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Horses aid in therapy, promote trust and empathy

By GHENI PLATENBURG/Victoria Advocate
Nov. 20, 2011 at 5:20 a.m.


VICTORIA, Texas (AP) - Like many teenage girls of the late 1960s and early 1970s, Garwood native Shirley Johnson got engaged to her high school sweetheart on graduation day.

But her wedding plans were cut short when her fiancée turned out to be a nightmare rather than the man of her dreams.

"The minute he gave me my engagement ring, I became his possession," said Johnson, who accused her ex-fiancée of being physically abusive.

A member of the Balusek family, who were well-known on the Texas rodeo circuit, Johnson looked to her horses for solace.

She found the strength then to end her abusive situation.

"I felt powerful on this horse, so why should I submit to this man," said Johnson. "I thought if I could control my horse, I should be able to control (my fiancée).

That was one of Johnson's earliest realizations that horses were good not just for riding, but also for therapy.

More than 20 years later, she is still using horses to provide therapy to herself and others.

"Horses give you strength," said Johnson, 59, owner of Stable Life Counseling Center. "They can be empowering."

And after nine years of working as a counselor and parent liaison with the Victoria school district, Johnson opened Stable Life in 2003.

The counseling center helps clients with anger management, career counseling, domestic violence, sexual assault, parenting, post-traumatic stress disorder and attention deficit disorder.

Treatment approaches when working with clients include phone sessions, Christian counseling, relationship counseling, solution-focused therapy and, most notably, equine or animal assisted counseling.

Equine therapy has been found to be effective in treating people with a wide spectrum of physical, behavioral, social, cognitive and psychological problems.

Building a relationship with an animal promotes empathy, affection, trust, loyalty, the ability to be in control of a situation, increased self-esteem, improved learning, concentration, ability to take responsibility, motivation to set and achieve goals and teamwork and problem solving, according to The Federation of Riding for the Disabled International.

In 2001, Johnson was a part of the first certification class for Equine Assisted Growth and Learning Association.

Although equine therapy is an internationally accepted and certified area of counseling, Johnson said it only started to gain respect within the counseling community in the past five years.

Although she has used other animals for therapy purposes, including a calf and her dog, Pumpkin, Johnson favors using her horses - Rojo, Red, Penny and Snowball - because of their unique ability to read people.

"Horses don't lie. Dogs do. Other animals do. You can beat a dog and abuse it, and it will still come for love. If you beat a horse, the horse won't come back until you earn that trust again."

Horses are often the therapy animal of choice because of their large size, social nature and distinct personalities, moods and attitudes, as well as the increased levels of beta-endorphins and beneficial feelings humans experience following interaction with horses, according to elementsbehavioralhealth.com.

"Horses are like a mirror," said Stable Life therapist Eva Aleman, who focuses on play therapy for children ages 12 and under. "If an individual is angry, that horse is not going to budge unless that person is calm and serene."

Sometimes just being able to pet the animals relaxes clients to the point that they open up about their situations, said the therapists.

"Mom thought it was something totally different," said Johnson, as she described a mother's reaction to her 4-year-old daughter opening up about being sexually abused by a relative during an equine therapy counseling session. She was totally surprised."

Aleman relayed a similar story about a boy who was unhappy about having to be cared for by foster parents because his mother was in jail.

She said the boy was able to accept his situation after interacting with an orphaned baby calf named Patches, for whom the therapists at Stable Life were serving as surrogate parents.

"He petted the calf and asked me was he sad," said Aleman. "It seemed to click. He leaned over and put his head on the calf's belly."

While some equine therapy consists of riding the horse, Johnson does groundwork therapy using the horses.

Some equine assisted therapies included walking the horse through obstacle courses and teamwork activities to put equipment on the horses.

One such activity entails a couple working together to put on a horse's bridle.

"You see how they communicate with each other. Sometimes, they start fighting."

Johnson supports equine therapy as an effective tool for just about anyone who is not abusive to animals.

"I would recommend therapy to people if they are where they are now and want to be somewhere else better, or improve or change, said Johnson. "If I didn't believe in therapy, I wouldn't be a good therapist."

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Information from: The Victoria Advocate, http://www.victoriaadvocate.com

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