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Summit County: Healing power of horses

Harriet Hamilton
Summit County Correspondent
Vail, CO Colorado
Mark Fox/Summit DailyHarriet Hamilton gets aquainted with Bird as B Casapulla and Helen Royal look on at Reins of Change.
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SUMMIT COUNTY, Colorado ” Driving the two miles from Highway 9 through the hilly, former ranchland took concentration, as the narrow dirt road curved and peanut-shaped prairie dogs scampered randomly in front of the car.

In some ways, I welcomed the challenge of avoiding an accident. It helped keep my mind off where I was headed ” to the barn of Colorado West Mental Health’s “Reins of Change” program for a session of equine-assisted psychotherapy.

Despite the stunning beauty of a perfect summer day in Summit County’s horse country, I was both curious and apprehensive about the appointment.



Having read the program’s brochure, I knew I could expect, “an innovative treatment … in which horses are used as a medium for emotional growth and learning.”

“How much experience have you had in the past with horses?” therapist Helen Royal asked first thing when I showed up at the barn.



I confessed to a brief stint at riding camp as a child and basic fear of the enormous animals.

Apparently unfazed by my nervousness, Royal’s pratner, “B” Casapulla, handed me a helmet and took me outside to meet the program’s six “special” horses.

Anxiety, depression, eating disorders, attention deficit disorders, impulse-control disorder and relationship problems are all things a horse can help with, she said.



All six Reins of Change horses have demonstrated willingness to work with humans, but vary widely in age and temperament, Royal said.

Briar is very empathetic, for example. R.J. is a trickster, and Summer tries to intimidate, but is a marshmallow at heart.

All my worry about which horse would be right for me flew out of the window when they got to the description of the last horse.

Bird ” a dark brown Appaloosa ” had once been a show horse doted on by two little girls, Royal said.

When the girls lost interest, their father tried to convert him into a pack animal for hunting. With little aptitude for the role, Bird fell off a ledge and damaged his leg badly during a hunting trip.

For some reason, I knew Bird was for me.

Casapulla showed me a halter and demonstrated the safest way to hold the lead rope. Then she handed it to me and told me to go put it on Bird.

Figuring out how to get a halter on an unfamiliar 1,200-pound horse was the session’s first major challenge. I kept up a constant stream conversation with Bird, as I fumbled with the rope contraption and tried to ignore my fear.

To my surprise and relief, he was very patient with me ” holding his head still while I worked it out.

Afterward, Casapulla told the story of a 12-year-old former Reins of Change client who was unable at first to get a harness on Bird.

“The kid stood there for the entire hour, crying, waiting for him to pick his head up,” she said. “It was painful to watch.”

What the incident illustrated to the facilitators was the young client’s expectation that others read her mind and her frustration when they didn’t.

“She expected everyone to take care of her, and she expected the horse to know what she wanted,” Casapulla added.

Once the halter was on, I lead Bird in a figure-eight pattern around the yard while Casapulla and Royal observed from a distance. I found my anxiety decreasing somewhat as I walked next to the huge animal, although I was still too nervous to stop talking or to look him in the eye.

After a few laps, the next step was to take the horse into the barn to be groomed.

Royal and Casapulla took time explaining how horses feel when they’re tied in a confined space. They demonstrated the best way to secure the rope and the safest distance to stand from a horse’s hindquarters to avoid being kicked.

Being in the barn increased my awareness of Bird’s great size and power. I hoped he felt friendly toward me, but I wasn’t about to count on it.

Casapulla handed me a brush and encouraged me to give the horse a good once-over. Just when my strokes started to become less tentative, she upped the ante.

“Horses need to have their feet checked regularly,” she said, and my heart sank. The thought of picking up a horse’s foot made me extremely nervous.

Royal asked me to evaluate how many inches away from Bird’s hooves I needed to be to feel safe.

Safety can be a significant issue for Reins of Change clients who have substance-abuse problems, Royal said later.

“A lot of them don’t have a gauge of their safety zones,” she said.

They tend to jump right into relationships without considering their own security. Working with horse and taking the time to consider what feels safe can give recovering substance abusers important information about themselves.

“It can help them cue in to good choices,” Royal said.

Somehow, I managed to pick up and check all four of Bird’s hooves. He was very patient and cooperative. After deciding on a safety zone, I proceeded to ignore it entirely as I focused on the task at hand.

Healthy change is the focus of most psychotherapy, and Royal believes horse-assisted therapy offers something not available in traditional talk-therapy.

“You see how people are, rather than what they say they are,” she said.


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