Nanette Foster remembers the exact moment when she decided to turn her barn, Autumn Run Stables on the West Charlton/West Glenville border, into more than just a place for horse lessons.
I had a little girl riding with me who was going through a really tough time. I was getting her situated and this big thoroughbred kept nudging to get in the gate where the practice was happening. I didn’t understand it and thought it was pretty strange, said Foster.
She left for a matter of seconds and in that time, the horse nudged through the gate and was standing next to the little girl.
`He took her, with his head around her shoulder and back, and pulled her into his chest. It’s the closest thing I’ve ever seen to a horse giving a child a hug,` said Foster. `She let loose with tears. For some reason, he sensed she was having a really bad day and he showed up.`
That was back in 2005. Now, Foster is an equine specialist who works with therapists to counsel at-risk teen girls and foster children. She said she’s usually called on to help when the therapist hits a wall in talk therapy and needs something to breakdown the wall between therapist and client. Horse therapy does just that.
`Simply put, it’s like looking at a 1,000-pound mirror, the horse being an emotional and truthful being, shines back the emotion that person brings to him or her,` said Foster. `For example, I have a lot of foster kids who have attachment issues, which makes total sense because the child has been abandoned and let down by people like their own parents kids shut down and become numb and when they enter the ring and do a therapy session with the horse, they feel comforted and safe.`
Foster said this type of equine therapy isn’t widely accepted or known about in this part of the country, more popular in the western portion of the U.S. To let therapists, schools, counselors, coaches and others know that this service exists in Saratoga County, she’s holding an Open Barn event called `Get your love on!` on Friday, Feb. 11, from noon to 3 p.m. where people can come see what it’s all about. She’ll have demonstrations, information and plenty of horse-attendee interaction.
`I’m interested in getting more therapists to work with and reach out to more kids,` said Foster. `[The demo] is all about giving folks who attend a sense and more description of what this is, why it works and the actual experience of doing it.`
Horses choose the kids they want to help, said Foster, so she starts out with what she calls the `choose me game.` She takes one child or a group into a big field with various horses running free. She situates the kids in the field, then waits to see who the horses gravitate toward.
`It’s very visible when a horse is choosing. They’ll come up and put their head right next to the person they want to work with, usually on their stomach. You definitely know when a horse chooses you,` said Foster. `Most often what happens is they match up with someone they most resemble or their personalities best suits them.`
Foster said she knows there are people who will doubt a horse consciously chooses a particular client for a reason. She has a few examples that illustrate, however, just how wrong those doubts are.
`I had one horse, an alpha, that was the lead horse I my heard so he was bossy when he needs to be and can be quite stubborn. He totally matched with this one girl who was just exactly those characteristics and it was a wonderful time to watch her and this horse interact as they realized that if they both dug their heels in and did not give, nothing would happen. Once they started to give and realize a relationship is about receiving and giving, they started working really well together,` said Foster.
Another situation she’ll always remember involved a 12-year-old struggling with attachment issues who worried that no horse would choose her. Mona the horse came through for her, though.
`She was feeling nervous and was a very shy, quiet girl, kicking at the dirt with her eyes down. As we were walking toward the field she kept slowing down and we had just entered the ring,` said Foster. `Mona was eating grass and she picked her head up from all the way across the field, looked directly at the child and started walking at a very fast pace toward her. I could see that girl was getting excited and Mona came and did the ‘choose me,’ which was to put her head in this girl’s stomach. She looked up at me and said, ‘do you think she likes me?’`
Foster said it’s moments like those where she can see the raw emotion that she believes only shines through with the help of a therapy animal like a horse. Those moments also tell her a lot about her clients. That particular girl communicated to Foster, without putting it into words, that she had always feared not being chosen for her whole life.
`It’s quite amazing to watch as it unfolds. I’ve worked with kids who had stopped talking and horses communicate through their body language so you can’t hide what you’re thinking or feeling around a horse because they’re an expert at reading that body language,` said Foster. `What I do is I read the horse and what the horse is communicating, because that’s usually what the child is feeling. I can give valuable feedback and information to the therapist.`
Her horses serve to comfort her troubled clients, help establish an emotional bond and build confidence and self worth, but they also provide a way for the kids to develop skills they can take away from the horse pasture and into their real lives.
`I know the attitude, the heart of the kids they’re bringing to my barn. Kids are pretty tough because they needed to be to keep a distance from things that have hurt them, but a horse breaks down those walls and to watch the child understand how they can influence and be a positive influence and can choose the attitude they take on that’s amazing,` said Foster.
Equine therapy isn’t a replacement for traditional therapy typically held in an office on a comfy couch or chair, but it’s a nice complement, said Foster.
`In between sessions the therapist goes back with that client and processes what happened in the horse therapy and that brings their talk therapy to the next level,` said Foster. `It’s not to replace traditional mode but it offers heightened awareness.`
Foster is requiring reservations for the Open Barn on Feb. 11 so she can better cater her demonstrations and programs to the types of people expected to attend. Those interested can call the barn at 384-0925 for reservations and directions.
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