Managing depression: how horses help and heal

Originally posted on Elephant Journal

Author: Nikki Hodgson

It’s been five years since I boarded a bus with a duffle bag in one hand and my passport in the other, looking over my shoulder as the West Bank, Israel, and Gaza faded from sight and Egypt came into view.

I spent three days in Dahab, sitting at the edge of the Red Sea, trying to piece myself back together before I realized I needed help. Depression has been a longstanding struggle, but my work in conflict zones had put an added strain on an already fractured heart. I collected stories of human rights violations and folded them into my notebook, one splintered life at a time, and the weight of it all snapped my heart in two.

Sitting in the middle of the Sinai, I wanted the mountains I had grown up with and now, five years later, I am still here, watching the Flatirons and the red-winged blackbird. I have carved out a place in the corner of an equine-assisted psychotherapy facility, but the old memories stick to my ribs, wedged into my throat, they press against my chest. And so I am still here, exploring old dirt roads and the contents of my heart on the back of my favorite horse.

I chose a different life than the one I had imagined. I thought I would always be living out of a suitcase, but I was only trying to stay one step ahead of the depression I couldn’t shake. I needed to learn to stay and manage it. But I miss the sound of my Converse against the worn stones of ancient cities. I miss the hard blue sky and all that soft beige stone.

I haven’t forgotten the sound of a tank crushing stones and discarded cans in the street. I haven’t forgotten the hang of a rifle or the spiraling arc of a tear gas canister. When I close my eyes, I see the snake of traffic slithering across bare hills and the looping curl of barbed wire adorning every checkpoint. I haven’t forgotten the way a sheet drapes over a body and the way the blood gathers between those ancient stones.

When I came to Colorado, I forced myself to stay. For a few years, I said, just for a few years until I can understand the things I have seen and the way my heart has crumbled. But it’s been almost five years and I am still here; I have put my roots so deep that when the winds of my restlessness rage, I remain.

My life is tied to this place and the thirty horses who inhabit it, to dawn feedings and mucking stalls, to the dust that curls into the air and settles into the creases of saddles and boots and dilapidated wheelbarrows. It is reflected in the green eyes of the barn cat who slips in and out of shadows. It is connected to the people and horses who arrive here, limping through their old wounds and trying so hard to be brave. I watch them come and go, learning to take deep breaths, to accept help, to trust, to manage the darker emotions that keep us running from ourselves.

But my eyes are always searching the horizon. Horses symbolize travel and freedom and connection and all of the things my heart craves, but learning what these horses have to teach has required me to tie myself to a place I cannot leave. It has required a patience and vulnerability beyond anything I have ever known. It has required a willingness to wait, the humility to know when to step back and the confidence to know when to push forward.

I have loved horses from the age of three. I have always sought their company, but the practice of sitting comfortably with vulnerability is still one I have yet to master. When I arrived in Colorado, I was on the losing side of a constant battle with depression and anxiety. I didn’t want to stay still. I wanted to outrun my pain and the memories that cause it, but I forced myself to stay and I reached out to the only thing I knew had the power to make me stay: horses.

So now I am here, working at an equine-assisted psychotherapy facility. I have acquired a stubborn horse and a rambunctious heeler puppy. I am trying as hard as I can to stay still, to take deep breaths and lean into my anxiety. There are still days when I wonder if I chose wrong, if I should still be shifting quietly in the desert sand, all of my possessions in a duffle bag and my heart breaking, but free to roam. Restlessness is always wondering what if and there are no satisfactory answers to the questions we pose about the chances we never took and we cannot take them all. I thought I could run forever and that I would find relief in that, but I didn’t. Now my entire world is tied to one place and as restless as I get, I know I cannot leave.

Depression is a daily struggle. Some days I can hardly get out of bed, but the horses must be fed and the dog needs a walk. These animals are carefully leading me through the landscape of my own broken heart, helping me to pick my way through memories of soldiers and sadness, of civilians caught in the crossfire of political ambition and a radical ideology.

