Black horse trainers offer horseback riding as therapy

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When Monica Wilder’s father died in 2020, she found herself facing unresolved feelings that she eventually buried in her work. 

During his last days, Wilder remembers pushing her dad to take better care of himself. At the time, she said, she didn’t understand the severity of what he was going through and that caused tension between her and her family. When he succumbed to his illness, a condition Wilder preferred not to share, she said, she felt regretful and didn’t have the best tools for coping. 

As a Black entrepreneur and farmer in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, Wilder is always busy, but after her father’s death, she found herself staying busy “on purpose,” to cope with how their relationship ended.

One day, while she was scrolling on TikTok, she came across a post promoting equine therapy at Soofa Ranch, which stands for “Stretch Out on Faith Again,” in Palmetto, Georgia. 

“I said, ‘You know what, this is probably what I need to do because I’m trying to keep myself busy from dealing with things. And I know I can’t fool a horse,’” Wilder said. She stumbled upon Soofa, which is one of a number of ranches across the country offering equine-assisted therapy, which uses horses and equine activities to promote mental and physical health and emotional growth.  The facility is one of the Black-owned nonprofit organizations stepping in to show people of color how beneficial relationships with horses can be for their mental wellness.

“It just really gives us an opportunity to really expose a lot of people of color to different varieties of therapy,” founder Daryl Fletcher said. 

For Wilder, whose father got her a horse named Fat Albert when she was a child, she instinctively knew getting on a horse might help her through this period in her life.  Her horse would often try to escape the family’s three acres of land in Clarksville, Tennessee, to visit the mares on the neighboring property. Wilder remembers her father trying to control the horse, but her strong connection with Fat Albert made her the only one in the family who could convince the animal to come home. 

“I knew you couldn’t fool horses,” she said. “So when I saw the ad for the Soofa Ranch, it was kind of like I wanted to make sure I wasn’t a bad person. I knew the horse would be able to tell me that.”

How the pandemic opened a door 

Since opening its doors in August 2020, Soofa Ranch has served more than 2,000 people with equine-assisted therapy, trail rides and riding lessons. The almost 100-acre ranch is also home to 12 horses, with names such as Peace, Grace, Purpose and Wisdom. 

Fletcher said that part of the reason each horse is named after virtue is to inspire guests who are experiencing challenges in their own lives. 

Wilder visited the ranch where Fletcher paired her with Grace. During the session, Wilder guided Grace around columns while Fletcher asked her a number of questions to help her reflect. She said her session brought her back to moments in her life where she felt like she needed to be in control so she could help her father get better. 

“Do you see how it took you a while to get the horse to walk with you? Because up until now, you’ve been trying to run the show, you’ve been trying to control the outcome,” Wilder remembers Fletcher saying during her session. “You wanted your dad to get better. You thought you were going to be able to help him get better. You have to forgive yourself. And you have to forgive him.” 

Wilder said her session was just the beginning of her healing process.  “It was really powerful for me,” she said, her voice growing emotional.

Before opening Soofa Ranch, Fletcher was a youth pastor for 20 years. After retiring from the ministry,  he said he was called to create a space for young people that involved horses. In 2014, he became a certified life coach and began traveling the country working as a life coach and public speaker to save up for his future ranch.

He began seeing the parallels between life coaching and horsemanship. To learn more, he eventually reached out to the Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship (PATH), which offers standards and certifications for the practice. 

Daryl Fletcher introduces a horse to one of his clients.Courtesy Daryl Fletcher

Forced to take a break from traveling once the pandemic hit, Fletcher dedicated his time to his horses and began offering lessons in his community. 

“It just tremendously took off,” he said. “Because of the mental stress that a lot of people were under during the pandemic and being stuck in the house.”

Soofa’s equine therapy can cost between $75 to $195 per session. Animal-assisted therapy is generally not covered by all insurance companies. 

Stressors from the pandemic and a lack of mental health resources have left many people dealing with mental health conditions without treatment, NBC News reported last year. This ongoing mental health crisis is especially prevalent among Black communities.

In June 2020, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that 15.1 percent of Black people surveyed considered suicide 30 days before taking the survey, compared to 10.7 percent of respondents from the general population. The same survey revealed that 44.2 percent of Black respondents were experiencing one or more adverse mental health symptoms. 

According to Mental Health America, an organization that promotes mental health, Black adults are more likely to experience sadness and hopelessness than white adults. 

Black people who do experience depression are actually more likely to seek professional help in comparison to the general population, it found. Studies show that treatment can be more effective when practitioners align culturally with their clients. However, fewer than 3 percent of psychologists identified as Black in 2019, and nonwhite psychologists are underrepresented in the field overall. 

“I feel like if you’re going through something emotionally or mentally, you shouldn’t have to worry about [a] therapist having preconceived notions, ‘How do they feel about Black people?’ and ’How they feel about this,’” Wilder said. “So animal therapy, equine therapy poses that option to get that healing journey started without all that intimidation and all of that sociological stuff that we’ve got with when it comes to race.” 

A new option for healing

Animal therapy often decenters spoken language and encourages clients to engage in touch and physical affection, something that can be beneficial to those who value it, according to a study sponsored by the American Counseling Association

“It’s just you and an animal that can hold all of your emotions and can hold all of your secrets,” said Brittney Chambers, owner of the CBC Therapeutic Horseback Riding Academy. “You don’t have to worry about your deepest, darkest fears. You could talk to this animal and it’s going to stay with that animal, and that animal is going to listen, and the animal is going to understand, and you’re not going to be judged.”

 She said she’s been riding horses for as long as she can remember but she didn’t learn about equine therapy until she began working on a high school senior project in 2008. She went on to study counseling and psychology and later worked as a teacher before opening up her riding academy in Elk Grove, California, in 2015. 

The family-run operation has more than 100 students and offers equine-facilitated psychotherapy, as well as riding and horsemanship lessons. Chambers earned her certification in therapeutic riding in 2015 and became an equine specialist in mental health and learning in 2016. 

“Horses, they mirror us,” she said. “So, anything that we feel, the horses feel. We have to really be in touch and in tune with our emotions, otherwise, our horses are going to display exactly what we’re feeling. If you’re feeling the wrong thing, you’re not going to enjoy the horse that you’re riding, because they’re taking in all of your feelings.” 

Chambers said the typical therapy horse is patient and forgiving of people when they mess up. She sometimes tries to match the energy level of the horse with that of the client, to help clients reflect on their own emotions and build trust with the horse. 

“If you can gain the trust of a 1,200-pound animal and communicate with a 1,200-pound animal,” she said, “you can conquer anything in the world.”  

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