Fannie and Rimtianna aren’t your typical therapists, but at Gateway Horseworks, the duo is part of a unique herd of horses that provide critical stepping stones toward healing for trauma survivors, including women escaping human trafficking, justice-involved youth and inmates preparing to re-enter society.
Like the clients they serve, some of Gateway’s horses once faced uncertain futures. Fannie and Rimtianna were adopted from the University of Pennsylvania’s large animal hospital. They could no longer be ridden, but at Gateway, they’re starting the second chapter of their lives – just like many of the program’s human participants.
All of Gateway’s programs follow the EAGALA (Equine Assisted Growth and Learning Association) model of equine-assisted psychotherapy, which pairs a licensed mental health practitioner and an equine specialist alongside clients and a group of horses. “There’s no riding and we don’t teach horsemanship,” explains Kristen de Marco, executive director and co-founder of the non-profit group. “Our clients and horses meet on the same footing.”
As part of the therapy program, participants are given specific exercises to accomplish with their horses, designed to develop skills like non-verbal communication, problem solving and creative thinking. The horses, nonjudgmental by nature, provide an emotionally safe place where clients can build those critical life skills and work through their mental health issues.
Sometimes, the simplest actions lead to the biggest breakthroughs. One client, a survivor of human trafficking, was frightened of the horses, afraid to even reach out her hand from the other side of the fence. The horses, though surrounded by a pasture of lush grass, just stood by the gate. After a couple of sessions, the woman finally entered the pen. “She was terrified,” Kristen recalls, “but the horses just moved toward her and stayed with her throughout that session. That’s what our horses do, they accept people that are struggling and help them find the courage to face their biggest fears.”