Horses are herd animals, hypersensitive to their environment and to the emotional state and body language of those around them. Horses respond to how we feel rather than what we say. I spent so long pushing down my emotions, trying hard to forget. They force me to remember. They force me to face what I fear and what I fear is that one day, my depression will win. 

It backs me into a corner every time. It makes me feel alone. It makes me wish I felt nothing because it is better than feeling everything. It cancels out hope. But horses have always patiently carried us where we asked to be taken and I asked to be taken to a place where I could find healing.

Over the past three years, my horse has carried me through every anxiety attack, standing quietly while I grab fistfuls of mane and cling to him until I can breathe again; he has pushed me harder than I thought possible. He has shown me that love can take hard knocks and old memories, that when my pain brings me to my knees, there will always be someone willing to sit with me until I am ready to make it back to my feet. He has taught me that vulnerability is terrifying, but it is necessary for connection and connection is key to managing depression. He has forced me to tell him the things that I needed to tell myself. The things we don’t tell ourselves or one another often enough. “You can do this. We will work through this. It’s okay to be afraid. I will protect you. I will take care of you. Mistakes are allowed. Imperfection is okay. I forgive you. I admire your bravery, your strength, and your willingness to try.”

Our hearts know what they need and mine has always told me horses, even before I broke it into a thousand pieces with a sadness I could not name. I am restless. My anxiety burns when I stand still and there is temporary relief in running away. But I have seen this same anxiety in my horse and I have always asked him to stand his ground and he has always listened, pawing the ground nervously, but in place with his ears attuned to what he trusts. In training my horse to face his fears, I have had to come to terms with my own. In teaching him to counter his instinct to run away, I have had to learn to sit with my own instinct to run away.

This is not easy. It has taken a commitment to a different kind of travel, walking the same paths between these old barns over and over and over again, trying to take new hopeful things from old painful memories.

I spent three years circling the perimeter of the Medicine Horse community, keeping my head down and my thoughts to myself, mucking stalls and sweeping mats, before I found the courage to look up and reach out. But I am learning to trust that my peace of mind is here, somewhere between all of this dirt and the outstretched wings of a soaring hawk, somewhere between the sound of hooves striking farm roads and the yipping of the coyotes and rusted walls of an old dairy barn.

It has been five years since I stood in the desert, with a keffiyeh in one hand and a notebook in the other. It’s been five years since I gathered the pieces of my broken heart and fractured mind and pointed my feet to a place where they could learn to stand their ground. It’s been five years since I stood at a crossroads near an old Egyptian border crossing and watched an over-worked horse walking slowly down the road and my heart said, “follow that.”

And I did. One careful, unsteady footstep at a time. Until I got to a place where I fell to my knees and a community of horses and people helped me back to my feet. I know now that as restless as I get when my anxiety burns a hole in my heart, I chose wisely. I chose horses. I chose my mental health. I chose connection. I chose vulnerability.

I chose me.

 

Originally posted on Elephant Journal

 

MHP Volunteer Notes: Slick Returns!

By Kate Ingmundson

It is a warm August evening at Medicine Horse. When I walk through the front gate, I see Tabs in the distance, leading Mischief to one of the barns. She waves and tells me that Slick has come back.

Slick is a handsome bay quarter horse with a long, thick black mane. He has been a therapy horse at Medicine Horse for ten years, give or take. Slick has been here longer than any of the other horses, except maybe Suzy, who is old and wise. He has been “on vacation” in a neighbor’s pasture all summer, and I have missed him. I gather brushes and a halter, and go to get him out of his pen.

