Therapy on horseback
Durango Herald, May 2008
By Dale Rodebaugh
If you're looking for an honest opinion, a friend or family member may boost your ego, but a horse will level with you.
That's the reasoning behind the growing field of equine therapy, according to Trish Lemke at the Medicine Horse Center in the Animas Valley.
The presence last week of a half dozen students from Escalante Middle School at the center, located at Riversong Ranch in the Animas Valley, bears her out. The students were there for two hours of experiential learning - defined as getting in touch with yourself and others.
There's no better way than through horses, Lemke said. The youngsters start and end their weekly session with a brief "focus" meeting in a teepee near the ranch arena and stables. Last week, before they groomed and took their mounts to the arena, the topic was trust - self trust and trust in their partner and their horse, Lemke said.
They discuss what they've learned in the post-ride recap, Lemke said.
"We're working on social skills and building self-confidence," said Chad Novak, a counselor at Escalante. "I've seen a lot of changes since we began five weeks ago. Our principal, Amy Kendziorski, is a strong believer that meaningful education experiences happen outside the classroom."
Escalante's pilot project at the Medicine Horse Center ends in a week, Novak said. But the school administration hopes to have two 12-week sessions next year - one in the fall, the other next spring.
The horse, one of human's oldest companions, has come to the fore in recent years as a means of building relationships and strengthening self-awareness that transcends species.
Horses, therapists say, are a stand-in for humans because they have individual personalities and moods and respond to humans in the same manner as they're approached by people. They meet aggressiveness with resistance, calmness with equanimity, gentle assertiveness with cooperation.
Equine therapy doesn't teach horsemanship but helps people develop trust, self-esteem and self-control, confidence, communication and assertiveness, therapists say.
"A horse is a great mirror," said Barb Wolfe, a licensed therapist who works with the Medicine Horse Center. "The horse shows people a lot about themselves."
"This is a wonderful program because it helps you get in touch with horses and feel good about yourself," said sixth-grader Deanna Hutton, 11, who is not new to horses. "Horses cheer me up." Deanna is the daughter of Marty Kay and Craig Hutton.
Tyson Young, a 14-year-old eighth-grader, was equally as enthusiastic.
"Horses have different personalities," said Tyson, who is the son of Mindy and Shane Young. "I'm real active so I connect better with Brooke (a thoroughbred mare). She doesn't need a halter."
In the arena last week, the students mounted steeds with only minimum tack - a bareback pad and a halter. Lemke explained that without a saddle, students feel more connected to their mount.
At the end of the session, Tyson hugged the neck of his horse.
"We tell them we've had a really good time," Tyson said. "We hope to see them again."