FLORENCE — The rhythmic brushing of a horse's mane has healing powers.
A group of local women traveling similar breast cancer healing journeys channel that emotional and physical healing weekly during equine therapy sessions at Dr. Patrick Daugherty's barn.
The idea came from Daugherty and one of his patients, Amy Downey. Downey is a physical therapist and a breast cancer survivor. Daugherty is an oncologist.
Downey said not one of her doctor's recommended or even mentioned physical therapy after her double mastectomy, but soon after her surgery she knew she needed to do something to regain the strength and range of motion in her arms.
"You are split from armpit to armpit," Downey said. "There is no way you can't lose strength and lose motion."
Downey, personally, knew what to do, but she met so many women who had no idea.
So, Downey and Daugherty worked together to form a group for post-surgery breast cancer patients to use the horse's at Daughtery's property to provide multi-faceted therapy.
The women use grooming tools to brush the horses, reaching up and down and side to side. They use ropes to lead the horses, extending their arms and then reaching to hang the ropes in the barn. The group braids hair in the horses mane to work on dexterity.
Downey takes measurements to see the progress.
"I'm not a horse person," Downey said. "But, I am a physical therapist so I thought about the exercises and how they could be modified to be done with the horses."
Daugherty's wife, Becky, a licensed counselor, said the group works with some of the pair's smaller horses, but as they progress, they will bring in larger horses to increase the stretch and range of motion.
"It is much more engaging than telling a patient to walk their hands up a wall for physical therapy," Becky Daugherty said.
The action has women moving arms up and down, left to right and at angles. Downey said that better emulates a natural use of the arms than some traditional physical therapy exercises.
"We don't live life in straight lines," she said.
That's the physical part of the therapy. The emotional healing is just as much of the process.
The women did not know each other before this new therapic opportunity brought them together, but Carla Gasque quickly found a place of solidarity in the group.
"When we have talked about problems we have had, and I've said a lot 'I had that, too,' " Gasque said. "It is comforting to know you are not out on a boat by yourself."
Mary McBrayer, who was diagnosed with breast cancer in September of 2015, had a single mastectomy in November of that year and competed her chemotherapy treatments in July. She was anxious when approached about the equine therapy.
"A horse is a big animal, and I was naturally a little afraid," McBrayer said. "It's symbolic. Cancer is a big deal. I've learned to overcome the fear of the horses and cancer. I've learned to trust the horses and the people that are taking care of me."