I think he remembers me, even after a summer apart. At least, he remembers that I used to give him carrots. Slick turns his head and looks at me with a particular expression on his face, which is how he asks for carrots. We don’t generally hand-feed the horses (sometimes it makes them nippy), but I can give him bits of carrot when he is doing “carrot stretches”. Before he went out to pasture for the summer, I taught him stretches to ease his sore neck and back. He would stretch his neck left and right, reaching way back towards his flanks, and then down, with his nose between his knees, as I bribed him with bits of carrot. He was always a gentleman and took the carrot bits from my hand very gently. He was not nippy, though he did request carrots rather frequently. *

His neck and back are better now, but he does, of course, remember the carrots. As if to demonstrate that he has earned one, Slick turns his head and stretches his neck, touching his right side with his muzzle. I laugh and tell Slick he is a good boy. Apologetically, I explain to him that I did not know that he came home today, or I would have brought some carrots. I promise to bring him some tomorrow.

I take Slick out to our favorite hitching post, a cool, shady spot, and groom him. His summer coat is shiny and soft. Tabs comes over and checks him out. She looks over his face, neck, legs, belly, back and haunches, noting any little bumps and dings he acquired during his summer in pasture. She takes pictures of both sides, his head, and his legs for his health records, so that any changes can be noted in the future.

Slick looks healthy, although he had dropped a little weight over the summer. He will be getting some extra hay.

Tabs had noticed some fly bites on the tender part of Slick’s underbelly. She finds some ointment, and I smear it on, making a mental note to check the bites tomorrow.  

I take Slick back to the barn. It is his dinner time.  He walks with purpose, but he remembers to stop and wait as I walk through the barn door, and enters when I say “OK”. It is bad manners, and unsafe, for a horse to crowd a handler when entering a door or a gate. He remembers this, even though he is eager to get to his stall to be fed.  He stands quietly without backing out of his halter as I take it off, as I had taught him. I give him a pat on the neck, tell him he is a good boy, and reassure him that I will bring carrots tomorrow.

Slick quickly forgets me and the carrots when one of the volunteers puts hay into his feed tub.

*Please don’t feed Slick carrots.  He only gets them when he is doing his neck stretches. He will tell you otherwise, but don’t listen to him! He can be very clever and convincing. Besides, he gets extra hay!

Broken Ribs and a Broken Heart: Finding the courage to say no

By Nikki Hodgson

He caught my attention the same way the horses do. Our first kiss was in a parking lot. Our second, at a lookout where I saw a shooting star. I breathed him in like the dusty, sweet scent of hay, and lost track of everything else. My life has been a series of suitcases and moving boxes; he felt like the kind of place where you set down your bags and shut the door.

I have always had trouble saying “no.” I keep my thoughts to myself and swallow my emotions whole. My grandmother had heard about the way the horses work—how they coax courage out of cautious hearts. She signed me up for riding camp when I was seven. For twenty-five years, I have been sweeping dusty coats with horsehair brushes, untangling manes, tightening cinches.

But, for all the horses have taught me, I still have trouble with the word “no.”

When he said “just friends,” I swallowed my disappointment and forced a smile. But he kept coming over anyway. I kept my words tucked under my tongue, tracing my fingers along his skin, quietly waiting for an answer to a question I couldn’t find the courage to ask. Eight months slipped by; 250 nights of staring at the ceiling, torturing myself with what ifs, trying to swallow my anxiety and convince myself I was strong enough to handle the uncertainty of a man who couldn’t love me back, but wouldn’t let me go.

Eventually I wrote out my feelings on two sheets of paper. “I don’t want to talk about it,” I told him, as I slipped the letter into his pocket. “I just need you to know.” He doesn’t talk about it. We don’t talk at all. I am left alone, struggling to arrange my life around this slow, steady sadness and the answer his silence spells out.

I retreat to the barn and to my horse, Nitro. We match. Short and blonde with a cheerful demeanor and a stubborn streak, we have spent a lifetime watching people leave. But where I am passive, Nitro is pushy. My tactic has been to retreat from the world, his is to charge forward into it. We wage constant battles over boundaries.

Affectionate and lively, his toasted marshmallow coloring and wide, black eyes endear him to everyone. But horses can hear the demons roaring in your heart. And they respond to them. He pushes hard against my fears and when I don’t push back, he becomes a thousand-pound manifestation of my every anxiety.

