Story by Camille Corum

Photos by Jenny Tolep

One segent of a therapy session is to direct the horse from one side of the arena to another without physically leading the horse. Camille Corum attempts to regain the horse’s attention by making clucking sounds. Our session began in the Hope Ring, a small outdoor arena where two ponies stood near each other, content and relaxed in the quiet afternoon breeze. It was a chilly day, but the sun shone on the crisp, brown-green grass and the horses grazed down in the field. Alicia Burns, executive director of Cross Keys Equine Therapy (CKET), and Leigh Michelle Thomas, the farm’s licensed professional counselor, walked ahead of me and opened the gate to the Hope Ring. The ponies in the arena didn’t pay much attention to us.

“The first part of the session is based on equine assisted psychotherapy techniques,” Leigh told me. Equine assisted psychotherapy (EAP) is a form of counseling unique to CKET and other equine therapy facilities. Therapists use horses to help clients heal troubled relationships. EAP techniques focus on the client’s belief system and how clients perceive negativity in themselves and the world. Clients confront faulty beliefs and then work to establish truth-based thinking. Leigh and Alicia also provide Equine Assisted Learning programs with groups, which involve team building activities.

I asked the ladies what inspired them to start CKET. “Both of us had an interest in working with adolescent girls, especially who had been victims of domestic violence,” Alicia said. Although this was their initial expected client base, they saw that their work was effective for everyone. “A lot of times the sessions go in a way we can’t predict, which has been a challenge but it’s also been a really cool thing, because that’s where people experience growth,” Leigh said. Leigh asked me to greet each pony in whichever way I felt most comfortable. I walked toward the pony nearest to me. She was the taller of the two ponies. I could see just above her withers — the point at which the horse’s neck and shoulder meet. I stood just to the left of her head, looked into her eye and patted her bay winter fur.

Before corum leaves the Hope Ring at the end of the first stage, she says goodbye to Snap, who nuzzles his head in her arms.

“Hey there, girl,” I said.

I didn’t feel an immediate connection with her, which troubled me, but I knew the challenge of building accord with each horse was part of the counseling process. I gave her another pat on the neck and then crossed the arena toward the smaller dun pony. He turned to watch me approach with his ears pricked upright. I scratched his chin and gave him a little tug on the mane behind the ears. To me, this is the best way to test how comfortable a horse feels around you, especially during the first encounter. Horses are extremely sensitive to human emotion and physical touch. Because I grew up competing in horse shows, I knew what  signs to look for when dealing with horses. I felt his friendly energy and playfulness.

“Ready for your first task?” Leigh asked. I nodded, feeling eager to get into motion. She prompted me to model a project I was currently working on in my life, using any objects in the Hope Ring. “Keep in mind what the horses are doing and how it makes you feel,” Leigh told me. A tall, dusty barrel of random objects laid in the corner of the ring behind me. In it I saw Styrofoam noodles and wood pickets from a fence. On the ground beside the barrel were red and yellow plastic balls about the size of a baseball, a jump rope and a white bucket. I searched through my mind — which was clouded with assignments, meetings, due dates — for a spark of inspiration.

One object at a time, I built a mock magazine cover on the ground in the center of the arena. The dun pony, Snap, watched me move back and forth from the barrel to the arena center. Eventually, he stood right in the middle of my magazine cover and nudged the wooden pickets with his whiskery nose. Curious about the whereabouts of the bay pony, Tia, I found her with her back to me, looking over the fence toward another horse in a separate paddock. She was neither aware nor interested in me or the noise I made moving the objects. Alicia asked me to describe my creation.

Our conversation focused on my feelings and emotions while working with the objects and how my chosen design reflected my current psychological state. Leigh asked me to discuss how I felt around each horse and how each horse responded to my body movements. Both Leigh and Alicia encouraged me to open up about the people that negatively affected my well-being, but also about the people who brought me joy and acceptance. I realized the way I responded to each horse reflected the way I interact with people on a daily basis.

“Horses have a unique way of living in the moment,” Alicia said. “They are genuine, honest and do not allow manipulation.” Horses are able to sense when people are scared, tense, angry or, on the opposite end, full of happiness. CKET uses the horse’s undivided acceptance as an opportunity for healing. “Clients realize that it was about how they approached the horse, not about what the horse thought of them,” Leigh said. Clients who want to do more talking and processing usually begin to open up after working with the horses. “They will come to us and we’ll end up talking for a while,” Leigh said with a chuckle. Other clients want to spend more time with the horses.

