Saturday, April 19, 2014
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Hope Unbridled offers Central Texans horse therapy

By Christine Foster

Journal Reporter

  As you begin to read this article, you will think it is about horses, therapists, and mental health, but that is only a small part of the story.  This is a story about intangibles - the intangible bond between man and animals, specifically horses.

 This is a bond that, although unspoken, can work to heal the emotionally and psychologically hurting, wounded, or scarred.   The challenge that is presented and this solution have been addressed by an international organization called the “Equine-Assisted Growth and Learning Association (EAGALA) which establishes standards in equine-assisted counseling and provides training and certification for practitioners.

 One local EAGALA group ministering to youth and families in Central Texas is called “Hope Unbridled.”

 Assisted by three dynamic women, Karen Frederick, who holds a Ph.D. in educational psychology, school counselor certification, and is working on her licensure as a professional counselor, is an assistant professor at UMHB. Frederick is the founder of Hope Unbridled, a local non-profit, 501(c)3 which provides equine-assisted counseling and learning programs.  Frederick’s Ph.D. dissertation relates to the horse therapy concept. She is dual-certified as both mental health professional and equine professional and has completed levels one and two of the EAGALA certification and is currently working on her advanced certification.

Maxine Trent is a Licensed Professional Counselor who has completed over 1,000 hours in this program and has also finished levels one and two of the EAGALA certification program. She plans to enroll in the advanced course in October. Trent is a volunteer at Hope Unbridled.

 Ann Heartfield is an EAGALA certified horse professional. She has also completed two levels of the EAGALA training.  Heartfield volunteers and supervises the horses used in the therapeutic programs. Her farm is one of the locations at which Hope Unbridled provides services.

 “I love horses and kids,” she said. “I am just a horse person and a kid person and that works well in this program.”

Hope Unbridled is a private, non-profit organization, which looks to private donors for support as most insurance companies will not cover this type of therapy.

 Medicaid recognizes the solution-focused experiential EAGALA program, but the Medicaid limits for annual psychological visits prevent many people from accessing this program.

 Hope Unbridled wishes to be proactive providers in the mental health field, running programs that help youth and families develop emotional resilience that can carry them through hard times. Donors and volunteers are always needed as funding is one of Hope Unbridled’s main challenges.

 Hope Unbridled follows all the tenets of EAGALA which include a program of activities for the client, two licensed or certified therapists at all sessions, and a focus on the horses’ behaviors. The focus on the horse behaviors allows clients to feel more comfortable.  Clients are given tasks involving the horses and are encouraged to think outside the box and come up with solutions. Clients are then asked to create metaphors that relate to their own lives and challenges—in essence, solving their own problems. There is no right or wrong in these situations.

 The course for an individual is one hour at a cost of $125-175 per session. The family and group programs are usually 5-12 sessions. Group rates are less expensive. For example, participation in a five-week program costs as little as $125 per participant for all five sessions.

 Hope Unbridled developed a dropout prevention program entitled Leading Adolescents to Successful School Outcomes (LASSO). The program has run for two semesters at Priority Charter School in Temple (previously Temple Education Center). Students who participated showed higher levels of hope and self-esteem and decreased levels of depression.  In the LASSO program, during the first session, the client simply observes the horse subjectively and objectively. They are then asked to bring the horse to them and bridle him.  This activity is a leap of faith for the clients who have never had contact with animals of this size and strength.  As the clients begin to accomplish these goals, they are learning to conquer the fears in their personal lives. 

As they continue to build trust and respect for the horse, activities include building an obstacle course for them to guide the animal through and having the horse circle them and be circled - all totally hands off. This gives the clients the confidence that difficult tasks can be conquered in their own lives.  After all, if you can handle a 1,200 pound horse, you can overcome struggles in your own life.

 The final activity is to keep the horse from eating food that has been set out for him.  In this activity, the food is a metaphor for oneself and one’s vulnerabilities. The horses represent things that hurt us or drain us of our resources. Clients work to protect their vulnerabilities from life’s problems.  In equine-assisted activities, the clients become aware of their own power and the clients transfer this power and control in addressing the difficulties in their own lives. They can often be seen confiding things to the horse, knowing they are experiencing utmost confidentiality.  There is no judgment, no criticism, no discipline; only the knowledge that the horse will react instantly if your behavior is unacceptable at that moment.

 As these activities are being conducted, the therapists are simply making notes which will be discussed during a time of processing. Questions will be answered but no direction is given beyond the original instructions.  The horse expert watches to make sure there are no dangerous situations arising, and the mental health professional watches the clients interact with the horses and the other members of the group. As she so succinctly says, “There is no right or wrong in these situations.”

 And that is the intangible: the trust, the respect, the knowledge that you can control your life, and have the power and confidence to move forward in a more positive way.  This perception is not something that can always or as quickly be acquired in an office situation because the clients sometimes know how to work that system to his or her advantage.

 Hope Unbridled hopes to be able to implement the LASSO program in local school districts. Hope Unbridled can transport horses to school campuses and provide programs that help struggling  students become more successful. But Hope Unbridled still has some major obstacles to overcome.  As mentioned previously, funding is a big issue. Recruiting candidates for the programs is also difficult as the program receives very little publicity, primarily depending on word of mouth.  They are also in need of a covered arena.  But these difficulties fade when the three of them see the results of the activities: the confidence, the control, and the power they have developed and instilled in their clients.  Now they are able to see that they can over come the difficulties and challenges in their own lives.

 “This is a much more enjoyable way to learn than the office/workshop situation,” Heartfield said.

 In this hands-on experience you learn by doing. These thoughts are echoed by Trent.

 “EAGALA partners the two greatest loves of my life; providing therapy and working with horses,” she said. “Horses inherently have therapeutic qualities.” 

 And Frederick, the founder and CEO of Hope Unbridled added that horse therapy is an experience all its own.

“Equine-assisted counseling is something you have to experience in order to understand the power it holds,” she said. “Lives are changed and amazing things happen when you’re working with horses!”

Hope Unbridled will hold another demonstration  of equine-assisted counseling in October (date not yet set).  The demonstrations are going to be scheduled monthly after the October date. Hope Unbridled is also approved by the Texas Board of Licensed Professional Counselors to provide Continuing Education Units for LPC’s. If  you are interested in volunteering, donating, or signing a new client, contact Karen Frederick at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. , or see their website at: www.HopeUnbridled.org.