COLUMBIA, Mo. - Therapists and counselors have used equine-assisted therapy to help people with learning, physical and behavioral problems. Now it's being used to help cancer survivors cope with the challenges and fears they face after treatment.

"It's thought that horses can reflect the emotions of the patient," said Marci Jennings, University of Missouri Extension equine instructor. "If a person is stressed, the horse can read and reflect that emotion back. With equine therapy, the idea is that if you can get the patient to see and work on the emotion, it can be overcome."

Jennings and Jane Armer, a professor in the MU Sinclair School of Nursing, organized a recent series of presentations on equine therapy and breast cancer survivorship on the MU campus. The program featured therapist Anna Schwartz, who demonstrated equine-assisted therapy techniques with four breast cancer survivors at the MU Trowbridge Livestock Center.

"When most people think of horse therapy, they think you have to ride the horse," said Schwartz, a nurse practitioner and research associate professor at the University of Washington. "But this kind of therapy focuses entirely on groundwork, communication and moving forward from challenges in people's lives."

Therapy sessions involve mostly nonverbal individual and group activities with horses. At the demonstration, participants tried to coax their horses over a log pole. Certain rules applied: they could not touch, talk to or bribe their horses to step over the poles.

The rules encourage participants to see how body language and behavior can affect interactions with others, Schwartz said.

"If you stand dead straight in front of the horse, it's not going to go. It will turn and run because that's a stop zone and it's threatening to a horse," she said. "If you're trying to get someone to move forward, either physically or emotionally, you want to stand behind him, or in a different relationship zone."

In a group therapy demonstration, participants worked as a team to convince a horse to jump over a low pole, which was to represent a life challenge of the group's choosing. The group decided the jump would represent fear of their cancer returning. Similar rules applied: no touching, bribing or talking to the horse. Talking to each other was also prohibited.

The horse did not make the task easy. Whenever the team tried to surround the horse or showed hesitancy about how to proceed, the horse stopped or moved away. Schwartz watched from the side and explained to the audience how the group's difficulty revealed problematic communication and behavior, and described the role the equine therapist would play during a session.

"This is a good exercise because they keep trying the same thing and it's not working," she said. "A lot of horse therapy is about being very quiet and very patient. I look for the ways the horses interact with each person. I watch for patterns, and when I talk about these with the participants, it might help them identify those patterns in other areas of their lives."

Schwartz said people often ask her why horses are best for this kind of behavioral therapy and not dogs or other animals.