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Horses take the lead on path to healing

By Chris Michlewicz; photos courtesy of the Equine Partnership Program
Graphic Angels Among Us

Photo of gentleman taking part in Equine Partnership Program

The Equine Partnership Program, an Elizabeth-based nonprofit, has programs for disadvantaged or abused youth, military veterans and seniors, including those diagnosed with dementia.

The advent of equine-assisted therapy has brought renewed confidence and healing to people of all walks of life – and even the horses.

Nowhere is that more apparent than at the Equine Partnership Program (EPP), an Elizabeth-based nonprofit that provides mental health services to individuals and groups using equine-assisted psychotherapy.

The horses – some of them rescued from abusive or neglectful situations – enable those going through therapy to gain the self-understanding, healing and emotional growth that are the goals of all forms of therapy.

As a licensed professional counselor, founder Lee Dudley saw that therapy provided solely in an office setting wasn’t yielding positive results or emotionally corrective experiences for the clients she saw, particularly those who have a history of trauma. Dudley, who serves as lead clinician at the EPP, believed exposure to horses in a calm and safe setting would “serve clients who were looking for an effective, experiential, creative form of therapy.”

In 2007, EPP began by helping kids who had suffered physical and emotional abuse. The organization works with foster systems, child protective services and departments of human services, which refer clients.

Utilizing huge and powerful, yet “warm and fuzzy” horses to bring down barriers, the therapists can begin to help heal previous traumas and hardships, Dudley said. Sometimes that happens while the youths are riding, sometimes it’s after a ride while grooming the horse in its stall. EPP also brought in underprivileged children from urban areas to provide an experience they’ve never had before, and those kids often become mentors at EPP later on.

“Being around livestock and watching the clients’ responses to the horses is really something,” said Dudley, who earned a master’s degree in clinical psychology after spending 20 years as a horse trainer. “Sometimes they’re initially wary of them, but by the time the work is done, you can see how confident they are, and they’re able to translate that confidence and those skills to other areas of their lives.”

Photo of Equine Partnership Program uses equine-assisted psychotherapy

The Equine Partnership Program uses equine-assisted psychotherapy to help heal emotional trauma.

EPP began working with Operation Equine to provide therapies specifically designed for veteran women. More recently, EPP started offering equine-assisted psychotherapy to dementia patients. The results have been heartwarming and, frankly, pretty astounding.

“We’ll get reports from caregivers six to eight weeks post program, and we hear that the client’s verbal skills have had a huge improvement, and they’re just coming out of their shells and interacting a little more,” Dudley said.

The program, which is run at a stable in Parker, has special significance to Dudley, whose mom is in the advanced stages of dementia. Like Dudley, her mom grew up around horses and has a lifelong affinity for the gentle giants.

“The lights turn back on when you bring her to the horses, so it hits on a personal level,” she said.

For more information or to donate to the Equine Partnership Program, visit www.equinetherapyco.org.

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