WALKING PAST A WOODEN BARN AND STAFF GROOMING HORSES, the Equine Healing Collaborative feels more ranch than therapist’s office. That’s the logic at work here – instead of in a two-way conversation inside an office, a client can be outdoors, feeling the wind and the sun on their skin and having a three way-interaction with themselves, a therapist and a four-legged participant: a horse.
“The main benefit of equine-assisted psychotherapy is that it reduces the stigma to access to mental health services,” says Jennifer Fenton, executive director of the Equine Healing Collaborative and a licensed marriage and family therapist.
Fenton combined her profession and her love for horses to create The Equine Therapy Collaborative nearly six years ago. Her first partner was her horse Nashville; now there are around 30 therapy horses and as many clinicians at three locations in Monterey and Santa Cruz counties.
In addition to minimizing stigma, horses also act as clinicians, Fenton says. They are able to detect subtleties beyond what she can assess, and they aren’t swayed by what a patient says with words. A horse’s behavior can indicate if the person isn’t doing well despite saying the contrary. The horse might choose not to engage, nor follow the activities they are asked to do. It is as simple as refusing to walk or get close to the patient. “If someone is genuine the horse will stay put and participate,” Fenton says.
Many of the horses at the Equine Healing Collaborative are retired, rescued or surrendered and some are part of it because their humans want them to keep having a purpose in life. One of them is Denali, a retired 28-year-old American Morgan horse with front leg issues who loves being around people.
Her human, Pam McClure-Roman, enrolled her about three years ago. “For Denali, this is her calling in life,” McClure-Roman says. “She knows who the clients are and she has her favorite therapists to work with.” She says her horse has found a new life and career of her own. Before, Denali would spend more time bored in her paddock. Since she became a therapy horse, McClure-Roman says she has been happier and brighter.
Some of the horses come from traumatic backgrounds, like their human clients. Fenton says the therapy is reciprocal between the person and horse and part of the treatment is also helping each other.
When someone decides to try equine therapy, they have a psychosocial evaluation to start, and get paired with a horse that a practitioner believes will connect and help them heal. Horses’ unique personalities range from sensitive to generous to stubborn. Fenton describes Nashville as a bully, and he gets paired with domestic violence survivors.
“He’s going to symbolize her abusive partner,” she says. Clients are coached in how to talk to him directly, through interactions that are meant to help them to become assertive and state their needs. One of Fenton’s clients was going through a custody battle, and Fenton says interactions with a horse helped her overcome years of abuse: “She was able to build that confidence back up.”
Because of Covid-19, sessions among children and teens experiencing depression and anxiety have increased. In 2019, the Equine Healing Collaborative provided 700 hundred therapy sessions; in 2020, it was 5,000. (In addition to kids, they also serve families, couples and more. Rates are $45-$165 per session, and they do accept health insurance.)
Clients don’t need previous experience interacting with horses. They start off by teaching clients about horses and how to safely interact with them and groom, feed and lead the animals.
Annette Pfister is a marriage and family therapist who has been working for four years at the Equine Healing Collaborative. She got interested in equine therapy 10 years ago when she had what she describes as “an amazing experience.” She was working with a little boy with autism, who could not touch people or look them in the eye. After less than an hour, while she was showing him how to groom and ride a horse, he seemed changed: “He actually threw his arms around me and gave me a hug,” Pfister says. “It was like this magic that happened with the horse and this child.”