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MSU Billings partners with nonprofit to offer equine therapy to students

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Posted at 6:17 PM, Sep 19, 2022
and last updated 2022-09-19 20:17:01-04

BILLINGS — Montana’s suicide rate is among the highest in the nation, with depression being a huge problem under the Big Sky. That’s one reason MSU Billings is thinking outside the box to try and treat students’ mental health needs, and it all starts with horses.

Horses can hear a heartbeat from four feet away, which experts say makes them well-equipped to help people struggling with mental health.

“They can sense anxiety if your heart beats up. But also, within 30 minutes of being around a horse, a human and a horse heartbeat will sync,” said Amanda Tusler, program developer and lead instructor for Horses Spirits Healing on Highway 3 north of Billings.

That means they’re the perfect animal to help with anxiety and depression, and that’s exactly what they do at Horses Spirits Healing.

“We do therapeutic riding, equine-assisted psychotherapy and equine learning, equine-assisted learning I should say,” Tusler said.

Horses Spirits Healing is a nonprofit that offers free equine therapy to veterans, and now students at MSU Billings.

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“Our data shows that our students face a lot of challenges, you know, moderate to pretty significant levels of psychological distress,” said Darla Tyler-McSherry, MSU Billings director of student health services.

Students who qualify for the eight-week program will be able to visit the nonprofit once a week, where they’ll learn basic foundational skills such as horse safety and grooming procedures. However, unlike typical riding lessons, a mental health professional will also be present.

“They’re also going to learn a lot of skills to help regulate depression, anxiety, how they can ground themselves if they’re not feeling present,” said Tusler.

Tim Biondich was in the military for 27 years. He’s been using equine therapy with his horse, Wrinkles, for the past two years.

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“You get to where you really have a relationship with these guys. And then consequently, that relationship helps you be a better person,” Biondich said.

In a state like Montana, where depression rates are high, MSU Billings hopes to offer a unique solution to struggling students.

“We know that students deal with depression and anxiety and this kind of program has been shown to be effecting in dealing with those kinds of issues, as well as trauma issues,” Tyler-McSherry said.

The program will offer activities focused on emotional regulation, developing trust in a safe environment, and improving decision-making skills.

It’s a four-legged approach to a complex and multifaceted problem confronting not just students at MSU Billings, but students all across Montana.

If you’d like more information on the nonprofit, visit Horses Spirits Healing Inc. | Facebook.