A surge in demand has come to Grace Therapeutic Horse Program in Battle Ground, where those struggling with mental health and physical illness can seek equine-aided therapy.
Owner Robin Nelson, a nurse at Legacy Emanuel, began the non-profit in 2012. Since then, the program has grown to provide therapy for 10 to 25 people a week with 11 horses. The program focuses on providing therapy for abuse victims, substance abusers and traumatized medical care workers.
“Our heart has always been about people who’ve been through trauma,” Nelson said.
Grace Therapeutic Horse Program specializes in providing therapy for a variety of abuse and trauma, but anyone who could benefit from time with the horses is welcome.
The COVID-19 pandemic has increased the demand for mental health therapy.
“I’m getting a lot of calls about anxiety and depression in kids,” Nelson said.
The program has also begun offering therapy to nurses and their families due to pandemic-induced trauma.
People financially struggling can seek therapy. The program offers a sliding scale of cost for those in need.
“I’ve always promised if God continues to bring in the finances that my promise back would be never to turn anybody away,” Nelson said.
Nelson works alongside her core team of volunteers: Diane Braxmeyer, Maiya Thomas, Liz Gulker and Anne Justice. Together, they tend the horses and manage therapy sessions.
At 65 years old, Nelson is excited to continue her work at Grace Therapeutic Horse Program.
“I’ve always felt like there’s no retirement in what you enjoy doing. You just gotta keep going,” Nelson said.
In addition to therapy, the program also rescues two to four horses a year.
“We take rescue horses from the kill pen or feedlot, who are slated to be slaughtered. Then we team them up with either kids or teens who have been through a lot of abuse themselves. The pairing is absolutely magical,” Nelson said.
Nelson’s personal experience with abuse instilled her passion for helping others, which led her to create Grace Therapeutic Horse Program. Sexually abused as a child by a farmhand, she empathizes with the victims in the program.
“I always wondered in my life why I was able to come out so strong,” Nelson said.
She attributed her healing after the abuse to her relationship with her horse, whom she had since she was 5 years old.
With a heart for aiding the suffering, Nelson traveled in 1996 to Kolkata, India, to work alongside humanitarian Mary Teresa Bojaxhiu, also known as Mother Teresa.
“I got to work with her for about six weeks before she stopped meeting with the public,” Nelson said. “It taught me everything I wanted to know about giving.”
Though Nelson wanted to stay in Kolkata, she was encouraged to return home and make a difference in her own country.
Since Nelson founded the program, many abused individuals have received help at Grace Therapeutic Horse Program.
One victim, an 8-year-old boy who had been in counseling for a year, was struggling to discuss his abuse. He was assigned to River the horse at the farm.
During a therapy session, several orange cones were prepared for him. He was instructed to take River by the lead to each of them.
“He was to take his horse to each cone and introduce a family member or friend,” Nelson said.
After the exercise, Nelson noticed that River began playing with the fourth cone, picking it up and eventually dropping it outside the arena. Nelson asked the counselor to speak with the boy and find out who the cone represented. They discovered the cone was introduced to River as the boy’s father, who was sexually abusing him.
“It gave the boy the opportunity to open up about it,” Nelson said.
The emotional sensitivity that may have allowed River to detect the boy’s feelings about his father is natural, according to volunteer Diane Braxmeyer, a doctorate nurse practitioner at Legacy Emanuel.
“Horses are prey animals, and how they survive in the wild is in their herd they typically have a lookout,” Braxmeyer said. “That particular horse, if their heart rate goes up, the rest of the herd is alerted to the danger.”
She said horses are likewise sensitive to distressed humans and their emotions.
Braxmeyer believes horses and adolescents are a particularly strong pairing, fostering healthy communication skills.
“Horses in particular are extremely powerful for teaching,” Braxmeyer said. “Sometimes when you ask, you don’t always get what you want, and that’s a life lesson.”
Braxmeyer recounted a particularly challenging case involving two sexually abused brothers, a 7-year-old and a 10-year-old. Exhibiting violence, they had abused their family dog, and their mother was nervous.
“They were really struggling in school and acting out,” Braxmeyer said. “A lot of people would say that these two boys are a lost cause. They’re dangerous.”
When the brothers first visited the farm, they were sassy and disrespectful. But, riding the horses and brushing them began to change the boys. They began to care for their horse’s needs, rather than their own.
“There was empathy you could finally see coming out of these boys,” Braxmeyer said. “That’s what these kids needed.”
Empathy is a skill often learned as toddlers, or pre-toddlers, Braxmeyer said.
“They didn’t because of the abuse that happened to them,” she said. “We had to provide the opportunity to learn that skill again.”
Learning empathy was critical for the boys, for the sake of their future.
“There’s hope for those boys because, traditionally, kids who have had an experience like that go on to be violent teens, often imprisoned, often psychiatric institutionalized, because they couldn’t find the opportunity to relearn empathy,” Braxmeyer said.
To continue their work, Grace Therapeutic Horse Program welcomes donations and volunteers.
“Volunteer help is always appreciated, even just people that are willing to come out, clean or brush horses,” Robin Nelson said.
The program is also interested in expanding its acreage, which would allow it to offer longer trail rides to its therapy groups.
“It’d be lovely if we could have more space to accommodate this because people really disclose when they’re out in nature and all the rest of the world and noise falls away,” Braxmeyer said. “They can be truly honest with their heart and feel safe to do so.”
As medical workers, Braxmeyer and Nelson have both seen the negative impact of neglected mental healthcare.
“We do this because we want to help people. People like Robin and I, in our daily work at the hospital, see the ramifications of people who don’t take care of their mental health, who don’t take care of their addiction,” Braxmeyer said. “It’s eroding their family unit, whether it be their kids or their parents. It doesn’t stop with just the person.”
Ultimately, Grace Therapeutic Horse Program aspires for the skills learned with horses to be applied to human relationships.
“The goal, of course, is to translate that empathy, that sense of respect, and partnership with people,” Braxmeyer said.
Nelson and Braxmeyer both credit the horses for the success of Grace Therapeutic Horse Program.
“Our job is to be here to love on them [victims] as they learn what they need to from the horses,” Nelson said.
For more information about Grace Therapeutic Horse Program, or how to support the work done there, contact Robin Nelson at 360-910-7101 or visit its Facebook page.