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Horses Provide Hands-On Healing for Troubled Kids

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Healing Partners Equestrian Therapy

When Rand Gurley came to Idaho she wanted to do two things - continue her work as a trained Psychotherapist working with children and families, and find some time to spend in her favorite hobby, horseback riding.

    This area might just be especially conducive to combining work and play, because Gurley (MSW, CSWP) has managed to do just that, with the launching of the Healing Partners Equestrian Therapy Program.

    To the watcher, what Rand and her group of enthusiastic volunteers are doing is teaching children to ride horses. But according to Rand, "What we do here is build a child's self-confidence and increase their awareness of their ability to have a positive effect in the world," she explained on a sunny weekend out at Cocolalla Creek Ranch.

    "For each (of these kids) the goals are different. Some kids might need to learn to hear better, to listen more, to understand and follow directions. For some children dealing with depression or post-traumatic stress disorder, gaining mastery and control over both themselves and their horse is a significant goal. For other children, learning to find pleasure without using and abusing themselves is paramount."

    Healing Partners is administered through North Idaho Community Mental Health, and works with guidelines set by the North American Handicapped Riding Association and the Equine Facilitated Mental Health Association. In fact, the down-home atmosphere of kids riding in a dusty arena is backed up by some cutting-edge research in the field of mental health and behavior.

    As children learn to ride, facilitated by a trained mental health professional, they learn a whole host of other beneficial skills as well. "Our program utilizes horse-centered therapy to work through emotional challenges and to improve behavior," explained Elizabeth Cunningham, a horse trainer and office worker at NICMH who's working hand-in-hand with Rand in the Healing Partners program. "Our goal is to develop life skills that include trust, honesty and reliability."

    "We determine success by evaluating a child's attitude, confidence level, things like their ability to follow through," explained Rand. "We see if they've learned to gain mastery over their emotions, learned things like how to tolerate frustration."

    "It can be so empowering," Elizabeth added. "These kids learn that they really can do anything they set their minds to." Elizabeth tells of one student who came to the program after losing his mother. "He was so very angry," she said. "He started out the program by kicking Rand in the shins. But by the time he was done, he was a totally different child."

    Rand and Elizabeth hardly work alone in this effort. Many days in the arena, there are as many support personnel as there are students riding, and most of those folks are volunteering their time. There's people like Dr. Rick Baker, a chiropractor in town who gives an enormous amount of time to the program; Dawna Grush, a ranch worker at Cocolalla Creek; Katie Rivera, a horse trainer who works with the students and horses both. Other supporters are Clearview Horizon, Inc. and Ruby Bartlett.

    Jess Schneider is another horse trainer who also teaches riding skills to students who may have never seen a horse before in their lives. "Some of these kids have never ridden before, and they're just scared to death," said Elizabeth. "But by the time they're done (with the program), they've learned to gently ask for what they want, and not to manipulate for it. They learn that about riding, but they learn that about life, as well."

    Tom and Marguerite Suttmeier own Cocolalla Creek Ranch and make their arena, and some of their horses, available for the group's work. Dick King, who runs McGhee's on Hwy. 200, provides horses for the kids to ride

    Clients find the program in a number of different ways - through referrals from mental health practitioners, government agencies like Juvenile Probation, and word-of-mouth recommendations from graduates who appreciate what the program has brought to them. And ideally, participation in the equine therapy program is an adjunct to more traditional therapy. "We don't do this in place of (traditional therapy)," said Elizabeth. "This is in addition to.

    "We try to have six to 12 participants in each class," she added. "And it costs about $400 to do a five-week course." Those fees are rarely paid by the students, who most often come from low-income backgrounds with little or no resources. Instead, they're paid through government programs, grants, and donations from folks who want to support the program. The fees are so low because so much of the labor is volunteer - even Rand is working for free.

    "I think the program is totally incredible," said one student, flushed and smiling after successfully cantering her horse around the arena. "I was scared at first, but I really can do this," she said.

    Occasional classes are only the beginning for what Rand and Elizabeth both envision as a much larger program. "Eventually we'd like to have our own arena, our own stock," Rand said. "We'd like to do this on a more frequent basis."

    "With (a bigger program) we could involve students in a dormitory setting," said Elizabeth. "They would really be undertaking responsibility for their animal, then."

    Until that time comes, however, both Rand and Elizabeth, and their crew of volunteers, will happily gather down at Cocolalla Creek, saddle up their borrowed ponies and help some children learn new lessons about the world.

    If you'd like to learn more about the Healing Partners Equestrian Therapy program, or make a donation to North Idaho Community Mental Health, call 208-263-8948


 

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Landon Otis

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