Shelter Animal Reiki Association

Shelter Animal Reiki Association

When abused, neglected horses wind up in sanctuaries, they find the support and vet care they so desperately need. When those same horses land in a SARA sanctuary, they get all that–and more. A look at how Reiki is changing the way horses are rehabilitated.

By Charlotte Jensen

Leah D’Ambrosio, Reiki teacher and co-founder of SARA, was training students at Pregnant Mare Rescue in Aptos, California, when she first encountered Las Vegas Dancer. The former racehorse, a new arrival saved from slaughter, made it crystal clear she wanted nothing to do with Leah or the class. But as the other horses in the pasture lined up along the fence to soak up the Reiki energy, Las Vegas Dancer couldn’t help but watch curiously from a distance. Before long, the mare approached with cautious steps and ultimately pushed the first horse out of the way. “She continued to go down the line, pushing horses out of the way to get Reiki from their person,” D’Ambrosio says. “And when she got to the last person, she turned around and started over.”

It wasn’t the first time she had witnessed a fearful horse demonstrate this kind of monumental shift. “Horses come to these places feeling insecure and unsure of themselves,” says D’Ambrosio, who has volunteered at Pregnant Mare Rescue for two years. “Reiki helps bring them back into balance and gets them to a place of trusting their caregivers.”

Bringing abused and neglected animals of all kinds back to a place of trust is a critical challenge faced by shelter and sanctuary volunteers and employees worldwide. Reiki programs endorsed by the Shelter Animal Reiki Association (SARA), the only nonprofit of its kind, support animal caregivers by giving them an easy-to-use, holistic therapy complementary to the care they already provide.

The system of Reiki was developed in the early 20th century by Mikao Usui. The original purpose of the system was spiritual development, but in modern times the emphasis has evolved as a system of energetic healing that uses specific Japanese meditative practices and breathing techniques.

Today, Reiki is successfully utilized to support healing in medical settings such as hospitals, cancer centers, hospice programs and AIDS clinics all over the country. And as Reiki steadily gains acceptance and respect from doctors and patients alike, it’s only natural that those who have experienced Reiki for themselves ultimately want to share it with their beloved animals.

It’s a chilly Friday morning the day I tour Remus Memorial Horse Sanctuary, one of SARA’s founding shelters, located in Essex, England. Established in 1983, Remus was formed to address the plight of abused, neglected and starving horses in the area. Today, nearly 200 animals–horses, donkeys, pigs, sheep, goats and cats–call the peaceful, 40-acre sanctuary home.

In the early days, Remus relied on traditional veterinary methods to help the animals in its care. But today, holistic modalities like Reiki take center stage. The move is indicative of a growing trend as an increasing number of shelter and sanctuary owners and veterinarians investigate–and embrace–nontraditional approaches.

As Caroline Thomas, volunteer and SARA teacher, walks me through Remus’ outbuildings, stables and lush, misty grounds, her passion and dedication to the animals becomes quite evident. She’s the one who introduced Reiki to this sanctuary–and Sue Burton, founder of Remus, couldn’t be happier with the results.

“We love it,” Burton says. “It’s just so useful to them–[it] puts them in a better place emotionally to deal with what they’ve got.”

For Bugs–one of Thomas’ favorite horses at Remus, a 20-year-old “gentle giant” who suffered from one of the worst cases of chronic arthritis their vets had ever seen–that meant helping the mare deal emotionally with the challenges of post-op recovery. “Her walking became so difficult that it was feared she may need to be put to sleep,” Thomas explains. But Remus never gave up on Bugs, and after raising £3,000 ($4,800) from the public, the mare was able to have a life-saving operation. “Reiki has helped her to cope with the box rest that she needed to help her heal, which meant long days and nights in her stable. Each time I offered her Reiki, she was so bright, chilled and very happy.”

In Chelsea, Vermont, at the Hooved Animal Sanctuary, Reiki helps the horses feel something special they’ve probably never felt before: love. “Since these horses are usually coming from a neglect situation or even heading for the slaughterhouse, the pure love of Reiki may be the only love they have ever felt,” says Kelly McDermott-Burns, who has taught Reiki classes at the sanctuary since 2008. “The stress level for these horses is very high of course, and Reiki can help them relax and maybe even trust a little so they can begin to heal.”

According to Lynn Hummer, founder and president of Pregnant Mare Rescue, “What I experience with every Reiki session is the visual confirmation and then the physical benefits. The horses relax and settle in. One gelding consistently benefits from his treatments. He has a sore hip and moves much better after treatment. He will roll and stand, shake and then throw a buck as he takes off. That to me says, ‘Thanks! I feel good!’ ”

But part of what makes Reiki so special, Hummer adds, is that the therapy goes beyond its healing capabilities. “Reiki is a visual testimonial to horses being sentient,” she says. “Broadly speaking, it denotes beings with consciousness or sentience. You can see horses participate in Reiki. You can experience horses from two stalls away wanting to participate in the Reiki session. Their ears prick, they stand at attention facing the energy, sometimes kicking the stall wall in an attempt to communicate, ‘I want in; I want to be closer!’ Horses at liberty or in the pasture will come and stand, close their eyes, exhale and enjoy. It’s very moving to watch, and I feel very connected to the horses.

“[Reiki] has become a necessary part of our healing commitment to our beloved equines,” Hummer adds.

These kinds of positive results following Reiki sessions with animals actually served as part of the inspiration behind SARA’s launch in 2008. “I noticed in my work with horses that they often show dramatic responses to the energy during treatment,” says Kathleen Prasad, SARA president and co-founder, who has worked with horses and Reiki for more than a decade. “I’ve seen even huge skeptics become interested in learning more about Reiki when they see a horse receive a treatment.” Today, SARA dedicates its efforts toward bringing Reiki programs to animal sanctuaries worldwide.

As more and more shelters open up to the idea of Reiki, more animals like Bugs and Las Vegas Dancer will be able to benefit. Nina L. Margetson, executive director of Horse Haven of Tennessee Inc. in Knoxville, which has been rescuing horses since 1999, was initially skeptical when she first heard of Reiki. “But I allowed it as long as the activity didn’t cause any harm to the animal. I have a very open mind.” Reiki is now a mainstay at the sanctuary.

Indeed, when those in the field see firsthand how Reiki helps the horses in their care, they use words like “spectacular,” as Margetson now does, to describe the results. “I have watched volunteers doing this out in the paddocks with the horses and have seen once frightful horses learn to trust and show curiosity to the people performing it,” she says. “I have also seen volunteers become more relaxed around the horses, and the only way I can describe it is there is a calmness at the barn. Horses are less restless after a session, and volunteers have an unseen connection with the horses.”

Anxiety, arthritis, tumors, cancer, colic, Cushing’s disease, chronic emotional problems, end of life-no matter what a horse’s problem, Reiki can attend to it in some way. “The real beauty,” says Carrie Dorsey-Higdon, who introduced Reiki to Horse Haven one year ago, “is that there is no situation I have encountered in which Reiki is not the perfect fit.”

Charlotte Jensen, communications and media relations manager for SARA, is an internationally published journalist based in Orange County, California.