Interview with Molly Sweeney, HHRF Founder

Interview with Molly SweeneyHHRF Founder, November 2015

-Will you talk a little bit about your background that led you to spend your time and energy helping HHRF come to existence and develop to where it is today?  

My grandfather was a professional horseman so I was lucky enough to grow up with horses. Our home in Chagrin Falls, OH, was connected to the barn, which was very nice on cold winter days. I have owned, cared for and ridden horses all my life. I discovered Therapeutic Horsemanship in 1990 when I donated a saddle to SIRE, our local program in the Houston, TX, area. They didn’t take the saddle, but took me instead as a volunteer and I have been with them ever since, in every capacity from mucking stalls to Board President. Then and now, I travel a lot and like to visit centers to learn what other programs are doing. I was asked
to join the NARHA, now PATH, board in 1997 and gained a
broader national and international perspective

-Do you remember the moment when you realized that HHRF should exist? 

In the 1990s, national and international horse-centered organizations seemed to be talking a lot about how the field needed research, as practically none existed then. I found a sponsor willing to fund getting people together to brainstorm what was needed to jump start research. Barbara Rector and Nancy McGibbon found a location in Arizona and helped organize the logistics. We brought together fundraisers, researchers and administrative people to lay out a plan for a Foundation to grant research grant awards related exclusively to Equine Assisted Activities and Therapies. The biggest problem was choosing a name! 

-Why did HHRF evolve to a model of funding competitive research instead of just conducting the research on its own? 

It is cheaper to fund other people’s research then our own and we wanted the competition to bring out the most talented researchers. As HHRF grows financially, an Institute to fund our own research is a possibility.

-What are you most proud of from the last 10 years of the organization's existence? 

Attitudes are changing. When we started HHRF, many individuals would say, “What do we need research for?” At last year’s PATH Conference, every session either mentioned existing research or areas where we needed more research. So “research” has finally become a household word.

More and more people in the horse world know about therapeutic horsemanship and have come to appreciate the value of the horse’s role as therapist. More countries are legally declaring animals as sentient beings, most recently Australia and Quebec, Canada.

-You are building not just a research base - but you also have the challenge of building a sustainable organization - what has been the most challenging part of that?  the most helpful?  success, failures

The most helpful person in building a sustainable organization has been KC Henry who stepped up and offered to administratively start HHRF as the Executive Director and has guided us for all 10 years.  She has been supported by hard working board members who not only govern effectively but have put in a lot of time, talent and treasure in building HHRF. The Scientific Advisory Council has gathered expert researchers to evaluate the grant proposals, and regularly review and strengthen the grant making process.

The challenge has come from convincing those in the therapeutic horsemanship field as well as the broader equestrian world that their financial investment in research is not only critical but that it will come back ten fold in support of all horse activities.  We know that many in the medical community have a very hard time accepting even the possibility of the healing power of horse.  But a few inroads have been made, even into the Veterans community. The light is dawning! It just takes time.

-What are key factors to success of HHRF? For example, how has input from the Sci Advisory Council shaped foundation work/direction?  (see above for Scientific committee contribution)

Key factors for measuring success for HHRF for me, are: 1) An ever broadening acceptance of and appreciation for the ability of horse to make us better people on many different levels; 2) Develop evidence based best practices in the field of EAAT; 3) Raise money to give more and larger grants; 4) Convincing the medical community and insurance companies of the intrinsic medical value of the many forms of EAA/T

-Looking back on the research that's come to light in the last 10 years, would you maintain that EAA/T as a method of therapy or rehab is superlative to other forms of therapy? How do you compare it to them? 

EAA/T is unique in that horse recognizes what we most need now, even if we don’t, and then chooses to help us connect with and meet that need, be it mental, physical, emotional, psychological, intellectual or even spiritual. In effect, horse can diagnose and holistically treat humans at the same time. This concept is rarely accepted in the field of medical treatments so comparison to other treatments is difficult. However my own and observed experiences would say that horse heals humans faster, gets to the deepest cause and works better than other treatments with zero side effects.

-Has the foundation arrived at it first decade anniversary looking like you expected - what has changed/been a surprise/different than your original vision? 

Funding has been a bigger challenge than we thought it would be.  Several grants didn’t quite measure up to what we expected in the execution of the process, not in the value of the results. We started with the idea of funding the best EAA/T research we could find, no matter the client base being investigated or what was being measured. For financial reasons we may now have to follow the money and fund what we can get donations for and who we can partner with.  The educational piece about understanding what the research means to the client is going to be more critical than originally thought. It’s all part of growth and all good in the long run. 

-What is your hope for the next 10 years at HHRF? 

Awesome financial growth. 

More corporate, government and nonprofit organization partnerships, nationally and internationally.  

The scientific world will develop testing methods that can begin to tell us exactly what is happening in the mind, heart, body and soul in the horse/human interaction. Heart rate variability measurements from Heart Math are looking very promising as well as some new types of electro-magnetic discharge imaging out of Russia that films auras.

An International symposium on “How/Why the Horse?” to gain expanded media attention as we look deeper into horse human partnership.

janet w.