A Horse to Heal

Justine rides at Taylor Made Farms in San Martin.

Therapist finds much success in using horses to treat various
psychological ailments
San Martin – Atop Rocky there’s no couch, no tissues, no stern Jungian waiting for my life story and nothing to hang on to.

Martha McNiel has me recite the alphabet, a trick – she calls it a technique – to get me to breathe. She asks about my favorite nursery rhyme, and tells me to sing my favorite song.

“Reach forward and tug on his ears, hug him, tell him he’s a good boy,” McNiel says. “You’re a good boy, Rocky!”

I do. Rocky, a stout pony with a shaggy blond mane, is a good boy. Even though I probably weigh too much for him, he’s not going to drop me.

I begin to relax and so does Rocky. He lets out a breath that sounds like’s he’s flapping his lips. Plbblbbllllbbb.

“Did you hear that?” McNiel asks. “He’s relaxed. When you relax, he relaxes.”

Then it’s time to go. My first ride on a horse, and my first therapy session at DreamPower Horsemanship, in the role of a 10-year-old Romanian adopted from my homeland when I was five.

I’m suffering from reactive attachment disorder, a common problem with adopted children. I don’t want to be close to anyone, least of all my new parents.

So McNiel puts me on a horse in her office in San Martin – if a riding arena at Taylor Made Farms can be called an office.

A true believer in the healing power of horses, McNiel is pioneering the field of equine-assisted psychotherapy. Whether it’s children with severe emotional problems, former gang members or adults with relationship troubles, McNiel, a licensed marriage and family therapist, helps them on horseback.

“Instead of going into your therapist’s office and sitting in a chair and looking at each other, we do the same thing in a more experiential way,” McNiel said recently. “There are a lot of programs that use animals to assist in therapy. The interesting thing about a horse is that people recreate their human relationships.”

McNiel says grief, depression, anxiety, abuse and nearly every other psychological ailment and disorder can be treated as effectively on a saddle as on a couch. In a single day last week, she and her staff worked with a 7-year-old autistic girl learning motor skills, a 57-year-old woman taking confident rider classes, an 80-year-old retarded man who dreams up growing up to be a cowboy and a handful of teens with a variety of serious emotional and mental problems.

“We work with a lot of teenagers,” McNiel said. “Some we work with are from court-ordered drug treatment programs, gang members, kids with a violent past. Some are referred by teachers and some come from other therapists. Often, they’ve tried other kinds of psychotherapy and it hasn’t worked.”

Small Successes

McNiel, who’s been a therapist since 1993, created DreamPower in 2002. She was inspired to start the program, she said, by Sept. 11. At the time, she was commuting from the North Bay to her practice in San Francisco.

“I really expected that the Golden Gate Bridge was the next thing that was going to be blown up,” McNiel said of the day the World Trade Center and Pentagon were attacked. “I really feel like I was placed on this earth by God to have an equine-facilitated therapy program. I decided that if I was going to be blown up I didn’t want to go to heaven and never get around to doing the thing I was sent here to do.”

So inspired, McNiel became certified with the North American Riding for the Handicapped Association and moved to San Martin. DreamPower is one of five NARHA-certified programs in California and one of just two where therapists work primarily with mental health patients. NARHA representative Ainslie Kraeck called McNiel one of the leaders of her field.

“She’s absolutely wonderful,” Kraeck said. “She has a lot of training and experience and is very willing to help people coming up who are interested in the field.”

McNiel relies on a volunteer staff, all of whom are certified equine therapists or interns working toward certification. Jessica Pinto, who grew up in Mill Valley, began working at DreamPower just a few weeks ago.

“Working with these kids in incredible,” she said in a break between lessons this week. “First of all they’re teenage boys, who are hard to reach anyway, and you see them down on their knees talking baby talk to the minis. One kid chose the puniest mini to be his horse and said he did it because all the other horses ganged up on him, and that’s how he felt. They open up without realizing it.”

Those small steps, the connection with an animal, the ability to talk about their past or their feelings, is how progress is measured at DreamPower, Pinto said. “Those little things are why we’re all here. Everything here is in baby steps and small successes. If you can’t focus on small successes, it’s overwhelming.”

For Jakki, a 7-year-old autistic girl, the small success is that she’s now brave enough to let go of the reins and raise her arms as her therapists lead her horse in circles. In just a few weeks, she’s gained balance and motor control. She’s having fun on the horse.

“Her mom’s biggest goal is for her to have balance,” said Garry Stauber, who volunteers dozens of hours a week at DreamPower and leads its board of directors. “Sometimes our goals are different. We also want to build confidence so later in life she’ll be comfortable on a horse.”

Stauber also works with Marsha Larson, a 57-year-old San Jose woman who’d been riding for 17 years, but lost her confidence after a series of falls from her Arab, Spark. Larson still loves to ride, but she’s terrified of falling.

“I love horses and they are my passion, but it’s not natural for me ” she said. “They are very sensitive to my fear. I get fearful, I clinch up, I lose my balance and I lose my seat.”

Stauber said that Larson has no “kinetic awareness.” When she closes her eyes she loses track of her relationship to her surroundings. He has her riding T.C., a 21-year-old quarter horse known for being “too cool.” He’s the right horse for Larson because he’s calm and predictable, and will help her be comfortable.

“All of our clients come here with a dream,” Stauber said. “It’s our desire to make those dreams come true, no matter what they are.”

Lasting Effects

The kids who attend DreamPower must complete an eight-week course with miniature horses before they can ride a full-size horse. And before they can ride, they have to learn to groom, lead and halter.

“What I want to know is that they can control their temper and follow directions,” McNiel said. “In three years, I’ve only asked two kids to leave and they were kids who threatened to hurt the horses. We work with risky kids, kids many places wouldn’t take, but have to be very bad [to leave the program].”

People give themselves way with horses, McNiel said. Teenagers with a rough and tumble background tend to be rough with the horses. Kids with a poor self-image are afraid of even the minis. Adults act with horses the way they do with people.

“If you are very passive and allow yourself to be walked over by the other people,” a horse will do the same, McNiel said. “Horses will swing their head and bump into you, step on your feet, push you of the way. Many times women will not set proper boundaries. We work with them to identify proper boundaries and have the horse respect those boundaries.”

Relationships and they’re assorted dangers are under constant discussion at DreamPower. Patients have many problems in common, but none more so than an inability to form a proper, trusting relationship of any kind. DreamPower is set apart not just by the horses, but by an atmosphere that encourages patients to bond with their instructors.

“The needs of these kids are so complex, we need to know the whole person,” McNiel said. “We want the kids to get attached to the horses, and if they happen to get attached to us, that’s OK. We want them to care for an animal and develop a relationship with an animal that’s a really safe relationship.”

And the animals are used to strengthen relationships between people.

In my case, back in the role of a 10-year-old boy rebelling against my adoptive parents, Rocky is helping me learn to trust my mother.

McNiel tells me again to sing. I’m quiet because I’m embarrassed, and worried that I’ll give something away if I sing the first words that pop into my head. Now I’m nervous and feeling vulnerable.

McNiel rescues me by singing “Row Row Row Your Boat” with me until she’s sure I’m comfortable, and leads me around the arena as I learn to give Rocky basic commands: “walk on” and “whoa!”

Then, at McNiel’s direction, I spin around and sit facing out over Rocky’s tail while my “mother” leads the horse.

With a spotter beside me in case I start to slide, my mother leads me safely around the arena. I stretch out and scratch Rocky on the rump and tell him he’s a good boy. I lean forward and hug his behind. He exhales.


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