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Animal Assisted Therapy at The Stables

Located on 25-acres in the rolling hills of the Great Smoky Mountains, The Stables at Pasadena Villa Smoky Mountain Lodge is a unique place where healing happens. As part of Autism Care & Support, The Stables offers a unique opportunity to interact with animals as part of their treatment. We use Animal Assisted Therapy with animals such as horses, sheep, goats, dogs, cats, rabbits, and even pigs and a donkey, to help individuals with autism gain self-understanding and emotional growth.

What is Animal Assisted Therapy?

the stables horse

According to the International Association of Human-Animal Interaction Organizations, Animal Assisted Therapy is “a goal-oriented, planned and structured therapeutic intervention directed and/or delivered by health, education and human service professionals.  Intervention progress is measured and included in professional documentation. This therapy is delivered and/or directed by a formally trained (with active licensure, degree or equivalent) professional with expertise within the scope of the professionals’ practice. Animal Assisted Therapy focuses on enhancing the physical, cognitive, behavioral and/or socio-emotional functioning of the particular human client.”

Animal Assisted Therapy not only supports our Social Integration Model but also provides a non-judgmental environment away from the traditional therapy session. When clients with autism arrive at The Stables they begin with individual, as well as, small group sessions with Recreational Therapist, Cathie Haviland (M.S. CTRS). A sensory assessment helps Cathie customize a program that meets the specific needs of clients with Autism Spectrum Disorder. Her goal is to holistically work with clients and in tandem with their individual/family therapist to provide highly individualized care. Her PATH International Registered Instructor and Equine Specialist in Mental Health and Learning (ESMHL) Certifications allow for an expanded Equine Assisted track to exist in the program. The individual and/or family therapist may team up with Cathie to do multiple sessions with the equine, specifically. Overall, Animal Assisted Therapy as part of Autism Care & Support is designed to increase an individual’s independence once they leave treatment and to give them to tools needed to eventually work at some vocational level.

Herd Dynamics

Therapeutic sessions begin with Herd Dynamics, which is modeling the animal relationships into the individual’s own dynamics. Horses are extremely social beings, as are humans.  Horses in a herd will determine who the leader is; however, this can change according to the situation.  For example, during the feeding process, a specific horse may always eat first, and then the others in a certain order/ pattern after that. A completely different horse may decide, during pasture time, when it is time to move to another part of the field.  Horses have a, sometimes subtle, way of communicating with each other… a swish of a tail or ear twitch may be telling the entire herd to move to another area.  One horse may be dominant over another, and a second over the third, and the third actually over the first.  Sometimes horses within a herd may form smaller ‘clicks.’  Herd Dynamics is also applied to other animals at The Stables.  A variety of family dynamics is represented amongst the animals at The Stables.

Herd Observation

The herd dynamics are observed during the first few sessions of Herd Dynamics, mostly in silence, with pencil and paper in hand for recording. During discussion/ processing, individuals begin to relate more to one horse than any of the others.  They can choose to “work” with a specific horse or may decide to be in the arena with all horses and see which horse chooses him/ her.  There are endless ways to accomplish this process, none particularly right or wrong.

Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA)

Additionally, we use Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) at The Stables, which is a scientific approach to understanding behavior. ABA refers to a set of principles that focus on how behaviors change or are affected by the environment, as well as how learning takes place. The term behavior refers to the skills and actions needed to talk, play, and live. While these principles impact everyone each day, they can be applied systematically through interventions to help individuals learn and apply new skills in their daily lives. The goal of ABA is to establish and enhance socially important behaviors. Such behaviors can include academic, social, communication, and daily living skills; essentially, any skill that will enhance the independence and/or quality of life for the individual.

Group Sessions at The Stables

For group work, Cathie has clients complete a life-skills sheet anonymously to help determine the group sessions.

goats at the stables

Group topics that have proven beneficial include:

  • Breaking Down Barriers
  • Trust
  • Boundaries
  • Self-sabotage
  • Healthy and Unhealthy Guilt and Shame
  • Uprooting Negative Messages
  • Communication
  • Relationships
  • Mindfulness
  • Self-Esteem
  • Emotions
  • Stress Management
  • Goal Setting
  • Self-Care

By utilizing evidence-based modalities combined with Pasadena Vila’s Social Integration ModelTM, we can provide a structured environment that ensures an atmosphere for a better potential for success. We understand that routine schedules and built in transitions are crucial for individuals with autism, and they need to know as much as possible, about ‘what’s next.’ Our program allows for that and more in a visually aesthetic and appealing environment.

 Find Support at The Stables

Cathie shares, “The team at The Stables are people who have lived this – we know that it works, and we know that this program will help people. When people feel like they can’t survive anymore, they find the hope they need here, and they embrace their journey. They don’t have to stay victim to their disorder. We are passionate. When people come to The Stables, they don’t just survive, they thrive.”

If you think that you or a loved one may be struggling with a mental health disorder, Pasadena Villa can help. We are here to answer questions and connect to care. Pasadena Villa currently offers treatment at two residential locations in both Orlando, Florida and Knoxville, Tennessee, and outpatient services in Cary, North Carolina and Charlotte, North Carolina. To learn more about our program, call us at
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