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Horses Nurture Human Clients at Shayna Meadows

Shayna Meadows Horses Helping HumansHorses have been carrying human burdens for centuries, and the task is transitioning from a physical burden to a mental one through equine assisted therapy. It’s been a practice since the Ancient Greeks, and was further developed in Europe in the 1960s. Relatively new in the U.S., equine assisted therapy can help depression, anxiety and substance abuse.

Shayna Meadows Wellness and Therapy is tucked in an off-the-beaten path mountainside in Pocahontas County, a peaceful place where humans and horses can interact and where the human side of the equation can use the experience for self-reflection and healing.

Therapist Lynette Otto has been around horses since she was 12, and bought her first horse at 18. That was Shayna, not only her first horse, but her friend and her solace in troubled times, a heartfelt connection between them so strong Shayna was the maid of honor at her wedding.

Otto, a former wildlife biologist with the U.S. Forest Service, gave up that career to study counseling, go through the supervisory period with Seneca Mental Health and finally, invest in an arena and office building where she can see clients.

She says that equine assisted therapy is experiential rather than verbal, and that often helps her clients see things in their lives in a different way.

“It’s actually laying it out physically, it’s seeing the horses respond to different things,” Otto said. “It takes it sort of out of our heads and out of even words, sometimes. That often helps people get very different perspectives on what’s going on in their lives.”

Her clients “read” the horses, after using objects in the arena to name issues in their lives. It could be work, it could be a relationship, it could be situational, but whatever the horse’s response, it causes clients to try to determine why the horse behaved that way with that object and makes them think about their own reactions. Otto also sets up an “obstacle course” to represent the client’s issue and has the client lead a horse through the course to see where it gets difficult.

“Often the horse is mirroring what is happening with the client,” she said. Then the client can see where he or she is “getting stuck” and, because of being in a experiential situation, has to figure out how to maneuver through the course. “Anytime we have clients in the arena with the horses, it’s easier for them to be in the moment, and sometimes being in the moment, rather than thinking about what happened yesterday or worrying about tomorrow, helps people,” Otto said.

Why horses?

Horses and humans have bonded over so many generations that there is a theory of a genetic link, and that draws humans to horses, even if they’re afraid of them, Otto said.

“They’re beautiful, they’re graceful,” she continued. “They seem to be really interested in what people are doing.”

It’s what makes horses suited to therapy sessions dealing with anxiety or depression, because they give feedback to the client, either positive or negative, depending on what emotions the client brings to the arena.

New clients are usually introduced to two or three horses and can choose which ones they’re attracted to. That gives Otto an insight into the client’s needs and issues.

Her horses all have different temperaments and personalities, just like her clients. None of the horses are prone to kicking, biting or being otherwise aggressive.

“I have horses that are really calm, I have horses that are more curious or less curious,” she said. “It’s nice to have horses that have a certain amount of curiosity and a play drive. They’re interested in engaging with you.”

The majority of her clients are there because they suffer from anxiety and depression. Those clients get time to do deep breathing exercises while walking with the horse, and noticing where the horse puts its feet, how it breathes, anything in the surroundings that “get the client out of their head.”

“Anxiety generally comes from thoughts just running around and you get overwhelmed by them, we can’t shut them down,” Otto said. “So if you can be in the moment with the horse it gives you a break from that.”

Part of the therapy for clients who have anxiety issues is simply brushing the horse. Otto said it’s the same idea as petting a dog will lower blood pressure. The interaction tends to be a calming activity, she said.

“Sometimes they don’t experience that in their lives, ever being that calm, so even though they can’t take the horse with them, it gives them an idea of what it’s like to be calmer and we can work on methods they can employ on their own to get themselves to that calm level,” Otto said.

That puts clients in a place Otto calls “the zone,” where the activity causes time to stand still, where “we’re just consumed with (the horses) and so involved and engaged with them that we lose all sense of what else is going on.”

Otto’s own “zone” is when she’s with her horses, particularly when she’s riding. A decade ago, while living in Wyoming, she began working with human-horse interactions and was on the board of a therapeutic riding organization, which deals more with developmental and physical issues.

“I...saw how really powerful the horse-human bond is and I also enjoyed teaching people to ride,” Otto said. “I’ve always been looking for ways to increase time with horses so they can help people.”

In business now for more than a year, Otto has about a dozen clients, two students who take riding lessons and five horses. Clients do not need a referral, and can make appointments for therapy on a semi-regular basis. Ottto said when things begin to get better for clients, they opt for one of two paths. Either they discontinue therapy for awhile or they discover something else in their lives they want to work on so they continue.

One of Otto’s clients, “Christina,” (not her real name) is a young professional. She’s been going to Shayna Meadows since November to work on anxiety issues.

“We’ve done a lot of building,” she said. Christina chose McCullough, the leader of Otto’s herd of horses. “I think it was something about her, she just had a presence that made me feel comfortable. She’s in charge.”

As Christina uses objects in the arena to represent her feelings or her issues, McCullough accurately portrayed how she was feeling in each situation.

“When we got to the ‘anxiety’ cone, she went crazy,” Christina said.

After six months, Christina said she feels better and she’s glad she started with equine assisted therapy instead of traditional counseling.

“I’m worried that traditional counseling would have started me in the wrong direction and I wouldn’t have responded well and (then) been afraid to go back,” she said. Christina is now riding McCullough as part of her therapy. “It’s a whole new experience. It was really natural.”

Some of Otto’s clients suffer from substance abuse, and equine assisted therapy is valuable in helping those with addiction issues find a way out of that habit.

“I like them understand the things that are really good about them, because a lot of folks who have substance abuse issues, they’re aware of their shortcomings and what is not going right for them,” Otto said. “(That’s) why they self-medicate.”

She said family, friends, teachers or the legal system are readily available to tell addicts what’s wrong with them.

“I think personal growth is more effective if it can come from an understanding (of) what’s good about us and trying to increase what’s good about us,” Otto continued. But she said some clients can’t think of something about themselves that is good.

Again, she’ll use objects in the arena for the few things the client names and get them to gauge what the horse is doing, opening a door for a conversation and internal reflection on the possibilities of life without drugs or alcohol. Otto said they might find they have a good heart, or musical talent or anything that makes them worth trying to deal with their substance abuse issues.

The horses don’t understand what clients talk about, but they do understand the energy clients bring into the arena. The point is not how the horse reacts, but the client’s interpretation of that. People often interpret the horse’s behavior “completely wrong,” Otto said, but the value is in the putting a relationship or situation with the horse’s behavior.

Shayna Meadows Therapy and Wellness can be found on Facebook, at and can be reached at 304-799-4141. Most major insurances will pay for equine assisted therapy, Otto said.

-by Pamela Pritt/