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Equine Connections

Steps to Healing

By Liesel Schmidt | Photography courtesy of Healing Hoof Steps

Depending on your perspective, horses can be awe-inspiringly majestic or intimidatingly powerful and unpredictable; so large are they in stature and possessing of a quiet power that seems all the more mysterious to human understanding. And while many people overlook horses as humble beasts to be tamed and ridden, it is their strong will and inner strength that make them such a powerful catalyst for overcoming fears we have hidden inside, for facing struggles that seem too great to overcome. Every touch, every whisper, and every movement can be a reflection of a battle raging within. And sometimes it takes a horse to see—and to heal—what nothing and no one else can.

It was that very connection that Northwest Florida native Narissa Jenkins felt in each touch she shared with her horse. She heard a voice in every whinny, knicker, and neigh and communicated in every wordless look. It was in her daily interactions with her horse that Jenkins found healing and respite from the emotional struggles that she faced daily both professionally and personally. It was a healing that went deeper and was, for her, far more effective than therapy sessions spent talking for hour after hour, week after week, could have ever been.

“My horse saved my life—every day,” says Jenkins of the chestnut brown mare whose bloodline makes her a direct descendant of the famed racehorse Secretariat, though Saideira was never fast enough to qualify for life on the racetrack. Instead, the special animal was fated to serve in a way that might have had a greater impact than she would have ever realized under the guidance of a jockey. The daily visits that Jenkins had with her beloved horse eventually led her to research an alternative method of therapy proven to have life-changing effects. “Being with her and spending time with her seemed to make everything else okay, and it struck me that it couldn’t be just me who felt this way,” Jenkins recalls.

At the time, Jenkins was a divorced mother of two, newly remarried and working in a high-pressure corporate marketing job in Orlando that often left her stressed and feeling unfulfilled. She was a horse lover since early childhood, though her dreams of ever owning one had been sidelined by parents and a first husband who saw her love of the majestic animals as a frivolity. It wasn’t until she remarried that she was given the opportunity—and the loving encouragement—to pursue her passion and buy a horse.

When Jenkins began researching in earnest, her passion found a real purpose, as her tireless quest for information led her to connect with the Equine Assisted Growth and Learning Association (EAGALA), the world’s leading nonprofit association for equine therapy professionals. “I became enthralled in having to learn everything about equine therapy because it was something that I had experienced myself on a personal level,” she says, “The thought of being able to do it as a profession and leave my high-pressure corporate job for something so rewarding was a big deal for me.”

As Jenkins delved further into her research about equine therapy, she worked closely with EAGALA to get the certification she would need to begin her new career. While volunteering with traumatized individuals and at-risk youths in the Orlando area, she saw firsthand the very real effects that equine therapy had on their lives. When opportunity seemed to knock in 2014, Jenkins presented her idea to her family to begin Healing Hoof Steps, LLC, hopeful that they would support her dream and allow it to take shape fully. It required moving from their home in Orlando to “a much smaller house in the middle of the woods,” as Jenkins says with a laugh.

The idea behind equine therapy is to let go of your frustrations, your fears, your anger—all of it.

That house in the middle of the woods was indeed an adjustment, as it meant living in a different part of the state, bringing Jenkins and her family to Okaloosa County where she had grown up. The daughter of a Vietnam vet, Jenkins had deep ties to the military community and personal understanding of the devastating effects of PTSD so often suffered silently by members of the armed forces. She felt a profound desire to help heal the unseen wounds of those brave individuals as well as those of so many traumatized by the events of their lives.

“It’s such powerful work and it changes people so quickly—I’ve worked with human trafficking victims, at-risk youth, veterans, individuals, couples—and the difference that you see in people is amazing,” Jenkins says of the equine therapy sessions held at the Healing Hoof Steps facility in Crestview. The programs utilize a tri-team approach combining an equine expert, a licensed mental health professional, and a horse to achieve results. “The horses are all loose—there’s no riding—so they’re active participants in all the activities and they’re free to choose how they participate and to what degree,” she explains. “Sometimes we might ask clients to construct something and lead the horse through it or ask them to go after a horse and try to catch it. Whatever we do, the lesson is in the emotional tactic. You remember emotions attached to an event even if you don’t remember words someone might have spoken to you. In that way, we use metaphors in everything we do—using the horse’s behavior as a metaphor for whatever’s going on with the client.”

And what’s going on with the client is sometimes even more than they realize until they’ve had that meeting of the minds—that wordless connection of the spirit—with the horses to make them feel what they’ve not truly been able to grasp. As client and horse interact, Jenkins, along with EAGALA military-designated therapist and licensed mental health counselor Connie Baldwin, determines the direction the sessions might need to take, watching things play out naturally as emotions come to the surface and breakthroughs are made. Baldwin is a highly valued member of the HHS team who found the organization in 2017 after working as a team leader for Lone Survivor Foundation in Texas under the direction of founder Marcus Luttrell.

The breakthrough is ultimately the reward in all of this, bringing life-changing effects that cause ripples well outside the immediate understanding of the client. “The idea behind equine therapy is to let go of your frustrations, your fears, your anger—all of it,” says co-owner of Props Brewery Travis Peterson, who suffered a traumatic brain injury (TBI) as well as major emotional and physical trauma due to a helicopter crash during his deployment to Afghanistan in 2013. Peterson was treated at the National Intrepid Center of Excellence at Walter Reed Hospital in Washington, D.C., or NICOE, where both Eastern and Western medicines are utilized for TBIs, and there he experienced the power of equine therapy. That experience led him to become a board member of HHS.

Thanks to its success and effectiveness, HHS is making major strides, growing its facilities as finances allow. Naturally, funding isn’t always easy to find; but as more people become aware of its mission, it is able to grow and accommodate the needs of those who can benefit from their time with these gentle beasts.

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Visit HealingHoofSteps.org to learn more. Mark your calendar for the inaugural Double Down ’n’ Derby Day at Arnett’s Gulfside Farm and Stables on May 4, 2019. The event will include watching the day’s races, fabulous hats, mint juleps, carriage rides, local entertainment, and a silent auction. All proceeds will benefit Healing Hoof Steps.

Liesel Schmidt lives in Navarre, Florida, and works as a freelance writer for local and regional magazines, a web content writer, and a book editor. Having harbored a passionate dread of writing assignments when she was in school, she never imagined making a living at putting words on paper, but life sometimes has a funny way of working out. Follow her on Twitter (@laswrites) or download her novels, Coming Home to You, The Secret of Us, and Life Without You on Amazon and BarnesandNoble.com.

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