A new nonprofit organization - Stable Connections - held a demonstration for 30 audience members Monday night to show how horses can help humans connect with themselves.
Deb Koerner, a licensed mental health counselor, told her audience at the Webster County Fairgrounds that "horses and humans are herd animals and both are sensitive to non-verbal communications."
Stable Connections is designed conduct equine assisted learning exercises and equine assisted psychotherapy for individuals and groups.
DEB KOERNER, a licensed mental heath counselor, emphasizes the point that equine therapy is not about the horse, but people making connections with their own personalities and learning to deal with what they discover.
It's an outreach ministry for Cana, which described itself as "an organic mission station ... that will reach out to people in need through mentoring, Bible studies, workshops, small concerts, and at some time, a worship experience." It was planted in Fort Dodge by the Reformed Church of America.
Koerner told her audience, some of whom were Cana members, that EAL is designed to help people come in contact with who they are, based on how they work with the horses. "This is not about horsemanship or teaching the horses anything," Koerner said.
To make her case, she called for volunteers to step into the arena with an assignment - select one of the horses and get the animal to "move forward in a positive manner without touching or bribing the horse."
Jeannine Johnson, of Fort Dodge, set out to accomplish the task. She found that her target horse, Captain, a black male Morgan horse, was as focused on her as she was on it. When she bent forward at the waist to encourage Captain to come to her, the horse lowered his head with hers, but stayed in place. After several unsuccessful attempts to get Captain to move, she gave up the effort.
Then Koerner reviewed Johnson's efforts, drawing attention to her mannerisms, her motivation for moving the horse and why she couldn't get the horse to move and assess her opinions about the results.
"It's not about accomplishing the task," Koerner told her listeners, "but what you bring to the task.
"People can learn about their personalities."
After two other volunteers also failed to get their target horse to respond, volunteer Diana Martin, of Fort Dodge, said she'd try to get Captain to step forward. She touched and led Daisy, a quarterhorse mare, away from Captain, who followed a few steps. As she left the arena, Martin said she was impressed with herself that she figured out how to get Captain to move.
"I've been so used to thinking inside the box my whole life," Martin said, as she thought about her effort. "So for me to think of that, it's like whoa - before I would think, 'OK, these are the rules, thinking along the narrow tunnel.
"The cool thing is that (it shows) I've grown in my life (that) I do still have good thoughts in my brain."
Tanya Moffit, of Boone, who is certified and trained in equine assisted therapy, said there is no secret in getting the horses to accomplish the assigned task. "It's not predictable. Each horse responded similarly, but differently to each person."
Stable Connections organized a year ago, Moffit said, because equine therapy was a priority of Cana as an outreach to help people.
Kris Ackerman, a Cana member, owns the horses. "We believe in miracles and believe people experience miracles with horses.
"A lot of people think it's about being able to do the assignment. They think it's the task, that they have to do this; but it takes a while to retrain your mind to learn about yourself."
Monday's demonstration was a problem-solving exercise, but Koerner said there are other exercises for team-building for members of boards or corporate groups to work together, as well as psychological therapy for alcohol and drug dependency, depression, eating disorders, military veterans and family issues.
Moffit said being with horses allows people to forget they're in therapy. "It breaks the pattern of you're used to," she said. "If you've been in therapy you know what you're trying to do. But out there, you just work with the horse."
Ackerman said, "The horse doesn't care who you are or what you've done."
There's no judgmentalism in the horse, Moffit said, "there's nothing conditional about it. It lets people be (and see) what happens out there."
"We hope (EAL) just lets people get down to the basics and discover who they really are. Horses are always just who they are and always respond how they respond. They have no traditional expectations that people get wrapped up in.
"Besides, horses by themselves are therapy."
The Equine Assisted Growth and Learning Association, a national nonprofit certification and education organization, developed such techniques to use a non-verbal communicator - the horse - to teach humans about themselves and their interactions with others, as well as to improve their communication skills. Participants learn about themselves by participating in activities with horses and then discussing feelings, behaviors and patterns.