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Posted: May 4, 2005 06:45

EQUINE THERAPY OF THE ROCKIES

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Cold Creek Canyon, Colorado
Suzanne Forrester, M.A. & Duey Freeman, MA, LPC, LLC

Visit by: Loi Eberle, MA, IECA, on March 11, 2005


Though many programs use equine therapy as an adjunct, it's the Equine Therapy of the Rockies' primary focus. Suzanne Forrester, MA (formerly Susan Caswell) and Duey Freeman, MA, LPC, LLC co-founded the program, working in the Denver/Boulder area, as well as with people who travel from other areas for one or more intensive equine sessions at the ranch. They specialize in families and couples therapy, addictions and habitual patterns including eating disorders, relapse prevention and intervention, trauma, attachment issues and life transitions. Lodging is available in the historic town of Golden for out-of-town families.

Suzanne and Duey usually work with families in intensive, customized family sessions prior to using equine therapy. During these sessions, they use Gestalt, "a dynamic experiential approach to personal growth," emphasizing "contact in relationship." Also using developmental, body-centered and equine-inspired psychotherapy, they address as many components of the family system as possible, including other therapists and/or programs with which the family is involved.

Loi joins an equine therapy session.
I attended an equine therapy session with four other participants. It began with introductions by Suzanne, Duey, and Julia Clavette, founder and owner of Star Peak Stables, whose horses are used for this work. Duey then invited us to close our eyes and experience our bodies, listening to what they were telling us. This could be difficult, since in the case of trauma, people have a tendency to disassociate with their bodies. They asked about our previous experience with horses and what question we wanted to explore in the day's session. We discussed our general or specific goals and were encouraged to remain open to insight about other questions we hadn't discussed.

One person, a visiting consultant, described her fears from previous experiences with horses, so Julia suggested that we begin by spending time meeting the horses. Duey offered to work with her. I accompanied them, having had my share of unfortunate experiences with horses in the past. Suzanne took the other three clients into the arena to work individually with issues of trust, grief, loss and sexual trauma.

Duey guided the consultant to approach and eventually touch a horse. Julia walked with me through the herd, teaching me body language for approaching and interacting with the horses. I started feeling fairly confident, noticing the other consultant had become more comfortable as well. I stroked a large horse's head for a while, feeling like we were making friends. He nuzzled closer to me, then suddenly took my jacket sleeve in his teeth and wouldn't let go! I tried to get my sleeve out of his mouth, but he began pulling harder, then biting my glove. Julia saw the panic in my eyes and told me what to do to assert my control over the situation. I raised my arms and stood tall. He pulled back and became docile; seemingly relieved I had assumed control. Powerfully evocative for me, it provided me with a symbolic nonverbal image that gave me insight about how to deal with some past traumatic memories and present situations in my life.

Duey and Julia then taught us to lead and groom the horses. Now confident, I was ready to ride! An equine therapy client who had worked with them a few times showed me how to put on the saddle. We began to talk about her past and some of her reasons for participating in this work, which she said helped her feel more grounded and peaceful; a much more effective method than using substances!

Julia did an excellent job coaching us to ride, encouraging an awareness of how we sat, held our weight and used our limbs, causing a deeper awareness of the rhythms of our horse's movement. I watched Duey guide the other participants in becoming aware of the physical sensations of riding, encouraging them to remain in contact with the present moment while becoming aware of the past traumas that the experience evoked. The work was physical and emotional, visual and symbolic, and included feedback from the horses, who responded to our actions, voice and demeanor. Duey and Suzanne explained this was an introductory session; they often go much deeper if the individual or family has had an initial office therapy session with them prior to equine therapy.

Duey, a seasoned equestrian with 34 years' experience in Gestalt and family therapy, also directs the Gestalt Institute of the Rockies. A college professor, former school principal, program administrator, consultant with Colorado schools and wilderness therapy programs, he has trained many of the therapists in the area. He is also writing a book about healing trauma at various stages of growth and development.

Suzanne emphasizes somatic awareness in her work as a psychotherapist. A holistic health practitioner, writer, and equestrian, she also is an equine professional and trainer with 25 years experience. Formerly a lead administrator for two nationally known therapeutic schools, she trained as a wilderness therapist at Naropa University.

Julia Clavette, an equine professional with 30 years of teaching experience, operates Star Peak Stables. This beautiful mountain ranch nestled, in the pines at an elevation of 9,100 feet on the edge of the Roosevelt National Forest and Golden Gate Canyon State Park, is a half-hour drive from Denver, Boulder and Golden, CO.

The rustic beauty of this ranch provides a perfect backdrop for working with these competent, compassionate people and beautiful horses that mirror what you are expressing. Being with the horses requires maintaining attention in the present moment and staying in contact with your experience. For this reason, I can understand why they have found this work to be helpful with children and families who otherwise have been difficult to reach. Suzanne, Duey and Julia's love of their work is contagious; they help people experience a side of themselves that resonates with the horse's energy and power.

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