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 that is 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 of 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 acknowl-edged through the Equine Assisted Growth and Learning Association (EAGALA), a nonprofit organization developed to address the need 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," Mrs. DeHoff said.
Through the program, Mrs. DeHoff said she's seen attitudes change in a short period of time.
One example was that of an 11-year-old who learned that his verbal behavior wasn't acceptable or effective when Mrs. DeHoff mimicked the behavior with her horse.
The child then realized what he had been doing and apologized. Mrs. DeHoff teared up as she recalled the positive change the experience effected in the child.
In fact, she said the program - known as "Changing Directions" - has been so successful that two other programs have branched off of it.
Since last year the farm has been involved in canine-assisted psychotherapy, using three certified therapy dogs whose names are Bumper, Dakota, and Shelby.
Mrs. DeHoff said she hopes to work with two pilot groups in the fall for the newest effort: equine- or canine-assisted learning that is geared toward children with poor grades, behavioral problems, or truancy.
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