I have forgotten how to be firm. When I ask Nitro to listen, it’s underscored by hesitation. It’s this hesitation that pushes him into a restless, agitated state, constantly dancing around my feet and spooking at shadows. One afternoon I swing my leg over the saddle, feeling him tense as soon as I slide my foot into the stirrup. I can see what’s coming, and I feel powerless to stop it.

When a horse spooks, you feel the bottom drop out and then rise from underneath you, like a wave pulling back and then crashing on the shore. There is a moment of weightlessness and then the strength of momentum. Nitro ducks and spins, throwing himself into the air, his head tucked neatly between his two front legs.

I hit the ground on my right side, fingers still curled around invisible reins. They say your horse is a mirror for your soul; I look at Nitro and wonder when I became so afraid.

There’s not much you can do about a broken rib. Take short, shallow breaths. Stay perfectly still when you sleep.

When I get home, I run a bath and sit in the hot water until it becomes tepid. The man I love is gone; my horse left me alone in the dirt. When I replay both scenes in my head, all I can think is how easily I gave in. I just dropped the reins and let both horse and man throw me into oblivion.

The next day, I am back at the barn. I am limping and it hurts to breathe, but cracked ribs heal, trust can be rebuilt. With the horses, I am brave enough to know that.

Our first few rides are tense. When Nitro starts jigging, I hold my breath. Braced for the impact, lower back tightening, jaw set. My trainer’s voice rings through the panic that sets in when I feel Nitro taking control. “More contact, outside leg, inside rein, follow with your hands, head up, heels down, breathe.”

I need a trainer for my heart. Someone whose voice rings through all the dust I kick up. Someone to stand in the center of the arena and call out reminders when I let the reins go slack, braced against the saddle, waiting for the worst to come.

“It’s okay to be firm,” she says when I am hesitant in correcting Nitro. “If he crosses a line, you need to let him know.” We spin circles in the arena, working to find the balance between the love we crave and the boundaries we need. I can swallow my emotions; I can say, “I’m fine.” But Nitro feels what I feel. I can’t hide from him.

And I’m not fine. I was so afraid to rock the boat that I just sat still and drifted out to sea. I let this man walk all over me. I didn’t even try to get out of the way. I didn’t even try to correct him.

Nitro forces me to stand up for myself a dozen times a day. Every time he refuses to pick up his feet, every time he nips, every time I have to assert myself, I grow a little stronger. The next time he spooks, I keep my seat and a firm hand on the reins. “You’re okay,” I tell him. There is no hesitation in my voice. I take a deep breath, settling my weight, watching as his ears rotate toward me and he softens and yields, coming to a halt.

I’m driving home from the barn when I see the text. It’s been a year. I promise myself it will be different this time. I will draw boundaries. I will stand up for myself. I will say no.

But I don’t. In spite of everything Nitro has taught me, I find myself slipping into the same pattern. I watch the months pass, feeling helpless and afraid.

I distract myself by hauling hay and mucking stalls. When people hurt me, I withdraw into myself. When I don’t know how to say no, I simply stay quiet. It is only at the barn that I stand up and shout. I am so much braver on the back of a horse.

In horse speak, I am firm and I am fair and I am stronger than my fear. I keep my head up and my eyes forward. I know there is always a chance my partner will slam on the brakes and send me flying into the future, headfirst and alone. I lean forward anyway.

I tell him we need to talk, writing out the speech in my head so when I forget everything I meant to say, I can close my eyes and see my emotions organized in rows, stacked neatly with the corresponding words. But, as soon as he’s sitting across from me on the couch, I find the practiced calm that the horses have given me. I swallow my hesitation instead of my heart.

“I want you,” I tell him, “but I don’t want this.” He has taken advantage of me, and it hurts. I am not angry, I am not bitter, but I am tired of being pushed aside. My heart has retained the muscle memory of love learned from horses, where boundaries are required and respect must be enforced. It hurts like hell to tell him no, but I can’t rely on him to draw the boundaries we need. I hug him goodnight and head to the barn.

