The Horse and Rider Connection

Restoration & Maintenance through Equine Massage Therapy

The Chapel Hill News - 13 April 2005

Treatment combines horses and therapy

The Internet saved Cameron Burleson from reinventing the wheel.

"I was preparing to obtain my graduate degree from the UNC school of Social Work in 2001, I knew I wanted to try and incorporate the personally satisfying aspects of my life with my career, " said Burleson, who last year became a licensed clinical social worker.

Among those "aspects" were horses and therapy, specifically, experiential therapy.

Burleson grew up with horses on his grandfather's farm in Spruce Pine. From his grandfather, Burleson gained his foundation in relationship building with horses. Experiential theory provides a situation for a client, then the therapist observes and processes the reactions to that situation.

Burleson thought he had come upon something original by using a horse setting to create an experiential setting for a client. "But I did a Web search, and a site came up for the Equine Assisted Growth and Learning Association, or EAGALA, and I thought, 'Oh, someone else has had this idea that I can explore.' That was an epiphany moment, to find out there are hundreds of colleagues engaged in this specific work was very gratifying."

The association, a nonprofit founded in 1999, provides resources, education and oversight in the field of equine-assisted psychotherapy. Six months after discovering the association, Burleson began its certification process. Since 2001, he has been a member on the move.

Burleson was avid about founding a group in Orange County to offer the therapy, but he had no horses or facilities available. So in addition to counseling clients in his private practice, he helped other North Carolina residents who were starting equine-assisted psychotherapy programs, getting hands-on experience.

Two years ago in a local parking lot, Burleson saw Bobbi Whittemore's truck bearing sign age advertising her equine massage therapy and sitting business. He gave Whittemore his card.

Whittemore, who has long and deep ties to the local horse community, shared Burleson's card with two friends, Cindy McWilliams and Deborah Pearson-Moyers, who also work and live with horses on a daily basis, not knowing that the duo had recently read about and become interested in equine-assisted psychotherapy.

"Deborah and Cindy wanted to get certified, and I knew I'd better do it too, because if they were getting involved in this, eventually I would be a part of it, " Whittemore said.

The three went to Knoxville, Tenn., in May 2003 and spent several intensive days receiving certification as level one EAGALA equine specialists. There are three levels on can achieve.

A year ago, the three women and Burleson founded the 7 Cedars Group and have spent much of the time since then getting to know one another, the facilities and horses they are using, which are all owned by McWilliams and Pearson-Moyers.

The therapy sessions, which are about an hour long, take place either on McWilliams' Stone Rose Farm next to the Haw River in Northern Chatham County or on Pearson-Moyers' Blue Skies Farm, which overlooks the Mapleview Dairy farm in Hillsborough. A team of one mental health professional and one equine specialist leads the sessions.

Burleson gave an example of a client who participated in a session a few months ago, a child who from birth until age 7 was the victim of abuse and neglect that resulted in significant trust issues. This caused the boy to feel he had to give something, like his lunch, for anyone to be his friend.

"He felt he had to go to someone in order to signify a relationship taking place. We took this young person out with a gentle horse, and his only instruction was to initiate contact with the horse, "Burleson said.

Two important therapy rules are that one cannot coerce or bribe the horse. The first thing the boy did was grab some grass. Burleson asked him if he thought it might be a bribe and, after, after mulling this over, he dropped the grass.

"But he looked for other things to do, including walking around the entire pasture in an attempt to sneak up on the horse, " Burleson said. "He wanted to pat the horse, but he wasn't supposed to initiate activity. We were in the pasture for about 45 minutes and the horse was almost ignoring the child."

Burleson asked the boy what might happen if he stood still.

"He really struggled, kicking the dirt, stamping his feet, but finally he got to the point where he put his hands behind his back, took a deep nervous breath and decided to try it. As soon as he did, the big bay mare walked over to him and stuck her head into his chest, "Burleson said.

The session continued as the boy and the horse spent time getting to know each other.

The members of The 7 Cedars Group work together like a couple that has been happily married for 60 years.

"We practiced by getting together in teams with a volunteer." Whittemore explained. "We had to get to know each other's body language so we don't have to talk too much in the ring and interrupt the activity. We also needed to find out each other's stuff before we even got into the ring. You're there for the client. You can't be having problems with each other. ."

The mental health professional's focus is on the client during the session, and the equine specialist's job is to watch the horse-and-client interaction which except in very rare occasions takes place on the ground-no riding is involved.

McWilliams, Pearson-Moyers and Whittemore can read the horse's language, keeping everyone in the ring safe and physically comfortable. Team members emphasize that the horse in the session is the third member of the team, not a tool.

"They're alive and interact, which is why we use them. They're like mirrors-they mirror our behaviors. The horses love this stuff. They just know when to step in and do something, " explained Whittemore, who loves seeing participants in the experiential therapy get what she calls their "aha" moments. "They just come across something they never realized before, and you can just see their brain going a mile a minute processing what they can do with it when they get out-of the ring."

Each session is explicitly planned for the client or group involved to meet predetermined goals like learning to trust or being a better leader.

Burleson said that in addition to providing therapy sessions, The 7 Cedars Group offers sessions for civic and corporate groups. He explained that equine-assisted psychotherapy is an alternative to standard in-office therapy. The group offers the services to individual clients as well as families.

"EAP is a brief therapy model, eight to 10 visits and is based on the standard psychotherapy model, meeting usually once a week, "he said. "It can be used not only in terms of therapy itself but also as a springboard into more longer-term therapy."