The key to any relationship is trust. For those who have experienced significant trauma, learning to trust again can be difficult. While the healing process takes time, Sonja Wingard, the founder and executive director of Animals as a Natural Therapy, thinks she has the answer. And it has four hooves.
“I have always seen horses bring out the best in people and challenge us to find our strength,” Wingard said. “They are opinionated, they are strong and you have to negotiate a relationship with them. It has to be based on trust and respect.”
Animals as Natural Therapy is a local nonprofit organization that gives youth, veterans and their families a chance to heal and feel empowered by developing bonds with animals, mostly horses. More than 400 kids come to Animals as Natural Therapy every year, Wingard said.
The organization also has llamas, dogs, chickens, rabbits, ponies and a turkey. At the farm, the horses choose the people.
Wingard, a registered nurse, has more than 30 years of experience working with people and animals and is incredibly passionate about making a difference in people’s’ lives.
The nonprofit works with many aspects of our community, but 90 percent of the adolescents the nonprofit work with come from low-income households with few opportunities. Animals as Natural Therapy works with many at-risk children and children who have gone through major shock, like being trafficked or coming from a neglectful household.
“We have got a lot of girls that have been trafficked,” Wingard said. “Some of them have even been trafficked by their own mom to get their mom drugs, and then they got into drugs. So the girls in recovery have a lot of trauma that way.”
Washington is a hotbed for human trafficking due to its abundance of ports, rural areas and its border with Canada.
Animals as Natural Therapy offers a program called New Horizons, focused on teenagers in recovery from substance abuse. The program offers a chance for clients to develop an assortment of skills like verbal and nonverbal communication; maintaining a positive attitude, relationship building, confidence and teamwork.
“Those kids have been traumatized and neglected,” Wingard said. “They don’t know what a healthy relationship looks like. They come here and find that they can get one with a horse, and learn that it is possible and what it takes.”
One child the organization worked with was in the foster care agency for 5 years. He was rightfully an angry child, his father had tried to kill him. He was adopted after a little more than a year working with a horse at Animals as Natural Therapy.
“They just get to interact in a group setting with other kids which is great because a lot of them lack social skills.”
“He said that horse taught him to love and to be loved. He told us that when he was about eleven, being adopted,” Wingard said. “That’s big. If you can give someone that gift by donating $500 or $1000 or $20. You can help someone’s belief system about themselves and that love is possible.”
Secret Harbor, a foster care agency based out of Burlington, sends children to Animals as Natural Therapy to help them cope with tough situations. Secret Harbor is a small nonprofit foster agency that focuses its service on young people who have experienced serious trauma due to abuse and neglect.
“I have had a lot of kids on my caseload attend Animals as Natural Therapy,” Shannon Yaeger, a caseworker at Secret Harbor, said. “They just get to interact in a group setting with other kids which is great because a lot of them lack social skills.”
Secret Harbor’s goal is to provide high quality and intensive services to children in order to help them cope with trauma and regain trust in adults while surrounding them with a supportive environment. The foster agency serves the communities of Skagit, Snohomish and Whatcom counties. Secret Harbor is always looking for more foster parents.
“We really value our relationship with Animals as Natural Therapy,” Yaeger said. “Being able to offer a specialized therapy like this to our kids is really important because often times they are not ready for something like talk therapy.
Another way Animals as Natural Therapy gives back is through a program tailored exclusively for veterans. The nonprofit’s goal with the program is to offer veterans a chance to explore their feelings when transitioning back to civilian life by partnering a veteran with a horse.
“A lot of people who have been in a combat area have a lot of trauma that is not visible,” Wingard said. “They have a hard time incorporating back into the community because they have been taught to not be vulnerable, to survive and to shut their compassion off. To survive in a relationship and a family, you have to have that turned back on. The horses pull that out of us gently.”
RETIRED PERSONS and CHILDREN’S CAMPS
Besides adolescents and veterans, Animals as Natural Therapy also visits retirement homes and provides camps open to all children. The llamas are fun for the nursing home visits, and used to be an essential part of the visit. Unfortunately the llama they have now is too old.
“One lady one day said you got to get a picture of me and that llama at the nursing home,” Wingard mentioned with a chuckle. “I said why, and she says ‘because my son. I tell him that this llama comes to visit me and he thinks I am hallucinating.”
Wingard mentioned that llamas are great for nursing home visits because they would just lie down and people could roll up to them on their wheelchairs and pat them.
“All animals lower our cortisol,” Wingard said. “Just petting that soft furry neck of that llama, or that rabbit or that dog can lower your cortisol.”
Cortisol is a steroid hormone produced by our adrenal glands. Cortisol is often referred to as the stress hormone, because it is released during times of stress.
Multiple studies have shown that a positive interaction with a service dog lead to an increase in social attention and smiles in people in wheelchairs, persons with developmental disorders, children with autism and nursing home residents.
The fencing surrounding the barn is decorated with an assortment of horse silhouettes with company names painted on them. The wooden horse cutouts are part of the organization’s “Horsin’ Around” campaign.
The campaign typically takes place late-spring and early summer, but Wingard mentioned it could go on year-long.
“We try to get businesses to sponsor kids in our programs,” Wingard said. “For 300 dollars someone could get a wooden horse cut-out with their name on it.”
Animals as Natural Therapy provides two camps every year, Kidz Days and Summer Day Camp.
Kidz Days is a camp for young children, ages 3-8. The camp offers an opportunity for any child to get up close with the animals. The children get to ride horses, develop friendships and work on teamwork.
Kidz Days is three hours long and takes place in June and September. The sessions cost $40 when you sign up. Signing up beforehand is important, it fills up fast.
Summer Day Camp is offered in the summer months. Unlike Kidz Days, Summer Day Camp is ages 6-16. The camp sessions are five days, there is a girls camp for ages 10 and older, and a teen camp for ages 13 and up.
“One of my favorite things is actually volunteer training,” Susan Lewis, the barn manager, said. “I do love that, because I know so many of them are going to find it personally fulfilling,” she said.
Animals as Natural Therapy offers multiple ways to volunteer. People from the community can help with the basic farm chores, help plan and assist events, help in the office, assist repairs on the property or even get involved with the board of directors.
The organization also accepts internships from Western students, Wingard referred to them as the farm’s “bread and butter.”
“[The volunteers] come out here because they want to give back to the community and I love that,” Lewis said. “But what I know that they don’t know, is that they [learn] so much [about] themselves in the process.”