It’s 20 degrees and snowing. The patches of yellow light hit the stalls and then fade out into the shadows. The pigeons shuffle along the rafters. Nitro rests his head over my shoulder. I tangle my fingers in his mane with my face pressed against his neck. When I lean into him, he leans in right back.

What happens now, I don’t know. But I am no longer as afraid. I leaned forward into a relationship that left me sprawled out in the dust, watching everything I’d imagined gallop off, without me. The impact of the fall has left me aching, standing up slowly. But the word “no” made it out of my mouth. There is freedom in that.

Falling is the inevitable risk of horses and love. The crash landing never becomes any less daunting, but the horses have taught me to lean forward anyway. To stand up for myself. To correct the things that hurt me.

When fear rises up in my heart, I channel my equestrian self, waving my arms, shouting, “back” until my heart is my own again. And I lean against Nitro, watching the moon rise as he swings his nose to my hand: the mirror of his soul, showing me the courage in mine.

COMPASSION… A NEW UNDERSTANDING  (delivered by a horse and a boy)

By Lauren Munger

This word has taught me so much it is hard to put into words. It has been a journey of an unusual kind. It impresses upon me the value of focus.

The mere act of looking at this word and thinking of it in every situation was like surfing. I paddled out over the swells and searched for the perfect wave. When I chose the one I wanted I turned my board around, stood up, steadied myself and rode the experience all the way to the shore!

Compassion transformed many times on this ride. It went from begrudgingly cutting someone slack whether I felt they deserved it or not, to feeling relieved that no longer felt the burden of having to judge someone for the act of stupidity I put on them, to understanding that feeling compassion really is a measure of the beholders self-esteem and security (at least mine) and now I have had the ultimate experience of truly understanding the word compassion to mean COME to the situation with PASSION.

My most recent experience and two profound teachers were a horse and a boy. The horse was labeled as “a princess” who was “impatient” and didn’t like certain things like being groomed. The boy was a beautiful child who was also labeled as “ADHD” and “ high functioning Autistic.” It was said he could not focus and was scattered. 

I had the privilege of having them in a coaching session together. Long story short, after several trips through an obstacle course with horse on a lead and the boy leading, I asked if he wanted to brush the horse. Keeping my fingers crossed that she wouldn’t start her usual impatient dance of to and fro I watched as they engaged in what came to be an extraordinary connection of depth and respect.

Not one hair was missed from head to toe, each being patiently put back into its place. Such focus, such intention, it was moving. The horse, too, seemed in a trance, moving not a muscle, not a whisker, only blinking an eye when the boy moved to another part of her body. She stood like a beautiful Greek statue. I began to feel like I was eavesdropping on some intimate experience. I felt out of place so I said nothing and just held the space.

Toward the end of the grooming session I asked the boy if he thought he could get the horse (who was not on a lead) to walk through two upright panels near where he had been grooming. There were several hula hoops on the ground between them so I thought it might be a tall task but I went with my gut.

“Sure,” he said and he stood up and walked through the portals himself and turned back to the horse and said, “Come.” The horse had watched intently as he walked away from her and took with him his loving touch. She then did something quite remarkable. She walked over the logs and hula hoops on the ground and straight to the boy and his brush.

A boy who couldn’t focus and a horse who couldn’t stand still…or so they said. These kinds of experiences are why I love working with children and partnering with horses. When both are in the moment and truly connected magic is the result.

This boy demonstrated to me that when you COME to the situation or being with PASSION the connection is so strong that there is no room for judgment or doubt or criticism. There is just a sense of BEING. And when you just BE you have no need or desire to judge or criticize. Then the true COMPASSION will arise. When you can passionately be in another’s presence and simply allow them to also BE...to connect and make contact with another in any given situation… that is true compassion. Compassion is the ultimate understanding of what is going on in the moment and, in this case a strong desire to be there in that moment with another.  

