GRAND JUNCTION – Sometimes, it takes a different environment than a counselor’s ear and a box of tissues to make progress in processing grief.
For the most vulnerable people hurting from losing a loved one, having a sentient beast to help them negotiate the path to healing can make all the difference.
Last year, HopeWest’s equine therapy program helped 41 children who experienced a loss. This relatively new type of therapy that has gained popularity in the past decade involves using horses to help clients move forward in the stages of grief, reported The Daily Sentinel of Grand Junction.
The horses at Joe Bremer’s farm came to the gate when the girls arrived at their equine therapy session. They’ve been coming here almost every week since September, and named the horses Coffee, Caramel, Vanilla and S’mores.
Therapy with horses can help give children a voice, helping them to identify their feelings and move forward past the barriers that grief has erected in their lives, said Caroline Coles, a HopeWest volunteer certified in equine therapy who has practiced it for six years.
The horses don’t judge them. They accept that the children are leading them and that they’re in charge. Interacting with the large beasts can help kids gain a sense of control over their lives, actions and feelings when something so horrible and out of their control has rocked their world.
The girls started their session by checking in with how they were doing, and then Coles asked them to notice the fly masks the horses were wearing. They talked about how sometimes people wear masks, too, to hide their emotions.
“Sometimes you pretend you’re having fun but you’re really, really sad,” one of the girls said.
This is a safe place for them, a place where everyone understands what they’re going through. It feels good to not have secrets here.
“We all have lost a dad and we all kinda know how it feels,” said Mia Contreras, 9.
As the girls were talking about wearing emotional masks, Vanilla playfully reached across the fence and removed Coffee’s mask.
The girls talked about how maybe the horse was trying to tell them that wearing a mask wasn’t a good thing.
The powerful thing that happens here is that the horses give children the ability to talk about their feelings in a non-threatening environment.
HopeWest uses the Equine Assisted Growth and Learning Association’s program for grief therapy, which does all the work on the ground, without the clients actually riding the horses.
Instead, clients work directly with the horses, eye to eye, which helps them observe the horse’s behavior and relate to it. With the children, they can observe how the horses are acting and name those behaviors and feelings, instead of keeping those feelings inside.
Coles said her role is mostly to keep everyone safe and not say much, aside from guiding the children in their observations and helping them to name the emotions that they’re seeing in the horses.
“The beauty of the horses is that they’re the mirror and they project what the kids are feeling,” she said. “It’s all projection-based.”