For 23 years, Chatfield horse therapy provides support for clients
Brianne Olson has been a client at H.O.P.E. Ranch for 13 years, and is a visual testimony for why equine-assisted therapy works.
CHATFIELD — The drive on Olmsted County Road 19 in the middle of fall shows off the beautiful trees, up alongside the road that curves with Kinney Creek.
Make a turn at County Road 139 and, about halfway between Stewartville and Chatfield, there sits H.O.P.E. Ranch, a 10-acre ranch where Kit Muellner serves clients as a therapist.
For the last 13 years, Brianne Olson has driven that route to H.O.P.E. Ranch.
Muellner doesn’t have a traditional therapist office, one that movies typically depict as sterile white rooms, a couch for the patient across the room from the doctor’s chair. That’s the scene that Olson has been a part of so many times, at previous therapists she saw.
Instead, Muellner’s office is more of a living room (though a couch still sits opposite two chairs). But there’s a dog, Sadie, and cats roaming around the office. And outside is a barn where horses stay. Muellner provides traditional psychotherapy — where she talks with clients in the living room — but she also provides equine-assisted psychotherapy.
On the surface, using animals to help clients through a wide range of mental health challenges doesn’t make much sense. How do animals, especially horses, help?
It turns out, for Olson especially, having animals present during her therapy helped her more than any other therapist she’s seen since turning 15.
At her first appointment, Olson said she “told (Muellner) things that I haven’t told any other therapists or I wasn’t ready to share yet.” She had never found comfort at therapists’ offices or connected with a therapist on such a deep level.
Muellner’s calm and gentle demeanor was part of what helped Olson open up. The other part was the animals who would hang out in the living room during sessions.
“A lot of my sessions I would spend on the floor either petting Honey (Muellner’s previous dog) or brushing her or the cats,” Olson said. “I’m a big animal lover, so that helped seal it too. Because it's like, you know, the animals — they know, they can pick up on that stuff.”
After a few months of going to H.O.P.E. Ranch, Olson tried her first equine-assisted session. It was a group session with other girls her age. Before, she would walk out to the barn and pet the horses during sessions, but Olson hadn’t yet incorporated the horses into her therapy sessions.
At first, Olson said she would try to go do something with the horses, but she “was just so deep down in it that I couldn't even participate.”
“So I think a lot of the time I've been OK with just being able to see them and just stand with them and clean them, feed them, brush their hair and all that stuff,” she said.
But that’s actually when the equine-assisted therapy is working, Muellner said.
“The horses are doing their therapy even when you feel like you're not able to be participating,” she said. “It's not about can you do what we suggested you do. It's about what happens inside between you and the horses.”
Muellner has a personal love for horses, and when she opened H.O.P.E. Ranch in 1999, she was able to combine her passion for helping people with her love of horses.
The equine-assisted psychotherapy Muellner practices is called the EAGALA model, which is a defined structure for the sessions. There are a few ground rules that are always practiced with this model: the horse, client, psychotherapist and equine specialist all work together as a team; the client never mounts and rides the horse, so all work with the horses is on the ground; and the therapist doesn’t instruct or direct clients to do anything. Instead, it’s a solution-oriented approach — the clients experiment, take their own risks, learn patience and find solutions that work for them.
It’s a different model for therapy, but one that works for many people.
“(The horses are) almost like a mirror,” Olson said. “Whatever you're feeling, they don't mimic your emotion, like in a human way, per se. You don't feel judged, you feel comforted. Somehow, you feel seen, and you feel heard, and you feel supported.”
When Olson heads to the barn to work with the horses — especially her favorite horse, Little Joe — it looks, to the regular person, like she is just petting the horse, brushing straw off their back and hugging them.
That’s all true from a visual perspective. But there is an experience happening between the horse and client that is just that — an experience.
“Because they’re prey animals, they're very tuned into what’s going on, and their behavior reflects that back,” Muellner said. That’s where the therapy comes in. Instead of having a human look at you and tell you what’s wrong, clients get that feedback from the horses.
“It’s harder to argue (about your behavior) when it's the animal reflecting stuff back to you,” Muellner said.
Though Olson has participated in equine-assisted therapy for years and understands why and how it works, it’s still difficult for her to put her experience into words for others.
“You just need to go stand next to a horse and pet them and just cry for an hour,” she said, “then come back to me and tell me how you feel afterwards.”
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