For more info about Lauren Munger and her programs please visit her website.

Bodacious

By Kathy King Johnson, M.Ed.

Now it's all up to you,  you tiny, precious newborn thing.  I walk in the barn and there you are, a perfect bundle in the middle of a bed of straw, your ears up, head up, looking at me. A  joyous package, clean and silky,  like the stork dropped you in the middle of the night. Mama Red has been busy. Sneaky mare, like most.  You are cleaned, fed, and practically diapered.

 

You have the most beautiful head I've seen on a TB, dished face, small ears and bright, intelligent eyes.  Curly little devil horns swivel at every sound.  But your eyes, your eyes are beautiful , eager but opaque, assessing,  taking it all in. They are both blank slate and all knowing.

When I say "hi," you whinny back. Do you remember my voice from the hours spent talking when I groomed Red? I pet you, all over.  You like it. When you start to move, I back away, giving you room.

 

You are restless, spunky, ready to go.  Legs akimbo, knobby knees, you wobble up to follow me.   Red trusts me with you. She is happy to see me too, because she is really, really hungry. She had a long night.

Over the next 24 hours, you develop  an attitude. You kick your mother.  You buck and run and rear. You are athletic and impertinent.  And quite cute.

And in the following 24 hours, you have developed some manners.  Your mother will only tolerate so much saucy behavior. She's young but she's not going to take your sass.

I love watching you and your mother.  It is down time for me, just to observe and reflect. I've been busy, mule show, trips to CSU for horse surgery, new babies, new horses on top of programs and executive directing. Busy is good. It takes my mind from the pain. I pace from the pain by moving from project to project,  task to task, staying busy from morning  til night. I am walking, talking, thinking, writing, listening, communicating all the time.

Around you,  I don't have to think about words for awhile. I don't have to think about them swirling, reversing, adding, deleting, disappearing or perseverating. I don't have to think about nuance, context , or sarcasm. I don't even have to speak.

I can listen and I can watch. Sounds in nature aren't directed but somehow they're orchestrated.  The snow bombs plop like fat white pillows.  The starlings flit and chitter in the trees, sending motes of snow into the air. And the horses chewing their hay. Chewing, chomping, swishing, stomping. Sometimes barely moving.  Deep snow, wet snow changes the sounds, like we are underwater.  Time is slow.

But you, little one, learn like lightning. I can see you grow in front of me.  You are tormenting your mother. You tickle her leg and she moves it. You tickle it again and she moves again. It is a dance. And then she gets sick of it and bares her teeth and makes her best mare face. But she doesn't touch you. She knows where you are. And somehow, despite being 2 days old, you know where she is. You move out of her way when she asks. You follow her because she's the most interesting thing in your environment. You've inspected every inch of it.

Not too many people have met a foal as young as you before. The children delight when you walk to them, fearless. Adults laugh and smile at your antics. We sit mesmerized, hours on end.
Your birth and your newness make us alive.  You fill our souls with joy and laughter, help us smile and make us love. You are fresh, vital springtime, bouncing, floating, rearing, racing fast as the sun across the sky.

A Sanctuary of Peace and Hope

Medicine Horse Program rescued a little bay Andalusian filly at an auction for $150. When she arrived, she was exhausted, malnourished and could barely walk due to locking stifles. The veterinarian said she was probably pregnant. The filly had only been haltered once, did not know how to lead and had never been groomed.  

Women suffering from addictions, as part of the Rose House residential treatment center, met her on her first day at Medicine Horse Program. One look into her soulful brown eyes, one touch of her soft muzzle and they sensed the kindness and heart underneath her woebegone hide. How much they empathized with this little animal who has been kicked around, used and abused in her short lifetime.

And so they named her Esperanza, for her Spanish heritage, and for the hope she brings. Within a week, the women were leading, grooming, hugging and loving her. Esperanza was the first of our 2016 HopeFoals, a symbol of resiliency, courage and a new life for all of those who come to Medicine Horse Program suffering and in need.

