Putting the good hoof forward: Reins of Change program uses horses with personalities to help humans see theirs
LOWER BLUE VALLEY – One is a child of divorce. Another’s 350-pound father was constantly on his back. The tall, pretty one plays sick to get attention. The hyperactive one knows how to push people’s buttons and test them.
A group like this might sound in need of therapy but, in fact, they’re the ones giving it. They aren’t people, they’re horses, part of the herd used by Reins of Change, an equine therapy program based at the Almond ranch north of Silverthorne.
The therapy isn’t as simple as taking a trail ride, said Helen Royal, a counselor with Colorado West Mental Health and a partner in the horse program. Actually, a client may never even get on the horse’s back during a session.
“It’s based on what our goal is for the session,” Royal said. “Sometimes, we just want to watch – a person is much different out here than when they’re sitting indoors telling us about themselves. Or, maybe we try to set up a situation in an attempt to elicit a realization.”
“B” Cassapulla brings her experience in horse behavior and animal husbandry to the program. Cassapulla says it’s amazing what interacting with horses brings out in people. She said it only took one client an afternoon to learn a lesson about what might be causing him problems at home.
“The first thing we do is hand them a bridle, tell them to pick out a horse and go get it,” Cassapulla says. “This lovable horse wouldn’t come with him no matter what he did. Finally, it followed. We asked him what he did that made a difference. He said, “Well, I tried different things to make the horse more comfortable.’
“It was like a light came on in his head, and he said, “I guess that’s something I should be doing at home.”
Cassapulla and Royal met through their love of horses. Royal was looking for ways to spend more time with the animals, and Cassapulla was looking for a way put her knowledge to productive use. Colorado West Mental Health gave Royal a $1,000 grant to develop the program. They tried working out of the Breckenridge stables on Wellington Road, but found the area too crowded for the privacy they sought.
A year later, the pair met Sarah and John Almond, who own the ranch north of Silverthorne where the program is now based. The women say other “fairy godmothers” came to the rescue, too: Their friend Dan Finholm built them an arena, and Greg Norwick of L.G. Everist provided sand and excavation services. And after attending a conference of equine therapists, the women say they had all the ingredients for success.
And the program is growing. Reins of Change now uses seven horses (owners are given discounts on boarding for lending their horses to the program) to help individuals and groups, adults and children with problems such as substance abuse, stress, domestic conflicts and social skills, among others. They get referrals from mental health groups, social services and hope to begin working with local probation officers soon.
The key, said Royal, is in the dynamics of a horse herd.
“They each have their own personality, but there’s also the herd structure,” Royal said of the horses. “There’s a dominant individual, and one at the bottom. They often pair up. We tell each client about each of the horses, and we process the decisions they make based on that.”
Taking clients outdoors with the animals can produce amazing revelations, the women say. A woman who had been in therapy for two years went to the ranch and refused to get her hands dirty. Royal says it didn’t take long to identify obsessive-compulsive tendencies, something that wasn’t noticed indoors. A similar observation led the therapists to uncover a child’s history of sexual abuse.
“They give you information that would never come out inside,” Cassapulla said. “It works for so many things. It’s so powerful.”
For more information call Colorado West Mental Health at (970) 668-3478.
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