particularly well-suited. Yes, a special herd of these Florida Cracker horses has been “repurposed” as equine mental health “counselors.”
Largest Cracker Horse Herd Flourishes At Forever Florida
This Cracker horse herd, which is the largest in the world, is housed at the Crescent J Ranch, a part of the Allen Broussard Conservancy and a working cattle ranch adjacent to Forever Florida, which is a 4700-acre wildlife preserve in Osceola County. “Eye of a Horse” is the name of the mental health-counseling program, which is headquartered at The Equine Education Center on the grounds of Forever Florida.
The ‘Eye Of A Horse’ Not Therapeutic Riding
As you can see in the accompanying video clips, participants engage in the equine-assisted counseling sessions on the ground—there is no riding involved in the exercises in which the horses interact with humans who look into “the eye of a horse” seeking assistance with various life challenges.
The work is called equine-assisted psychotherapy, and is clearly distinguished from “therapeutic riding,” in which patients with various neuromuscular or balance problems benefit from the physical action of riding a horse. The specific therapeutic work that these Cracker horses are now providing is in the form of interactions with humans on the ground while the horses are free to move about and engage the humans as they see fit. Equine activities are coached and monitored by a licensed mental health professional and a highly qualified expert in equine behavior.
Horses Interacting With Participants To Help Them Learn About Themselves and Relationships With Others
In equine-assisted psychotherapy the horse acts as a catalyst, which allows therapeutic issues to come to the surface. An individual may work on relationship problems, social skills, or emotional issues such as depression or anxiety. Clients herald from all walks of life and range in age from ten to 96. Problems range from small “bumps in the road” to major roadblocks and life challenges, such as posttraumatic stress disorder, sexual trauma, severe autism, or spinal cord injuries.
Each equine experience is different and unique. However, the common thread in every one of the therapeutic sessions is an individual or a group of Florida Cracker horses—standing front and center—assisting the challenged individual as only they can. The horses interact with the participant during various activities, responding and reacting to the client’s behaviors and emotional state and giving clear, direct non-verbal feedback.
Experienced Equine-assisted Psychotherapy Team
What makes the Florida Cracker horses so well qualified for their new “job?” Dean Van Camp, Forever Florida’s resident expert in equine behavior with over 40 years of experience training horses, explains that this breed is so well suited for this type of therapeutic work due to its unique genetic history.
Van Camp explains, “The ancestors of these horses ran feral throughout the state of Florida for many generations. More than any other breed, Crackers have incredible survival skills which make them more attentive and reactive to their environment and to humans they interact with. They are also smaller and less intimidating. Then there is the special training that we provide them.”
Being a licensed psychologist as well as a horse lover and trainer, I have worked closely with Dean for over 10 years as the other half of the horse training team at Forever Florida. “Dr. Sandra Wise and I train these therapy horses to be safe, to have manners and to be respectful of humans,” adds Van Camp. “But our goal is to leave as much horse in the horse as possible—that way they will respond to clients and interact freely, giving all kinds of feedback that helps the person learn things about themselves, their emotional make-up, and their problems.”
‘Eye Of A Horse’ Program Can Impact Diverse and Unique Individuals and Mental Health Challenges
Baumbach has loaded up his crew and cameras and followed Van Camp, Wise, and the Cracker horses wherever they go. He has filmed segments at Wickham Park in Melbourne, where the Cracker horses interacted with military veterans who attended the Vietnam and All Veteran Reunion.
(VIDEO: By Jeremiah Baumbach)
He followed the horses to a nursing home on Merritt Island where wheel chair bound residents were brought outside to visit with the Crackers.
Baumbach has wrestled camera equipment (and himself) into the front of a stock trailer to get a birds-eye-view of emotionally disturbed adolescents attempting to get a young Cracker horse to “face his fears” and step into a long, dark trailer for the first time. He has stood in the rain to shoot the arrival of a bus filled with veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder as they filed into a barn full of Cracker horses, waiting to participate in a therapeutic reenactment of a military mission.
He has spent hours in the blazing sun working to capture just the right angle for a shot of a Cracker horse named La Nina, who lost one of her hind legs in a traumatic accident and now provides therapeutic services for humans who have experienced losses in their own lives. Baumbach has utilized specialized equipment in order to shoot footage from the client’s perspective, a technique which also serves to protect the identity of young sexual trauma victims. All of this to capture the wonderful interactions between these special horses and the humans who they help.
Baumbach acknowledges, “At first I thought this was going to be a documentary about horses. Then, as we went along, I started thinking that it is all really about people. I guess, in the end, it is going to be a story about how these special Cracker horses, which helped build Florida but then lost their jobs, now have a new purpose—that is, to help people who are dealing with mental health challenges.”
(VIDEO: By Jeremiah Baumbach)
Sponsors are an integral part of the production of this very important and compelling documentary. If you would like to help sponsor this documentary showcasing how our state heritage horse, the Florida Cracker, is now being used to help humans overcome life challenges please contact Jeremiah Baumbach at CrackerHorse.com.
For more information about The Equine Education Center and the Eye of a Horse program, please visit www.eyeofahorse.com
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Dr. Sandra Wise has worked in private practice, was the Director of Mental Health for several Colorado prisons and for the Delaware State Department of Corrections. She has taught graduate-level courses in clinical psychology and has conducted numerous workshops and clinics, assisting clients of all ages and life challenges. In each of these settings, she has been highly effective in helping her clients and students improve self-awareness and understanding. In 2002, Dr. Wise began utilizing principles of applied behavioral analysis in training horses and cattle, and her skills as a psychologist have permitted her to achieve amazing results. The combination of Dr. Wise’s horsemanship and psychotherapeutic skills creates unique opportunities for exploration, insight, and dynamic growth for her equine-assisted learning/therapy clients.