As a new year breaks, we thank you for the generous donations that make our programs possible. So many new programs including Fearless Victory with the Boulder Veterans Center, Shiloh House for youths impacted by abuse, neglect and trauma, and an exciting collaboration with the State of Colorado's Department of Youth Corrections.

Please continue to help Medicine Horse Program any way you can, cash donations, donations of hay, feed, equipment and services and by volunteering your valuable time.

Thank you for supporting this sanctuary of peace and hope.

Magic Moments At Medicine Horse

A young girl came to one of our programs, in trouble for running away. She put her head down on the picnic table, closed her eyes and put her fingers in her ears. She shut herself off from everything and everyone. But the HopeFoals approached, always curious, eyeing her through the fence. I began to talk about the foals, how they were young and wild, how they used to run away and do silly things because they didn't know better. Slowly, the girl responded. She took her fingers out of her ears to listen. She peeked through her arms to look at the foals. And finally, she lifted her head and said, "Can I touch one?"

It is a magic touch, this reawakening of the senses, this return to nature, this unbreakable bond between horses and people.

We reach out to you again to help the at-risk clients and horses of Medicine Horse Program. Due to the heat and fires, we face drought and another hay shortage. Hay has become a living breathing monster here; we have nightmares about it. We have cut back our herd drastically, unable to rescue more horses until we can find homes for the mustangs we have been training for a year.

Even with less help and fewer horses, we are running new collaborations with the YMCA, with Boulder County Expand, and Juvenile Diversion. We continue with our core programs, Veterans Peace of Mind, Imagine, Healing with Horses, Just Say Whoa and the HopeFoal Project. We are working harder to bring in more paying programs such as our MHP certification program. These paying programs support the at-risk clients who cannot pay.

As the economy rebounds, we are only receiving smaller grants given in the depths of the recession. Corporate sponsors who dropped off have not returned. We are relying very much on the kindness of the Oak Foundation, Sky Ranch and donors like you. Please help by giving as much as you can. Every penny counts.

Sincerely,
Kathy K. Johnson, Executive Director

MHP Featured in Denver Post - June 14, 2011

Disabled adults, likely to outlive parents, face unclear future
By Karen Auge, The Denver Post

Slick stood patiently in a Medicine Horse stall, letting the brush glide over his haunches, the motion at once calming the animal and producing a smile of pure boyish bliss on the 50-year-old face of the man wordlessly stroking him.

More than 40 years ago, that man, Richard Chestor, was one of the first children diagnosed in Colorado with autism.

As an infant, he stiffened when held. He was so repulsed by human contact that even being fed drove him to fits, said his mother, Geri.

He never spoke more than a few dozen words, each painstakingly taught by his mother. It took years, thousands of dollars and dozens of doctors before someone put a name to what was wrong with Geri Chestor's little boy.

That diagnosis — autism — was seldom heard back then.

Read the full story here.

MHP Veterans Group Featured in Daily Camera - June 12, 2011

Fearless Victory Pairs Traumatized Mustangs with Veterans with PTSD
By Stephanie Gates For the Camera, photos and video by Mark Leffingwell

Wild mustangs are not what most doctors prescribe for veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. But Mamma, Fearless, Ember and Ponyo offer some pretty good therapy.

All four horses were rescued from Canyon City, which serves as a "holding pen" for wild mustangs rounded up across the West (these four came from Wyoming). They were adopted by Medicine Horse Program, a non-profit mental health organization specializing in equine-assisted therapy in Boulder. The program serves more than 500 clients a year. The Fearless Victory Project, part of the Medicine Horse Program, focuses specifically on veterans suffering from PTSD.

Read the full story here.

Fearless Filly Gets To The Heart of PTSD in Innovative Treatment With Veterans

By Kathryn King Johnson, M.Ed.

Medicine Horse Program and Veterans Peace of Mind Project, both based in Boulder, Colorado, announce an exciting new collaboration, called "Fearless Victory."

