Valley Journal
Valley Journal

Horse retreat helps people dig into subconscious thoughts

PABLO – Sharline Bluemel never expected to get emotional help from a horse, but she was willing to try anything. She was feeling really low and didn’t want to get out of bed anymore. But Bluemel had kids to take care of, so when she was invited to try equine therapy, although skeptical, she went along with it. 

“I’ve ridden horses all my life and never had a horse help me with my problems,” she said. “I wasn’t sure how this was going to work.”

She was surprised to find that the program really did help. After working with the horses, she felt emotionally stronger and less stressed. She was able to address many issues she didn’t even realize she was carrying around from her past.

She was so impressed with the program that she went back for a second round to “recharge” on Monday, Nov. 13. Shaunda Albert and Amanda Held led the equine-assisted learning retreat during the second program Bluemel attended along with several other people in a rented barn across from The People’s Center in Pablo. 

Albert owns Willow Canyon Counseling in Polson and works as a counselor for mental health services. She teamed up with Held, who is from Ohio, to provide the three-day retreat. 

Held established her own nonprofit equine therapy program called Healing of Our Veterans Equine Services (HOOVES) with a focus on helping military veterans.  

Albert and Held started the retreat after an unlikely meeting earlier this year. They were both attending an Equine Assisted Growth and Learning Association conference and decided to team up to combined their skills and offer a retreat in Pablo.

Albert said she didn’t know how well equine therapy worked until she was given the chance to try it for herself. She was going through a stressful time in her life and she was able to have a moment of clarity while working with horses.

“I had an ah-ha moment and it was very powerful,” she said.

The six people attending the retreat started out by handling two horses, a miniature pony and donkey in the coral. After the introduction, the group stood back and watched the animals. The donkey was keen on following the group around while the two full sized horses found a spot to stand and close their eyes for a moment.

The group watched them and selected a label for each of the animal’s personalities. Albert and Held then asked the group what the horses were feeling. Held explained that people often project their own feelings onto the animals. For example, one person might decide that the horse is feeling tired when it’s actually the person that is feeling tired.

Albert said the horses are a starting point for discussion. They help people feel comfortable so they can start talking, and once a feeling, like being tired, is identified, a person usually opens up about why they might be feeling that way. Participants don’t need to ride the horses to participate in the program.

“Equine therapy is very powerful when incorporated into mental health counseling,” Albert said. 

Held said a horse’s nonverbal communication and ability to sense emotions make it a good therapeutic helper. For example, someone may feel terrified of a horse, and the horse senses that and may act skittish in anticipation of whatever the person fears. She said that the horse’s mimicry could help people figure out their own feelings.  

Held said she works with a lot of veterans and finds that asking them to rehash their past isn’t helpful, so she doesn’t ask them their stories, but they are free to share if they want to.

“This is solution based. When people come up with solutions for the horse, it’s actually what they need,” Held said.

Marvin Camel Jr. was in the group. He said the horses weren’t just animals but friends to people who were kind to them. He grew up on a farm working with animals. 

“The horses bring out emotions and make people feel more comfortable to talk about them,” he said. 

His brother, Mervyn Camel, said he is used to keeping his emotions “tied up” and working with the horses helps him share those issues so he can deal with them.

“The horses help you slow down and understand your environment,” he said. 

Albert hopes to offer equine therapy and more retreat opportunities to her tribal clients and the entire community including children in foster care and people with addiction issues. For more information, contact Albert at 406-270-3447. 

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