The Healing Spirit of Horses


Spirit Reins was recently selected for a national campaign called the “Small Business Revolution.” The project involves filmmakers and photographers scouring the country for the nation’s most interesting small businesses, and they chose to make this very moving video about Spirit Reins.

Experiencing a traumatic event can break a person. It can also be inspiring. In 1999, Rhonda Smith walked away from a car that was obliterated by an 18-wheeler, save the driver’s seat she had been sitting in.

The emotional battle that ensued for the next year led Smith home to her family’s horse farm. There she gained a different perspective on horses than the one of responsibility and recreation she’d known growing up. The healing she drew from the horses became the catalyst for Spirit Reins, a nonprofit organization in Liberty Hill, Texas. Since 2003, Spirit Reins has been helping children who have endured trauma, abuse or neglect to form more healthy relationships with humans through their interactions with horses.

The children at Spirit Reins find it difficult or are unable to relate to other people. Medications and standard talk therapy have proven unsuccessful. “Spirit Reins uses a model of therapy [called Natural Lifemanship] that is based on the neuroscience of how the brain develops and how trauma interrupts or damages that development,” says Smith.

“Our clients experienced trauma in the context of a relationship, so relationships with other humans are hard for them,” she explains. “They develop unhealthy patterns of forming relationships where someone either rescues them or abuses them. With the help of the horses, our clients learn how to develop healthy relationships based on mutual respect, love and understanding—relationships that are true partnerships [and] change their lives forever.”

Horsemanship for Life

The horses on Spirit Reins’ 125-acre ranch bring to therapy a quality that humans can’t offer: unadulterated honesty. This is where the Natural Lifemanship program comes in, which employs horses to help clients gain physical and emotional self-control, even in stressful situations. During a rhythmic riding session, clients ride to the rhythm of music while working on self-regulation skills. In a groundwork session, they learn how to develop healthy relationships by connecting with the horses. The behaviors they learn carry over to their human interactions in everyday life.

“The Natural Lifemanship model is based on research that shows a child’s [mind] can heal itself through appropriate experiences that help form new pathways from the lower, survival parts of the brain to the upper, cognitive (thinking) regions of the brain,” explains Smith. “Because horses are prey animals, their brains develop with most of the connections in the lower, survival regions, just like a traumatized child’s [mind] develops. By focusing on regulation and relationships, this model of therapy makes lasting changes in the lives of the kids and families we serve.”

The Relationship Horse

There are 30 horses at Spirit Reins that help more than 100 children every week, ranging in age from 3 to 17. The majority of these horses are raised by Smith and her parents. Others are rescues, and a couple are owned and boarded there by staff members. The herd has changed little since the farm was established, and although the horses help many children at one time, they tailor their interaction to each child’s needs.

“The horses develop an individual relationship with each child, and those relationships vary as much as our clients do,” says Smith. “The best example is a teacher in a classroom with 20 kids. That teacher has a different relationship with each student based on individual personalities and needs. The horses do the same thing. Because horses live so much in the moment, they base their relationships with our clients on what is happening in each individual session, moment by moment.”

A child’s first experience at Spirit Reins is choosing a “relationship” horse, but sometimes it’s the horse that chooses the child.

“We share the story of each horse on the ranch, and we use that to help the kids find themselves in those stories so that they know they’re not alone,” says Smith. “Sometimes the kids pick a horse based on which one they feel safe with, or which one seems like it needs the most help, or which one is their favorite color. Sometimes the horses pick the kids. We have several horses that like a lot of attention and will follow a kid around for her whole first visit until the kid finally gives in and ‘chooses’ that horse. It’s an interesting process to watch and provides us with lots of opportunities to learn how our clients choose relationships in their life away from the ranch.”

Andrew and Joey at Spirit Reins

Healing with Horses

One of the greatest rewards for Smith is seeing a horse and child heal together, such as in the relationship between Andrew, 16, and Joey, a formerly wild Mustang. At the age of 9, Andrew was diagnosed with depression that became so severe he left school. The usual therapies hadn’t helped, and his mother was considering placing him in a residential program until she learned about Spirit Reins, where she enrolled Andrew when he was 14.

“Andrew had never been around horses before, but at Spirit Reins he formed a bond with Joey, a timid horse that had fearfully avoided human contact, and in whom Andrew no doubt saw a reflection of himself,” says Smith. “Andrew’s connection with Joey transferred to his life away from the ranch. He was able to enroll in school again and even catch up with his classmates. He has a new relationship with his siblings and his peers. He was able to stop taking all the medications he was on for depression, and is now actively engaged in making plans for his future. And Joey, the horse who once waited until the entire herd had left the hay bales to eat, now eats with the herd and plays with his friends. His life is just as different as Andrew’s!”

Although the interaction between horse and child is the focal point at Spirit Reins, Smith says a child’s success relies heavily on the involvement of the parents. “If we are able to help parents understand what is happening in their child’s brain and how that dictates her behaviors and emotions, we can make significant strides in helping the child,” she says. “We only get one hour a week with the kids we serve; parents are with these kids 24/7. By engaging parents in the therapy process and providing them with the tools they need to build healthy, healing relationships with their kids, we set the whole family up to be successful.”

To learn more about Spirit Reins, visit

KIM KLIMEK is a freelance writer in Kentucky who dreams of one day moving her family from the city to the country and owning an Icelandic Horse or two, or three.

This article originally appeared in the August 2015 issue of Horse Illustrated. Click here to subscribe!


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