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‘You can’t fool the horses on how you feel.’ Equine therapy helps military families

Participants in Horses & Heroes equine therapy sessions develop close relationships with horses the participants come to trust and confide in.
Participants in Horses & Heroes equine therapy sessions develop close relationships with horses the participants come to trust and confide in.

Horses helped Karen Bunce find the courage to leave a job she didn’t enjoy, face the past and strengthen her relationship with an older sister.

“All my life, I’ve struggled with childhood issues,” said Bunce, 52, of Independence.

On a pasture in Shawnee this summer, Bunce shared the pain of her past in equine therapy sessions. The horses listened.

The therapy is not about riding horses but about relating to them.

“Horses are highly intuitive. They pick up on a person’s emotions,” said Julie Baker, a certified equine specialist who founded Horses & Heroes Inc., in 2015. As a nonprofit, Horses & Heroes provides equine therapy free to first-responders, veterans, active-duty military and their family members.

Bunce is one of more than 150 clients helped by Horses & Heroes in 2018, almost double the number of 2017. Bunce said she grew up in a family dominated by a proud, authoritarian father who had served in a position of command in the military for 33 years.

“He did not allow his children to show anger or become upset,” she said.

Therapy sessions include Baker as an equine specialist, a mental health professional, a client and the horse — or horses — the client chooses from a herd of 12.

Bunce chose five horses to represent areas of her life she wants to accept or improve. One of the five is a miniature horse and represents “Little Karen,” the child Bunce was.

Talking to “Little Karen,” Bunce gets to express her feelings freely and in return, gets the nurturing she needed but wasn’t given as a child.

“You can’t fool the horses on how you feel,” she said.

The pastoral countryside and the peaceable presence of a horse provide a sense of safety and build confidence that clients can use away from the pasture.

Bunce found she was able to have a long-overdue heartfelt talk with her older sister: “the best two-hour conversation we’ve ever had.”

Rich Curasi of Liberty believes the equine therapy can help save lives. Curasi, a retired U.S. Army colonel, agreed to serve as an adviser to Horses & Heroes as a way to support efforts to prevent suicide among veterans.

Curasi admits that he was not familiar with horses until he met Baker and began working with the nonprofit.

“Are you OK?” That’s what the horses are asking, Curasi said.

It’s a question Curasi encourages everyone to ask others who seem troubled.

“There is no stigma in asking — if you sense someone may have run out of hope.”

The horses allow those diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, Traumatic Brain Injury or other conditions to let their guard down and to begin trusting their own feelings, Curasi said.

Horses are “amazing therapists, said Rachel L. Willoughby Greene, licensed clinical professional counselor who works with Horses & Heroes.

“Interacting and building trust with a large animal that could easily overpower you is a profound healing experience.”

Clients comment regularly about experiencing a sense of release and calmness simply by being with the horses, Greene said.

“The healing happens with or without talking.”

Confiding in the horses helped Bunce realize she needed to leave her job as a trauma social worker at a Kansas City hospital.

“It wasn’t the right job for me,” she said.

Bunce continues to use her social work skills but in a different setting.

Props such as traffic cones, ropes and barrels can be used to represent obstacles or stressful situations. In the outdoor arena, Bunce used props to stage and enact a birthday party with the horses to prepare for a celebration of her mother’s 80th birthday in Arizona.

“I was agitated and anxious about making the trip,” Bunce said.

Some of the horses themselves may have experienced and recovered from trauma. Two of the horses in the herd Baker rescued 18 years ago when she took in a skeletal, mud-caked pregnant mare.

Baker founded the nonprofit after she earned certification through Equine Assisted Growth and Learning Association, an international professional organization based in Utah.

The therapy sessions are offered free to first-reponders and the military. For operating funds, the nonprofit relies on private donations and fees from corporate clients who schedule team-building and other sessions for employees.

For more information on Horses & Heroes. Inc., call 913-210-5678 or visit