Meet your new therapist, Mr. Ed

A client bonds with Suede, one of 11 equine partners at Grand Valley Equine Assisted Living Center.

Blue skies framed calm stables as Jay D. Muller and I walked up to meet the horses at Reimer’s Rainbow Ranch, home of the Grand Valley Equine Assisted Learning Center (GVEALC). They were quiet, munching on their breakfast before their workday began.

The center, located at 979 25 Road, aims to provide learning opportunities using horses to facilitate growth, learning and healing. The volunteers and horses create an atmosphere of healing. Watching a session is like watching a village come together to help friends in need.

The healing touch

The GVEALC staff includes licensed therapists who offer hippotherapy— therapy with help from a horse—to individuals with disabilities, assisting with motor skills, occupational and physical therapy and even speech. The horses’ movement helps develop clients’ sensory, neuromotor and cognitive systems.

GVEALC also offers equine assisted psychotherapy. Interacting with horses has many physiological benefits, such as lowered blood pressure and heart rates, as well as psychological benefits including reduced feelings of stress, anger and anxiety.

Nikki Goodenough, a licensed equine assisted counselor, looks at the emotional responses of the horses to better know the emotional well being of the rider.

“Any change in the horse’s environment causes the horse to change its behavior, and that creates opportunities for healing,” Goodenough said. “Likewise, as the client calms down, the horse will also calm itself down [in] a mutual exchange of energies.”

She often works with veterans, some of whom suffer from serious post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

“The folks with PTSD gain a bond with the horse, which they sometimes have trouble gaining with other people. The behavior of the horse acts like a monitor for the emotions of the rider,” she said.

January Johnston, licensed in hippotherapy, explained how her work has helped clients with disabilities.

“Part of the reason why this works is that while clients are just trying to remain balanced and strong on the horse, they also work with fine motor skills: throwing, catching, playing games,” said Johnston.

She finds recent research in this growing field exciting, and it certainly seems to be effective. One session of equine-assisted therapy can result in advancements that would take three months in a clinical setting.

A labor of love

Muller and his wife, Suzanne, have backgrounds in special education. They saw an opportunity to match kids with horses who could help.

“It was a labor of love to get to this point,” Muller said.

Things have grown since the couple worked with their first client in April 2015. The center started with just two horses. Now there are 11. But even that’s not enough, as the center requires a diverse group to fit each client’s needs. Eventually, the Mullers hope to place the Grand Valley at the forefront of equestrian therapy research.

To get there, the center relies on its volunteers. Each session requires supervision, a lead horse-walker, a second horse-walker and an alternate. There are also volunteers who clean pens and take care of the horses. There’s no need to be a “horse person” to volunteer, either, as there are plenty of jobs to go around. Everyone’s goal is to make the center a safe and immersive environment for both the clients and the horses.

“A volunteer typically begins by working with the horses specifically,” said Sabine Will, one of the center’s volunteers. “This gains a level of trust with the horses and it helps immensely for both the horse and the volunteer to be on the same page during the session.”

Once volunteers have developed a strong skill set and confidence level, they begin to work with clients—an unforgettable feeling that keeps them coming back for more. In fact, the volunteers’ love for the horses is only second to their love and compassion for the center’s clients.

Muller is deeply grateful for the work the volunteers put in and the help donors provide. The mission continues to gain momentum because of donations like a ramp to help clients mount the horses and the property itself, which was lent to the center by owner Marlo Reimer.

The real stars

Though many people come together to make everything possible, the horses are the true stars of the show. Each has its own story.

One horse, named Suede, is a retired reiner—horses trained to complete a pattern of spins, circles and fast stops. Muller believes therapy is a much more appropriate line of work for Suede and many of the other horses at the center.

Each goes through a probationary period that involves training and simulation sessions with the volunteers. The counselors make a point of learning each horse’s temperament. This helps them pair horses and clients, who must be able to bond emotionally.

A horse named Diego was donated to the program just months ago by Kirt Trathen, who now works as his handler during sessions. Diego has laid-back days and busier days, Trathen said, but they both seem to find working with the center rewarding.

Want to get involved?

GVEALC is always looking for volunteers and currently has two openings on its Board of Directors. These positions are vital in helping raise funds that are crucial for the facility’s success, as well as that of the people it provides services for. For more information, call 216-8723 or visit www.gvequineassistedlearningcenter.org.

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