Sometimes, all you need is someone comforting to listen to your problems.
Animals as Natural Therapy offers a safe space for individuals to interact with animals, serving mostly at-risk youth and veterans. The 5-acre farm offers goats, rabbits, dogs, chickens, a llama, one barn cat and horses.
Sessions are held on the farm for kids to come and spend time with the horses.
“Those sessions are pretty much led by the horses. The kids and horses get to pair up organically,” office manager Jessie Pemble said. “We don’t assign anyone [a horse]. That’s because we really honor the horse’s intuitive nature and trust them when they want to work with a specific kid.”
She said the horses push the kids’ boundaries, often helping them become more assertive or gentle.
“The main thing that we try to work on is communication because horses communicate non-verbally,” Pemble said. “Working with them really helps kids learn social and emotional intelligence and how to read situations better. That can be really hard for kids who are caught up in their anxiety, depression or anger.”
Along with developing communication skills, Pemble said she sees improvements in confidence and self-regulation skills.
“For me, the biggest awakening is seeing how the animals are so intuitive with the kids. The horses help guide the kids with the lessons they need, and that’s such a fabulous thing to watch.”
LaRae Soleimente, mentor at Animals as Natural Therapy
During the sessions, the focus is on building a relationship with the horse. The participants do this by grooming the horses, leading them through obstacles and talking to them, Pemble said.
Pemble, herself a past participant of the program, works closely with teenage girls in drug and alcohol recovery. Letting the girls have time alone with their horses is very important, she said.
“Often times, kids will feel comfortable saying things to a horse that they would never say to an adult,” Pemble said. “They can admit things to a horse without fear of judgment or retaliation, and it really lets them get things off their chest that they might be holding in.”
Some of the horses on the farm have been working as therapy horses their whole lives, and others have been rescued. One of the horses, Patriot, was rescued as a therapy animal for the program after his owner mistreated and starved him.
“If he can get through that horrible situation and still want to work with humans, then he knows how to forgive,” Pemble said. “If a horse knows how to forgive someone, then that’s pretty amazing.”
Program Director Sonja Wingard started the nonprofit organization 20 years ago on her own farm after seeing the amazing effects interacting with horses had on her three kids.
Wingard was also inspired to host a similar program on her farm after working as a nurse at a summer camp that had horses. She knew people working with at-risk kids from Catholic Community Services, who brought kids out to her farm to interact with the animals.
“We saw a softening that happened with the kids around the animals — taking down their defense a little bit — and compassion coming out of these kids,” she said.
Wingard said she closely follows the angriest kids in the program because of her years of experience working as a nurse.
“I realized [the horses] weren’t just here to ride, be brushed, smell good and leave your clothes smelling like a farm. They have a whole other agenda, and they can read people,” Wingard said.
She said she has witnessed people crying while revealing their pain to the horses.
“These horses stood there with them, [hearing them] revealing their deepest sorrows, and to me that’s a really fulfilling moment,” Wingard said. “These people feel safe to be vulnerable, to speak of their pain.”
said she has also experienced rewarding moments in her time as a mentor at Animals as Natural Therapy.
“For me, the biggest awakening is seeing how the animals are so intuitive with the kids,” Soleimente said. “The horses help guide the kids with the lessons they need, and that’s such a fabulous thing to watch.”
Current volunteer and former participant of the program, Geni Kingsland, said she experienced personal growth from connecting with her horse, Sundance, a 27 year-old Quarter Horse.
“When I was younger, I had a really bad speech impediment so I wouldn’t talk a lot,” Kingsland said. “Sonja always had us talk to the horses, and that really helped me open up and become vocal about what I want and what I need.”
Her advice for others is to not be afraid about putting yourself out there and connecting with animals.
“I know it’s awkward, they really don’t talk back, but they listen and they will give you advice,” Kingsland said. “Not only do they teach you, but they also comfort you.”
In addition to their after-school sessions with horses, Animals as Natural Therapy offers a mobile program which visits schools and nursing homes with dogs, rabbits, chickens, miniature horses, goats and the llama.
Animals as Natural Therapy receives funding from grants, sponsors and donations. Pemble estimates the program takes on 400 kids per year, from ages 6 to 18. Veterans can attend the program free of charge.
“For a lot of them, it’s a last resort to come here. Nothing else has worked,” Pemble said.
She said she wants to make the distinction that everyone involved in the program, from attendees to mentors to animals, are all participants.
“We’re trying to remove the stigma of coming to get counseling or therapy, and everyone is truly on the same team here,” Pemble said.