Hospice and horses work to help grieving youngsters

Gerardo “Jimmy” Lima learns how to connect with a horse during a session of the Hospice Equine Program last month.

Gia Duffy, left, of Grand Junction and Kaeden Abbott of Fruita work with their horses during the Hospice Equine Program last month.

When a half-dozen teenagers entered an arena on Little Park Road on a chilly afternoon last month, the five horses in the arena were unsettled, to say the least.

Some of the horses galloped around, kicking up their heels. Others were rearing and play-fighting with their buddies.

It appeared to be an atmosphere more conducive to rodeo than for equine-assisted therapy aimed at helping the youngsters deal with the grief of losing loved ones.

But an interesting change occurred when, at the suggestion of their adult leaders, the young people “got grounded.” They became calmer, more focused on working with the horses. There was less frenetic activity among the youth, and soon there was less among the horses, as well. Within a few minutes, all of them stood still and allowed the young people to approach them, even one horse that rarely let group members close. Soon, the teens put halters on them and led them through a series of obstacles set up in the arena.

Horses tend to model emotions of people working with them, said Adrianne Wagner, a certified equine therapist with Hospice & Palliative Care of Western Colorado, and the leader of Hospice’s equine program for grieving youngsters.

“They do that because they are fight-or-flight animals,” and they have to be aware of the emotions of other creatures — horses and humans — around them, Wagner said.

If humans show fear or anger, the horses quickly recognize something is amiss, and they respond with fear or anger of their own. But, if people are calm, confident and unafraid, the horses respond with similar attitudes.

That’s a large part of the idea behind equine-assisted therapy, not just for grieving youngsters, but for people of all ages with a variety of mental problems. In addition to mirroring emotions, horses can also act as substitutes for a loved one no longer present.

Gerardo Lima, a 14-year-old Grand Junction native who is known to his friends as Jimmy, said he got involved in the equine program at the recommendation of school counselors after his uncle and a close family friend both died within the space of a few months.

“Some of the horses kind of act like one of the people I lost,” he said. “They relax me. They give me good memories of my uncle and make me feel like I’m standing next to him.”

For Viviana Avila, 12, of Fruita, whose grandfather died, the horses also provide a means of remembering her loved one. “They help me think of him in a different way,” she said.

For some youngsters, the horses can represent not people they’ve lost, but others still alive with whom they’re having conflicts.

“When we have an issue with another person, often we keep it bottled up,” Wagner said. But the horses also can sense that pent-up anger. That may force a person to recognize their anger and release it — at least temporarily — to work cooperatively with the horse.

The Hospice Equine Program began in 2009, led by Wagner. She had horses prior to going off to college. and she was already a certified equine therapist through the Equine Assisted Growth and Learning Association before joining Hospice.

She works closely with volunteers like Sharon Roper, who provided the horses and the site for the therapy session in April and is also a certified equine therapist. Joe Breeman, another volunteer, also provides horses and a place to hold the therapy sessions. Money for the program comes entirely from donations.

There are typically sessions once a week for eight weeks, with a group in the spring and another in the fall. There are up to eight youngsters in each group, and they work with others of similar ages.

Sessions begin with a period of discussion about what’s been going on in each of the individuals’ lives.

Then they spend about an hour in the arena working with the horses, followed by another discussion of what occurred there and how it relates to their efforts to deal with grief.

“We don’t fix kids. We help them fix themselves,” Wagner said.

Wagner and Roper have numerous stories about youngsters who made major breakthroughs while working with horses. One young man in particular seemed to be emotionally dead to his father and stepmother after his mother died, and with others as well. At first, he reacted the same way with the horses. But after a few sessions, he broke down in tears, and he was then able to communicate his grief to his stepmother.

One indication of the program’s success, Roper said, is the fact that several older youngsters who have completed the program have returned to volunteer with the horses and other grieving children.

Jimmy Lima might one day be such a volunteer. “What I like about the program is I get to tell people how I feel and to help others,” he said.

To learn about Hospice or donate to the equine program, visit hospicewco.com or call 241-2212.


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