PLAIN CITY -- Water noodles, hula hoops, a big box and horses.
Those are some of the tools practitioners at Horses as Healers demonstrated Thursday as they explained how they use their animals, and sometimes toys, to get their clients to let down their guard and discover themselves through their experiences.
They told stories gleaned in their 30 years of experience. One was about an autistic boy who didn't speak but learned to say short sentences after he forced himself to say "whoa" and "go" to the horse he was working with.
And then there was another client, part of a group sitting in a circle in the arena. On his own, a horse kept going up to this person, nudging and nibbling until the client became angry.
At the next session, the client admitted to being sexually abused and feeling unable to control the perpetrator. The person told of the horse bringing out these feelings for the first time.
"Horses have the unique ability to bring about vast changes if only we learn to get out of their way and allow them to work their magic," Shannette Keeler and Danna Russell say in a book they wrote about equine therapy.
They've also written two manuals on equine programs.
Keeler and Russell are therapists as well as horse handlers. The two comprise the Horses as Healers program in Plain City.
It's the only Top of Utah equine therapy program certified by the Equine Assisted Growth and Learning Association.
Headquartered in Santaquin, EAGALA was founded in 1999 and now has 3,500 members in 38 countries -- and it continues to grow.
EAGALA programs use a solution-oriented team approach focusing on ground-based activities with horses.
Both Keeler and Russell have counseled people in office settings, but both say they prefer equine therapy, and they find it more effective.
"When doing equine therapy, we sit back and let the horse do the therapy," Keeler said. "We have to be careful not to inject what we see happening."
They let their clients "play" with the horses, often giving them a task to accomplish with the animals and then watch the experience unfold.
"Communication, trust, whatever comes up out in the arena, that's what we talk about," Russell said. "In an office setting, people can put up walls. The horses seem to take them down."
"One of the biggest things with going through EAGALA is allowing the process to happen," Keeler said.
"You start where the client is at," Russell said. "That's the great thing, it always starts where they are at. It also fosters a chance for them to tell where they are at."
In their book, the two explain that horses have healing powers because they have no hidden agenda.
"Unlike people, they are totally honest at all times. They simply react to what is happening at the time," they write.
"Students are forced to look at their own agenda and style of communication. Old patterns of behavior and excuses simply do not work."
On Thursday, Keeler and Russell demonstrated for clinicians at Island View, a residential treatment facility in Syracuse. The program, which helps clients between the ages of 13 and 171aN2, is considering contracting with Horses as Healers to help the teens address their concerns.
Jason Drake, clinical director at Island View, said officials there have considered adding an equine therapy program for some time because they've seen research indicating that such programs work. Because of this, he said, they've grown in popularity.
"Equine therapy is really effective, primarily for kids and people who struggle with attachment issues," Drake said.
"Equine therapy also is very effective in teaching kids who are passive how to be assertive," he said. And he's also seen horses tone down kids who are aggressive.
But Drake said he was surprised there weren't more programs locally, as the Plain City facility is the only local program that is EAGALA certified.
Drake said if a proposed contract with Horses as Healers is approved, his staff would attend equine therapy sessions with facility clients.
"We would generalize what they were learning there and continue it here," he said.
In addition to EAGALA programs, Keeler and Russell also provide riding therapy for people with physical and emotional issues.
They say they've seen horses help people address a host of issues, including depression, addictions, anxiety, eating disorders and post-traumatic stress disorder in all age groups.
For more information about EAGALA, visit EAGALA.org.
For more information about Horses as Healers, visit horsesashealers.net.