“With the help of equine-assisted therapy, women with eating disorders are finding some balance.” Dr. Lynda Brogdon

Located among the majestic oaks and canopied roads of Northern Florida lies a treatment facility for women unlike any other. Its natural beauty and pastoral peace work to combat one of modern society’s most formidable disorders. Its success, in part, rests on the shoulders of the horse, which gifts its spirit to program patients in the name of their recovery.

Canopy Cove, founded in 1990 by Dr. Lynda Brogdon, is the culmination of over twenty years of dedication to therapy and a life-long love of horses. Horses became part of her treatment team well before the term “equine-assisted therapy” was ever coined.

In the serene and peaceful setting of Canopy Cove Stables, surrounded by the beauty of flowering gardens, fountains and wildlife, she witnessed how helpful her horses could be in the healing process of her patients. The treatment programs at Canopy Cove offer a unique care plans that utilizes a natural environment to promote spiritual, emotional and physical recovery for individuals suffering from eating disorders.

Canopy Cove patients consistently list equine therapy as one of their favorites in their program, confessing that it’s the only time that they don’t think about their eating disorders. Some say they’re completely transformed when with the horses.

Dr. Brogdon’s equine therapy team consists of six horses, carefully selected for use in both residential and partial hospitalization programs. “With the help of equine-assisted therapy,” explains Dr. Brodgon, “women with eating disorders are finding some balance.”

The program’s treatment philosophy is based on the recovery model, a departure from the addiction model which presumes a person with an eating disorder will always suffer with that disorder, always in a perpetual state of recovery. Dr. Brogdon’s approach is distinctively different: “I truly believe a person with an eating disorder can recover.” She describes the struggle to recover as an internal battle between a woman’s true self and the part of her that is controlled by the eating disorder. “Our goal is to assist clients in stabilizing their physiological condition while helping them resolve underlying issues so they are able to move on,” she offers, but cautions that the recovery process is very individual and cannot be achieved with a mass produced formula.

The path to recovery usually takes anywhere from two to five years reveals Dr. Brogdon, with an average stay at Canopy Cove of 45 to 60 days. The nutritional, emotional and spiritual balance of each patient is considered. Women are offered a Christian perspective in a setting that welcomes participation by patients of any faith. With the same sensitivity to spirituality, patients are welcome to participate in the equine assisted therapy, but it is not required. But women who are at first hesitant to interact with the horses are often drawn to them after watching others work with the equine partners.

“The horses at Canopy Cove help women to discover themselves on the deepest, unspoken levels,” Dr. Brogdon shares. “Connection, balance, and self-confidence are strengthened as they learn to value themselves by valuing the horses.” The program relies primarily on ground work, symbolic exercises, or simply sitting on a standing horse to begin developing the patient-horse relationship. Horses demonstrate that worth does not reside in appearance. Therapy-based activities with the horses signify the irrelevance of externally-based value judgments, the very source of the culturally-based pressures bearing down on the self-image of eating disorder sufferers. Dr. Brogdon dispels the myth that people with eating disorders are competitive, pointing out that they are comparative and often perfectionists.

Modern society’s obsession with weight is a major contributor to the prevalence of eating disorders in today’s culture, and Dr. Brogdon points out that the “thin is in” movement has resulted in a marketing frenzy of low and no fat products that sometimes has more to do with the bottom line than nutritional health. Educating patients on proper nutrition and methods to achieve physical and emotional balance are pivotal to the program’s ability to assist women in taking back control of their lives. By observing the various nutritional plans of each horse, Canopy Cove patients are often better able to understand and appreciate their own dietary needs.

“Developing a trusting relationship with the horses can peal away many layers of emotional bondage that cannot be addressed in a clinical setting with classical therapeutic techniques and medication,” Dr. Brogdon stresses. The horses are particularly useful in boundary exercises, which is exceptionally beneficial for establishing self-control and self-respect in women whose boundaries have been violated. Freedom of expression and unconditional acceptance are the gifts of the horses in these exercises, invaluable tools for women working to liberate themselves from the grip of an eating disorder.

Dr. Brogdon defines the elusive quality of the human-horse bond as spiritual and sensory, difficult to be broken down scientifically but undeniably joyful. She describes the women she treats as disconnected from their bodies, numb to their true feelings. “They are struggling to feel anything – in some cases displaying self-injurious behaviors in an attempt to feel something, even pain.” Feeling is the key to self-understanding and recovery and it is the horses that often penetrate the emotional barriers, she articulates. “The ability of this particular animal to reach through the emotional numbness and open the floodgates of feeling is powerful,” she asserts. “Through the senses of sight, sound, touch, and smell, patients are able to connect with the horses and truly feel again.”

The beauty of equine therapy is the purity of simplicity, in the stripping away of complex emotional wounds and distortions of perception that confound women struggling with this formidable disorder. Horses are significant partners in this process as they assist program staff in their daily work to bring peace, balance and harmony into the lives of these women.

In a setting of natural beauty and pastoral peace, Canopy Cove extends to its patients an understanding, care and concern for all aspects of their well-being, not to mention the invaluable opportunity to form friendships with horses – a gift that can continually renew hope and give joy to courageous women on the road to full recovery.