Veterans Peace of Mind Project helps soldiers with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), providing mindfulness meditation programs as a psychological tool for dealing with trauma. Medicine Horse Program also uses mindfulness based techniques in equine-assisted psychotherapy. Using horses as co-facilitators, therapists help soldiers connect in relationship with each other and the horses.

"The wild horses help me to open up. The more I open up, the more they connect with me. It spirals outward, and I start opening up more with people in my day to day life," said John, a Viet Nam vet.

Most of the mustangs at Medicine Horse, caught recently on the range, are hypervigilent, with a strong flight instinct, and an aversion to being touched.

"The symptoms are the same as PTSD," one veteran said, "When I got home from the war, I didn't want anyone to touch me. "

As the horses learn to trust humans, the veterans see real results. In the process, they learn to trust the horses and begin to heal as well.

An astonished veteran exclaimed at the progress of a mustang named Mama, "She is not the same horse we worked with a month ago. If Mama can heal so quickly, so can we. She gives us hope."

The Chandler Report, Introducing Chandler

By Kathy Johnson, Executive Director Medicine Horse Program

Chandler is a buckskin colt, part Welsh pony and part something else. He arrived at Medicine Horse in mid December, walking on his hind legs. “A bi-ped!” I thought. The driver who shipped Chandler to Medicine Horse said that they were not able to touch him to load him for his journey. Instead, they formed a chute and ran him into the trailer. That is exactly how we unloaded him as well, forming a chute and letting him run to his stall. Only he did most of it rearing and bucking.

Someone had somehow put a halter on his head, many months ago. It was already too small, and growing into his nose. The problem was we couldn’t catch him to get it off. In fact, we couldn’t touch him at all. We spent about a month at his stall during feeding time. He finally let us touch his head. But, he was very suspicious and would often bolt away. He is outstandingly athletic, and shows piaffe, passage, Spanish walk, and all the airs above the ground. I am almost certain he is half Andalusian.

Medicine Horse staff was extremely patient with Chandler, and took at whole different tack with him than the other foals. He had to *want* to come to us. There would be no sneaking a leadrope around his neck, no hanging on to him him if left the scene, and no cowboys to rope him as was sometimes suggested. Staff spent extra time with him at feeding, just sitting in his stall with him, and then starting to scratch his neck.

Day by day, the white around his eye began to fade. He started coming up at feeding time rather than running to the back of his stall. He let me rub his face and around his ears. I had to stay low, sitting on the feed trough. If I stood up and made a move for his halter, he would bolt to the back of his run. Eventually I was able to slip his old halter off his head. This was a mistake in afterthought, as we had not yet stumbled upon the Double Halter Method. Now, how do I get a new safety halter on? Creativity was key. I learned that if I kept the feed bucket in my lap and stayed low, sitting down, then Chandler was much less fearful.

Eventually I held the halter in the feed buck and Chandler learned to put his head in the halter. But, I couldn’t get the strap over his ears to buckle it, or the feed bucket would fall off my lap, startling him and making me start the whole process all over. Because the foals are often far too shy to have more than one person in their stall, we start with one and gradually get them used to more. Working alone, we often feel like we don't have enough hands . I finally rigged a binder twine to the earpiece of the halter, and snapped the feed bucket to my coat! Then I had an extra hand. We call this "the Third Hand" Method. Within 5 minutes I had the halter on. Within 15 minutes, Chandler had it off.

I was able to repeat the process the next day. Not long after that, something changed in Chandler’s eye. He got a sweet, soft, doe-like look in his eye. He came to the fence to watch me if I started working with another foal. He started coming right up to me, and let me snap a lead rope to him. I have been able to scratch his neck, to stand beside him and to touch his back. I can lead him short distances, but we have a long way to go. Chandler has already started work in the Hope Foal class. Because of his beauty and intelligence, the girls are drawn to him. Because of his innate shyness and lack of trust in humans, he will teach us all a great lesson in trust, patience, and creative colt handling.