It’s not just the clients who benefit from PBJ Connections, an equine-assisted psychotherapy and behavioral health program based in Pataskala, Ohio. The volunteers and staff insist the unique program contributes to their well-being too.
Consider Ruth Tippett, a long-time “horse buddy” volunteer. “When I first started going to the barn, I was mentally and emotionally drained,” Ruth recalls. “But at PBJ, I’m able to leave some of that stress behind. The horses accept me as I am – no questions asked – faults and all.”
Beth Rolland, who serves as the group’s development director, says Ruth is not alone. “As a session co-facilitator, I’ve seen firsthand how we are literally saving people’s lives by providing them with the professional mental health services they need,” she explains.
Unlike many horse therapy programs, no one saddles up at PBJ. Instead, all the work happens on the ground. Since opening in 2006, the nonprofit – and its therapy horses and mules – has touched the lives of more than 900 individuals. The facility offers a wide range of mental health services, from “A Pony,” a program that partners with schools to help behaviorally challenged children to “Save a Warrior,” which works with veterans and first responders.
While Beth says she sometimes witnesses big breakthroughs, it’s often the little moments that stay with her the longest. She remembers one such encounter with Waffles, a shy mini horse, and an older woman, who was visiting PBJ with a group of senior citizens.
“The woman would sit on her walker, resting her forehead on his – just breathing together,” Beth recalls. “After several visits to the farm, she bravely decided to take Waffles for a walk.” Slowly, the two shuffled around the arena as she held his lead rope and used her walker for balance. Later, Beth learned the woman practiced walking every evening in the hallway of her care facility, just so she would be strong enough to walk with Waffles.
Whether it’s children from a local elementary school, learning to manage challenging behaviors and building communication skills, or veterans addressing post-traumatic stress or suicidal ideations, the PBJ therapy animals have a way of breaking down barriers and helping clients build positive connections.