Alicia said it was time to move on to the second part of the consultation. We walked up from the Hope Ring, past the indoor arena, and into a little stone paddock where they groomed and tacked up the horses. “Tacking up” is the term for putting the riding equipment on the horse — saddle, girth and bridle.

“This is your ride, Indi,” Alicia said. She gave the dark bay horse a slow, loving pat on the neck. Both Leigh and Alicia explained that the next type of counseling is Equi-Rhythm, which combines music with regulated breathing techniques and awareness to teach clients how to self-regulate personal stress. Within the arena, clients are given opportunities to overcome fear and unhealthy ways of relating. Ultimately, the Equi-Rhythm program helps people of all ages develop confidence, constructive and positive ways of communicating, and peacefulness in body and mind.

“As a counselor, I am able to see a difference in how people work with the horses,” Leigh said. Some people hide behind them and some people open up with them.” Working with horses gives Leigh and Alicia a way to work through each client’s concerns individually. I put my helmet on and walked beside Indi while Leigh led him into the outdoor riding arena. “Indi is the perfect horse for riding exercises because he’s extremely sensitive to a rider’s emotions and movements,” Alicia said. Although most horses have this  ability, Indi has a special way of mirroring human behavior. Before I mounted Indi, Leigh instructed me to close my eyes, breath in and out five times slowly and achieve a relaxed state. Then I mounted the horse and slipped my feet into the stirrups.

From a variety of music choices, I settled on riding to the Dixie Chicks. Leigh played their cover of “Landslide.” I listened intently to their pure, bold voices accompanied by the beautiful acoustic melody. I squeezed my calves against Indi’s side, signaling him to walk at full pace. He quickened his speed. We walked together in a large circle around Leigh and Alicia. After about 10 minutes of communicating with Indi through my seat, legs, hands and voice, Leigh said, “I’m going to change the song. I’d like you to try and ride Indi to the beat.” She put on a song with an upbeat melody that was fast and loud. I clicked my heels into Indi’s side a bit harder and clucked. He picked up a trot, but under me his shoulders and barrel became stiff. After a few steps, I felt my body become tense and off balance. He’s responding to and mirroring my body language, I realized.

The ladies began CKET with only Equine Assisted Psychotherapy and equine assisted learning programs.

Snap in the Hope Ring.

“We expected the counseling to be done on the ground and we weren’t going to do a riding component,” Alicia said. But over time working with different individuals and families, Leigh and Alicia found that getting on a horse was what people needed. “We will develop more programs along the way, too,” she said.

Riding Indi and discussing my physical and emotional responses to the program’s exercises made me realize why Alicia and Leigh created the Equi-Rhythm component. Being able to get on the horse’s back and work through their concerns is powerful for clients. Riding is especially helpful for kids with autism, who may not be able to talk about how they’re feeling. But it won’t work for every client. Alicia and Leigh see clients weekly, bi-monthly or once a month, and most are from the Rockingham and Augusta County areas. CKET has served clients from 3 to 68 years old. “We have even had clients come up to three times per week for more intensive work,” Leigh said. A typical workweek for the horses mixes exercise time, rest time and session time. “The horses do arena work, are taken on trail rides and are engaged mentally by groundwork,” Alicia said. It is important to keep the horses fit both physically and mentally, so Alicia and Leigh give them as much “herd” time as possible, too.

At the end of the riding session, I dismounted Indi and walked him back to the stone paddock. It was mid-afternoon and the sun rested high in the sky. Most of the clouds had cleared, and the crisp winter sun warmed me as I began to unwind and meditate on the powerful ways these horses had affected me. Deep inside myself, I felt healthier and happier. The horses, coupled with Leigh’s and Alicia’s guiding questions, helped me to engage in open and honest communication.

“We believe that most of our heartache arises from pain we have experienced in relationships with others,” Leigh said. People who have experienced emotional pain and distress may adapt a distorted belief system about life and relationships. CKET’s main focus of therapy is to replace unhealthy coping mechanisms with healthier ways of relating to people. Leigh and Alicia also conduct their lives and therapy programs around a strong set of beliefs and faith. “Our faith is the foundation of our services,” Leigh said. “We want our clients to experience the kind of relationships with us that are genuine, honest and loving as we walk together in growth and healing.” As I collected my things to leave the farm, Leigh mentioned that she also does intensive in-home counseling with families.

“With my love for horses, every day I would go into the homes and think, ‘If only I had a horse with me.’”