Join us on a Journey of Maternal Health Healing with Midwives & Horses
Postpartum Support in a natural way
By Michelle Graf-Dixon, LM
In the fall of 2016, a group of women experiencing postpartum depression, anxiety, trauma or other maternal mental health issues, gathered at the Heart Ranch in Sanford Fl, to work with therapy assistants that weighed 1,200 pounds or more. The women were participants in the Hearts, Hands, and Horses: A Journey of Maternal Health Healing with Horses program developed by Midwife Michelle Graf-Dixon. Midwife Michelle studies equine-assisted postpartum maternal healing and how horses can help women adjust through the postpartum phase. During the equine sessions, Graf-Dixon guides the women in a series of exercises such as leading the horses through an obstacle course and grooming. When participants are having difficulty with an obstacle, Graf-Dixon stops them and asks what the obstacle represents in their lives. These exercises are designed to promote self-awareness and self-reflection, which can ultimately improve functioning and well-being. Following each session with the horses, the women engage in process groups facilitated by Heart 2 Heart Birth Center support staff members. In the process group, the women gather to enjoy natural snacks and refreshments to share their stories and reflect on the thoughts, feelings and behaviors they experienced or observed during the equine session.
Susan, a program participant, says “It was amazing to not only see how I have healed during this journey but to also see the transformation happening to my peers, too”. “Seeing their healing happen before my eyes was just as impactful to me as my own healing.”
Hearts, Hands and Horses has applied for funding by a SPARC Program grant from the International Association of Social Work with Groups (IASWG).
Michelle Graf-Dixon and Midwife Lynn Eden Deer are Founders of the program, hosted at Heart Ranch in Sanford FL. Clinical Assistant Kat Joiner from Heart 2 Heart Birth Center works diligently to partner with other equine specialists and Postpartum Mental Health Specialists to help women heal from maternal mental health issues using equine-assisted activities and process groups. The women who participated in the Hearts, Hands and Horses Project have very powerful personal stories of their motherhood journey. They have story after story that resonate with women and birthing people who have experienced infertility, traumatic after birth experiences, feeling out of control and hopeless. But that is not where the story ends. One mom in particular tells us that she has become stronger than she ever imagined, more thankful for every moment, and will use all she has gone through to help others heal.
Carrie developed a special connection with Jack, the largest horse on the ranch. Despite their size, horses are vulnerable prey animals that live in a hypervigilant state; their fight-or-flight reaction is nearly always flight, whether they are responding to clear danger or an unsettling vibe from another animal or human. Because of their hypervigilance, horses not only pick up on humans’ body language and emotional states but also provide immediate feedback to the people working with them. During the Hearts, Hands and Horses equine sessions, Michelle shares her expertise as an equine specialist to teach the women to observe how their attitudes, emotions and body language affect their horse. In return, the horses provide nonjudgmental feedback about each woman’s behavior, emotional state and whether they are seen as a threat or a friend. Researchers have found human-animal interaction and connection can create a space of acceptance, safety and compassion that increases self-awareness that could prove essential for the healing process.
Horses are being used in an increasing number of therapeutic activities, including treatment for traumatic brain injury, autism spectrum disorder, sensory disorders and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Although equine therapy appears promising, research is still new. However, the innovative Man O’ War Project at Columbia University Irving Medical Center may help to strengthen the science around the therapy. The project has focused on the effectiveness of equine-assisted therapy to treat individuals with PTSD, but plans are underway to expand the scope to other mental health conditions and other populations.
Every woman has a story
The women in the Hearts, Hands and Horses Moms program have powerful personal stories related to their motherhood journey. Their stories resonate with those who have experienced infertility, miscarriages and loss, traumatic birth and difficult postpartum experiences. However, the women’s stories also reveal they have become stronger than they ever imagined possible, more thankful for every moment and that they plan to use all they have gone through to help others on their journey to parenthood.
Sessions are on the first Friday of each month from 9-12. $25.00 per registrant. Nursing babies are welcome but toddlers and bigger children hinder moms from active participation with the horses and therefore are not invited without an assigned care provider. Dress is casual, closed toed shoes required. Hats recommended. Bring your bathing suit and towel for pool relaxation time after session (optional). Breakfast and light lunch along with refreshments are included. We are celebrating our 6th year in June of 2023! Reserve your spot today. Message: Michelle@h2hbirthcenter.com