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Scott G Winterton, Deseret News
Ben talks with Rita Peters and equine specialist Cari Anderson in an equine therapy session Tuesday, July 30, 2013, in Cedar Fort.
We want (our clients) to enjoy a new experience with the horse — not something that they’re planning on, not something that they’ve seen before, but something that will reflect some of the things that are going on in their life. —Rita Peters

CEDAR FORT, Utah County — As horses browse along the fence lines, therapist Rita Peters tells her clients to think of a way to build an obstacle that represents a life challenge and use a horse to address it.

Hula-hoops, pool noodles, colorful balls, jumps and other potential obstacles lay strewn around the field in rural Cedar Fort.

One of the ways Peters conducts her equine assisted therapy sessions is to encourage her clients to find a way to address past, present or future life challenges by using the horses in any way they deem fit. Sometimes that means building an obstacle that symbolizes a life challenge and finding a way to lead the horse through it, she said.

“I want (my clients) to actually create that out here in this setting, and then we use the horse to address that situation,” Peters said.

Left only to their introspection and oftentimes puzzlement, Peters' clients then take the first steps toward eye-opening self-reflection and the beginnings of mental reparation. For some, it's immediate. For others, it may take a few meetings, she said.

Peters’ son, Adam, owns Three Willows Counseling and Equine Experience, a program in Cedar Fort that offers mental and emotional therapy by guiding and supervising interaction between humans and horses.

Rita Peters is an associate marriage and family therapist and has studied with the international association Equine Assisted Psychotherapy and Equine Assisted Learning to become an equine assisted psychotherapy facilitator.

“The motto for our program is a new experience, a new perspective,” Rita Peters said. “We want (our clients) to enjoy a new experience with the horse — not something that they’re planning on, not something that they’ve seen before, but something that will reflect some of the things that are going on in their life.

“We hope it will give them a new perspective of some of the issues they’re dealing with,” she said.

Rita and Adam Peters said those struggling with family or relationship issues, substance disorders, addiction, depression, anxiety, suicide problems, behavioral issues, attention deficit disorder, communication needs or other emotional or mental problems can find aid in the Three Willows program.

Adam Peters, as an active member of the U.S. Army Reserve who recently returned from his fourth tour of duty in Afghanistan, mostly works with veterans and those with post-traumatic stress disorder, as well as their families.

Trying something new

Ben, a Three Willows client who asked to be identified only by his first name, said he has been suffering from emotional troubles, relationship issues and anxiety since returning from fighting in Afghanistan in the National Guard.

He said he wanted to try something new because other forms of therapy didn't seem to be working for him.

"It's different than just sitting in an office with dim lights and one other person," he said. "If someone is looking for something different because therapy in general is not working, I'd say give this a shot."

Adam Peters said the advantage of equine assisted therapy over regular “couch-based therapy" is the client becomes more actively engaged in their healing process.

“The couch-based therapy is a communications-based piece where you’re just communicating directly between you, the therapist, and your inner monologue,” he said. “But where you actually get out and interact with the horse and you have to undergo different obstacles, it gives us a chance to physically work through those problems.

“You are not able to just sit there and somewhat lament over the concept or anything else, like you might be able to on a couch. You're immediately forced to come up with an answer,” he said.

When Rita Peters told Ben to think of a way to use a horse to represent challenges in his past, present and future, like many clients, he didn't quite know what to do at first.

"The Army has killed me in thinking freely," he said. “There’s hardly ever a situation where I don’t know what to do. So to come out here and get stumped is kind of frustrating, but at the same time it’s cool because it’s different.”

Rita Peters then talked with Ben to gain an understanding of the elements in his life troubling him. Of them, Ben discussed uncertainties in his future, concerns that he'd soon be losing his job, and relationship troubles with his wife. As for his past, Ben said the death of his father eight years ago had really taken a toll on him.

Rita Peters began with the latter, telling Ben to approach the chestnut horse named Johnny and pretend he was his dad.

"Go bond and go do whatever it is you two want to do," she told Ben.

As Ben met Johnny, he petted him and muttered close to his ears. The two then began walking around the pasture together. Eventually, Johnny stopped to graze. Ben stopped with him and stroked his shoulder. He began to cry.

When Ben returned, he told Rita Peters how he and his father used to have lunch together and how when Johnny stopped to graze, he reminded him of his dad.

"At first, when I started petting (Johnny), he was just a horse," Ben said. "But then I got to thinking what Rita was saying about trying to do my best to act like he was my dad, and that’s why we went off and did our own thing. It was neat that he kind of stopped for lunch, like how my dad and I used to.

"I think the issue I have with my dad is going to take a lot more than that because it's big issue for me, but it was good to have that experience," he said.

How horses help

Rita Peters said the purpose of the client-horse interactions is not to urge clients to accomplish a task or successfully lead the horse through the obstacle, but to create an opportunity to allow the clients’ issues to surface while they connect, or struggle to connect, with the horses.

Equine specialist Cari Anderson also attends Three Willows Counseling sessions to observe and analyze the horses’ behavior as they respond to the clients’ actions.

Anderson said the horses’ movements and reactions generally help to interpret what kind of issues clients deal with.

“Two heads are better than one,” Anderson said. "If we can get the right horses with the right people and get that out, the therapist’s job in the office later on is a million times easier, because she can get through a lot of the junk and identify the good stuff so they can move on and go on with their lives.”

After the clients interact with the horses, Rita Peters than opens a dialogue with them to discuss the experience and relate it to their lives.

“It has them start thinking more in-depth about themselves and why they act the way they do,” she said.

Rita Peters said horses act as ideal therapeutic companions because they relate to humans in multiple ways. Because their size can often be intimidating at first, it later can grant confidence to a client who learns to successfully interact with them.

“They mirror many similarities to us,” she said. “They’re herd animals. We don’t like being alone, and neither do they. They also reflect our emotions. The more frustrated we get, the more frustrated they get.”

Success in the pasture

Rita Peters recalled a session with a young man and his family. The young man had done a few equine assisted sessions before, but the first time his mother and father came with him, they experienced a relationship breakthrough, she said.

When the family was challenged with getting the horse to go over a small jump, tension between father and son built. The father gave orders to do it his way, but the horse continued to dodge the jump, despite the son’s insistence to try another way.

“Pretty soon, the kid started crying," Rita Peters said. "He gave up, threw his hands in the air, and said, ‘I quit. I’m not doing this anymore.'"

Rita Peters said when she stepped in to talk with the family, the son told his father he never listened to him.

“He said, ‘Dad, I’ve been around horses. I know how they work. If you would just listen to me.' So they finally did,” Rita Peters said.

They put the jump against the railing and directed the horse over the jump like the son said, and they succeeded.

“And Dad’s big epiphany at that moment was, ‘You mean you may know more than I do about some things?'" Rita Peters said. “And that bonded those two. It was wonderful. We were all crying by the end of it.”

Equine assisted therapy can be very emotional for both the client and the therapist, Rita Peters said. Tears are not uncommon, once the client reaches that breakthrough.

“We’ve seen people change the way they think, the way they act, and the way they respond to other people,” she said. “We see their willingness to interact, open up and talk about what’s going on in their lives.

“It’s a good feeling to know the experience will be something in their life that they will hold on to, learn from and remember.”

Email: kmckellar@deseretnews.com