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Greenville & Hockessin Life

The quietest healers

Nov 19, 2015 09:35AM ● By J. Chambless

Marlena Awitan, left, and Sabina Carbaugh, along with Guy, one of the horses used during therapy sessions at Healing with Horses, Inc., at Carousel Park.

By Richard L. Gaw
Staff Writer

There is a young girl.

Let's call her Sarah.

She is 14 years old.

She has lived her entire life in the dividing line between Greenville and Hockessin.

When Sarah's mother died recently, the once secure walls of her life began to collapse at her feet, dissolving into fine and heavy layers of sand, and the more the walls around her fell down, the more the sand began to appear.

Now, the sand has now become too high to navigate, and while the world floats past her with effortless ease – faces and happiness and joy – Sarah has become immovable. There are no more secure walls still standing.

She has been to see therapists. With every one, she sits in their offices, and admires the degrees on their walls, and in every office, there is a box of tissues on a table near her, but there is very little of revelation. She has folded the 14 years of happiness she had with her mother into a small box of private memory. This person who sits across from her will not get anything out of me, Sarah thinks.

She has to remain strong, for her father, for her little sister.

She has chosen to build new walls. They are stark and gray, and her life has become the complicated act of attempting to disappear behind them, into a sort of living cocoon.

A friend of her father's has heard about a program called Healing with Horses, an equine-based therapeutic program staffed by licensed clinical social workers and therapists. He tells Sarah's father that through this program, individuals actually work with horses in order to help articulate their emotions, whether it be grieving, coping with violence, parenting issues, the need for personal empowerment, and a myriad of other life issues common to all of us.

The best news of all, he tells Sarah's father, is that there is a Healing With Horses location at nearby Carousel Park.

At first, both Sarah and her father are skeptical of this form of therapy, but they have also run out of choices. Sarah is introduced to her equine specialist and her licensed therapist, but instead of meeting in an office with tissues, she is led to an outdoor riding arena. There, she meets Sam, a chestnut-brown horse. She runs her fingers through Sam's soft mane. The therapists then ask Sarah to arrange some kind of obstacle in the riding arena, that represents all of the trappings of her grief. Using the foam blocks, she constructs a wide circle in the middle of the arena. Sarah is asked to take Sam wherever she wants to go.

Sarah wants to avoid the circle she has made. It’s sloppy in there, she thinks. It’s small. It stands for sad things. But she finds that the horse, for some reason, is guiding her to the center of the circle, and soon, they are both there, silent, for what seems like minutes.

And slowly, it overtakes Sarah, in the middle of this makeshift circle she made, on a beautiful morning, beside a horse named Sam, in the middle of a riding arena. This is where my mother is, and it is not a place for sad things, but merely somewhere I am free to go for strength, comfort and listening, whenever I want. It will always be here.

Sarah leans against Sam, and in the bountiful softness of his mane, she mourns her mother for the first time. In all this time, Sam has made no sound.

* * * *

Healing with Horses, Inc., founded in February by New Castle County Police Sergeant Mary Devine, of the department's Mounted Patrol unit, who has more than a decade of experience with riding and training horses and riders. The program takes its mission and guidelines from the Equine Assisted Growth and Learning Association [EAGALA], the leading non profit association for mental health professionals using horses to address mental health and development needs. Founded in 1999, the EAGALA Model provides a standard and structure for providing Equine Assisted Psychotherapy and Equine Assisted Learning sessions, with focus on:

The Team Approach– An Equine Specialist, a Mental Health professional, and horses work together with clients in all EAGALA sessions.

non-riding-based therapy– No horseback riding is involved. Instead, effective and deliberate techniques are utilized where the horses are metaphors in specific ground-based experiences.

Solution-Oriented– The basis of the EAGALA Model is a belief that all clients have the best solutions for themselves when given the opportunity to discover them. Rather than instructing or directing solutions, clients are allowed to experiment, problem-solve, take risks, employ creativity, and find their own solutions that work best for them.

Code of Ethics- EAGALA has high standards of practice and ethics and an ethics committee and protocol for upholding these standards, ensuring best practices and the highest level of care.

For each individual session, EAGALA teams are made up of a mental health professional, an equine specialist; and the horse. Maryellen Carbaugh, a licensed professional counselor of mental health, has not only devoted her professional life to healing others, but is herself an equestrian, where she can often be found on her 38-acre farm downstate, teaching riding. She has been involved with Healing with Horses since the spring.

“In our model, we look at horses as part of our team,” Carbaugh said. “When we identify our team, it's the mental health professional, the equine specialist, and the horses. We include them in the process, just like they are another human along with us.”

