Breaking News
More () »

How Cleveland police are finding benefits from equine-assisted therapy

One of program's goals is teaching officers 'the ability to hit someone else's storm with their calm.'

GEAUGA COUNTY, Ohio — One horse farm in Chester Township is only a 30-minute drive from downtown Cleveland

But for some visitors it can feel a world away.

Greenspace is a stress decompressor for all, and especially those who witness trauma daily -- like first responders.

"We all have different things we are going through. This is everybody, not just policemen," said Capt. Timothy Maffo-Judd, who is with the Cleveland Division of Police.

He's also a mindfulness instructor.

"Sometimes police officers see things on a lot higher volume than regular people. And this lets us kind of combat those feelings, emotions and a way to deal with those things."

"This" is In Step With Horses, a non-profit 501c3 connecting people with animals and nature for improved mental health.

Cleveland police saw a fit for its officers.

"My assignment is to help police officers with issues they might deal with on the job, in their personal lives. We establish programs that help them deal with stress, trauma, all of that."

Det. Chris Gibbons works with the Employee Assistance Unit. Earlier in his career, he was partnered with Stephanie Murphy. As a yoga instructor she helped Gibbons see the benefits of breathing techniques and mindfulness for officers.

Credit: WKYC
As prey animals, horses are experts at reading and reacting to body language, other nonverbal cues and energy.

"It literally changes the makeup of your thought process, your feelings. The breath makes a chemical change within your body. It actually affects your fight-or-flight response within the body," Murphy shared.

The horses allow officers to put all they've learned from yoga, breathing and mindfulness into practice.

"The horse is such a good reflection of where we're at emotionally. They're really highly tuned to people's emotional states around them," Gibbons shared.

The officers then demonstrated how it can work.

In Step with Horses Co-Founder and Clinical Director Chris Goodall has them do an exercise in which they approach a horse with mind, breathing and energy unchecked.

Gibbons says it's the kind of energy they often see with younger officers, who haven't been on the job as long.

The horse responds by turning and moving away. In another instance, it raised its head and pinned back its ears.

"They are very responsive to us and to our energy. They help to reflect things that we are not even aware of that we are putting out into the world," said Goodall.

The team regroups with Sgt. Murphy, centering themselves, using breathing techniques she teaches.

"You approach them in a way that you get that same response back. So when you can take that breath, listen, be calm, you, most of the time, you calm that person down as well. So it definitely, it affects the job, and it affects how we deal with the people that we work with in the community," Murphy said.

The officers try it again with a much better outcome.

"The horse reminds us what it's like to be dealt with by the police. It can be intimidating and scary. So we try to be conscious of the energy that we're bringing, what the uniform means to people that we encounter," Gibbons said.

A second exercise involves leading a horse through an obstacle without touching it. This is much harder.

"It's teaching us to be a team, but also to be flexible and be willing to change our approach. To say, 'Let's go with what's working here and let's try things.' If we make a mistake, we can revisit and we can, we can circle back and try and do it again," Gibbons said.

The hope is that all aspects of the program: The breathing, yoga, time in nature, and horses will help improve officers lives, and make a difference in the way they respond to the community they serve.

"One of the most important things we're teaching the police officers is having the ability to be able to hit someone else's storm with their calm." Goodall said. 

"I've seen some of the toughest men and women come through this program. And it's through word of mouth that more and more officers come into the program every year," Maffo-Judd said. 

In Step with Horses offers many different programs for individuals, adults and families. You can learn about them HERE

Editor's note: Video in the player above was originally published in an unrelated article on Jan. 25, 2023.

Before You Leave, Check This Out