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Published: Thursday, 4/27/2006

'Therapists' with 4 legs helping humans solve personal problems

Debra DeHoff and Easy. Debra DeHoff and Easy.

Debra DeHoff works with her four "therapists" - Dr. Easy, Lucky, Ringo, and Smokie - to help those recovering from drug addiction or other problems.

Her four-legged helpers, who eat a lot of hay and sometimes wear saddles, take part in a program known as equine-assisted psychotherapy used at Serenity Farm Equestrian Center in Luckey, Ohio."

The program works strictly through referrals and appointments and uses horses to help solve problems originating from low self-esteem, trust and separation issues, drug and alcohol addictions, anger, and rebellion.

"We find out more in 10 minutes of the first appointment than we can in weeks in the office," Mrs. DeHoff said. "It's reactive and it evokes changes."

As part of the therapy, participants perform tasks ranging from catching a horse to getting it to trot over an obstacle or go to a certain location inside the arena.

As they work on reaching out to the horses, which have the ability to mirror human feelings, they must stop and think about their approach and solve problems that arise by evaluating and changing their tactics toward the positive.

Mrs. DeHoff, program director at Serenity Farm, recently became nationally recognized for achieving the highest level - level III (master) - taught in that field.

The recognition was acknowledged through the Equine Assisted Growth and Learning Association (EAGALA), a non-profit organization developed to address the needs for resources, education, and professionalism in the equine-assisted psychotherapy field.

She said it took her about two years to achieve this level of experience.

"[The certification] gives me much more of a confidence level with clients," she said.

Through the program, Mrs. DeHoff said that she's seen attitudes change in a short period of time.

One example was that of an 11-year-old who was able to realize his verbal behavior wasn't acceptable when Mrs. DeHoff mimicked a similar behavior with her horse.

The child then realized what he had been doing and apologized. Mrs. Hoff teared up as she recalled the positive change the experience effected in the child.

In fact, she said the "Changing Directions" program has been so successful, that two other programs have branched off of it.

The farm has been involved in canine-assisted psychotherapy since last year using certified therapy dogs Bumper, Dakota, and Shelby.

Mrs. DeHoff said that she hopes to work with two pilot groups in the fall for the newest branch, equine- or canine-assisted learning, which is geared toward children with poor grades, behavioral problems, or truancy.

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