Healing with Horses

Student uses Givens Fellowship to combat social anxiety

Healing with Horses

By Matt Markey

Tracy Rusch set out last year hoping to explore and discover, and possibly open a few doors along the way during a lengthy healing exercise. She and her horse Leroy would compete against some of the best barrel racers in the country in a series of equestrian events that Rusch believed could help her shake off a bout of social anxiety that had troubled her for years.

She and Leroy did the circuit, but it turned out to be much more than a few runs around the arena at sites here and there. And the benefits she received will extend far beyond just addressing the limitations Rusch had been battling.

“I found something I didn’t know was there,” Rusch said about her experience. “I can’t even describe it with words.”

Rusch, a 32-year-old non-traditional student and experienced equestrian, was awarded a Stuart R. Givens Memorial Fellowship last spring to fund a sojourn that stretched out over nearly seven months.

“I just drifted after high school and I just wasn’t sure what to do,” she said. “I’ve always struggled with social settings and confidence, and I’d noticed that since I had gone back to school, I’ve just thrown myself into school work and group projects were uncomfortable for me.”

But horses were always a source of refuge for Rusch, whose grandfather was an accomplished horseman. She spent countless hours of her youth mucking stalls, painting fences and rearranging jumps to pay for riding lessons.

Years later, as an undergraduate research assistant working toward a degree in dietetics, she had taken part in studies that focused specifically on the healing nature of the human-horse bond. Her fellowship work would examine this connection on a much more personal level during a series of competitions, while also using the required social interaction as a means to combat her anxiety issues.

“Horses have always been a good sounding board for me, and a good conversation starter,” Rusch said. “I wanted a project that would let me ease into new territory, and work on my communication skills, so this seemed ideal. Horses have always been my therapy.”

So with the support of the Givens Fellowship, Rusch set out to study this bond, work on her communication skills, and perfect her skills as a barrel racer. She attended clinics run by some of the most prominent educators in the equestrian field, and quickly saw the benefits of enhancing the connection between rider and horse, well beyond the boundaries of the arena. She soon discovered that she could assist others, while simultaneously chipping away at the barrier her social anxiety had built up.

“I had always thought of horses as my own personal, private and stress relieving means of having fun, but to be able to help people hone those skills and meet their goals outside the riding arena is an amazing experience I never thought I’d be capable of doing,” she said.

Rusch and Leroy worked the regional and statewide circuit and took first place in district competition, qualifying them for the National Barrel Horse Association World Show in Georgia in October.

“That is a goal I never would have set for myself before this experience took place,” she said.

“Going into the project, I had no idea how huge of an impact it would have on me as a person. The experiences I’ve had throughout this have helped me become a better listener and a better learner, and they’ve also helped me see the value in developing myself as a person.”

Rusch calls her lengthy competitive tour with Leroy “the ultimate non-traditional BGSU student experience” and admits that writing the proposal and presenting it to the Givens committee was a “terrifying” experience at the time. But she has been able to not only shed some of her fears, she also has moved so far past them that she is now very comfortable helping others.

“It was just so eye-opening that this could be a benefit for many, not just for me,” she said. “It seems like things that I have been working on for years came to light during this experience.”

Rusch, who intends to pursue a career in oncology dietetics and nutrition research, would also like to work in the field of animal nutrition. She hopes to become a certified riding instructor and develop her skills in equine therapy, working with women and children who have been abused.

“Before this, I limited myself, and discounted any ability that I might have to be able to help other people,” she said. “But I now see the real healing aspect – that when you help someone else get through their difficulties and reach their goals, it helps you, too. The outcome of this experience is more positive and far-reaching than I could have imagined, and it’s exciting I have so much time ahead of me to help other people.”

Inspired by the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill's Burch Fellows Program, the Stuart R. Givens Memorial Fellowship was initiated by friends of Dr. Givens to honor his passion for student learning. The Fellowship recognizes resourcefulness, imagination, and significant ability among Bowling Green State University undergraduate students by supporting self-designed off-campus experiences that will enable them to pursue a passionate interest in a manner not otherwise possible through an academic program, regular summer job, enrichment program, or organized study abroad program. To remain true to the spirit of the Givens Fellowship, students are encouraged to think broadly in shaping their projects; that is, to look beyond activities that relate to their field of academic study. It is expected that the experience will make a demonstrable difference in their lives and help them grow both personally and intellectually. To make a gift to support this, or other BGSU student programs, please visit bgsu.edu/give.