The horses aren't just included in therapy sessions as pretty animals. They have a serious job to do in equine therapy, which is made possible by their innate ability to sense fear, sadness and the many other emotions that individuals are feeling when they enter into the riding arena.

“We have seen horses that are running around, and then all of a sudden, when a person enters the arena, we see the horse settle and adapt, and begin to read what that person is going through,” Carbaugh said. “They react to emotions, but in terms of empathy, they can also sense that something is not right. They will adjust, and sometimes, they will just sit quietly with the people who go to the horses for healing.”

“Horses live in the moment,” Devine said. “They have no agenda. They don't try to project anything. There is no judgment. The playing field is even, and the horses respond to the emotions and energy of the client. They will meet anger with anger, and trust with trust. They sense it much more intuitively than we do.”

The original impetus to bring the program to Delaware came out of a need Devine saw as part of her position as a detective in the New Castle County Police Special Victims, Domestic Violence and Homicide units.

I was finding that there weren't enough options for therapy for kids, to handle some of the incidents that these young people were involved in,” she said. “I spent many days going out to houses, and finding out that the children weren't necessarily committing crimes, but had behavioral issues. Because we had no other options for them, we left, telling them to listen to their parents. We would return over and over, until finally one day we would be there to make an arrest.”

Twelve years ago, Devine handled a case through the Detectives unit that dealt with the abuse of a then young girl who, was placed in an inpatient therapy facility in Arizona. After the suspect was identified and arrested and the case adjudicated, the victim, now a grown adult and married mother, reached out to thank the officers who helped her. In her e-mail, she mentioned that she had undergone and benefited from equine therapy.

“I had to find out more about the program,” Devine said. “I then visited them everywhere I could throughout the country.”

Healing with Horses, Inc. is currently one of more than 600 EAGALA-approved equine therapy centers in nearly 50 countries throughout the world.

In addition to group and individual sessions for children and young adults, Healing with Horses, Inc. has recently begun to offer one-day workshops – targeted to adults – that address a wide spectrum of issues: dating safety, leadership and empowering sessions for women, that combine horse exercises with open discussions between attendees and equine specialists. While the horses freely roam the arena, equine specialists assign attendees with specific tasks – all related to working with the horses – that require teamwork and negotiation skills.

In less than a year, the breakthroughs that equine leaders at Healing with Horses, Inc. have reported seeing in the attendees have been startling. Individual by individual, the moments of clarity and understanding have arrived slowly, by way of the physical exercise in working with horses, in the quiet of an outdoor arena beneath an open sky – not in a therapist's office.

One such breakthrough happened recently, at a workshop held with five girls and one boy.

We asked them to go into the ring and create something that represented an incident in their life where they had a challenge,” said equine specialist Leah Awitan. “They were asked to move the horse that was in the arena and move it either over the structure or around or in the structure, to give them a sense of moving forward or coming to terms with that incident. They built their structure and before they got their horses, the participant came up to us and told us that he knew what his obstacle structure represented.

He could have sat on a couch for two years in a therapy and what he revealed to us in metaphor may not have ever come out in that environment, but here, it just came out so easily,” Awitan said. “In these workshops, they're not just sitting there and having to talk about their issues. They're doing what they feel, and what they feel comes out in powerful metaphors. They say to us, 'That horse represents this, and this horse represents that, in my life.'”

“When I see a youngster in my office, that child may be in my office for months, and it may take him or her a month of weekly sessions, just to get them to trust me,” Carbaugh said. “Kids, however, inherently trust horses, and I think it breaks down barriers and allows them to break through their issues much more quickly than standard talk therapy. A child is much more likely to choose to come here and be with horses, than to sit in an office and stare at an adult.”

Although Healing with Horses, Inc. is less than a year old, Devine has already begin to paint what she feels will be a bright future. Her ultimate dream is to create an inpatient therapeutic center that allows children seeking equine therapy to live “on campus” for up to 90 days, in an intensified program that properly balances therapy with the chance to clean out stalls, bathe the horses and getting involved with other equestrian activities.

For Devine, the best moments of the Healing with Horses, Inc. happen when she and her colleagues begin to see the walls break down.

“Some kids have never seen a horse in their lives, and interacting with them can be frightening that first few times,” she said. “Fear is what drives most of us, and being able to overcome fear can be what drives us. One of the best things I've seen so far is to see a child go from sullen and withdrawn to see their eyes filled with joy – to see that there is this horse who wants to have a shared experience.”

The Carousel Park & Equestrian Center is located on 3700 Limestone Road, Wilmington, DE 19808. To learn more about Healing with Horses at Carousel Park, visit, or write to: Healing With Horses, P.O. Box 310, Hockessin, DE 19707.

To contact Staff Writer Richard L. Gaw, e-mail [email protected] .

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