The PEACH Pit General
Don’t want to talk about your feelings? Equine-assisted therapy might be right for you
September 28, 2018 05:36 PM
Updated September 30, 2018 10:37 AM
FORT VALLEY, GA — More U.S. first responders died from suicide than in the line of duty last year, according to a recent report by the Ruderman Family Foundation. Gwendolyn Coley wants to change that.
The Fort Valley social worker is CEO of The PEACH Pit, a nonprofit center where clients step outside of the therapist’s office to work through obstacles. The PEACH Pit, a branch of the Peach County Equine Assisted Counseling and Health Center, offers equine-assisted psychotherapy, in which a mental health professional, an equine specialist and one or more horses all help the client to overcome challenges affecting their mental health.
“We believe that the clients come to us with the ability to solve their own problems,” Coley said. “We just facilitate it.”
On Friday, The PEACH Pit hosted its third event catered towards first responders, who Coley said often struggle with mental health but are wary to ask for help.
And though police-involved shootings garner widespread attention from the media, police suicides rarely make it into the news, Coley said.
At least 103 firefighters and 140 police officers died from suicide in 2017. Researchers estimate those numbers could be even higher because family members often choose not to report their loved ones’ cause of death.
It can be hard for first responders to ask for help, Coley said. When an issue arises, she said, they might hesitate to open up to a therapist.
“They may get to a therapist and say, ‘I’m OK. I’m ready to go back to work. Nope, I’m not having any difficulty sleeping. Nope, my mood is OK. Nope, I’m not drinking too much. Nope. Nope. I’m fine,” Coley said. “Because they want to go back to work and they don’t want to be labeled as being mentally unstable.”
Equine-assisted psychotherapy, overseen by the international nonprofit organization Eagala, offers an alternative solution. Unlike in traditional mental health counseling, the Eagala model involves less talking and more action and observation. Clients can reflect and process without having to say a word.
“It is therapy, but they’re hanging out with horses, so it’s very different. That kind of helps to destigmatize it a bit,” Coley said. “And we’re not asking them to come here to tell us about that event that happened that caused them to come to therapy. We’re asking them to come here and be in the here and now.”
Horses can be easier to work with than people, said Paige Jobe, an equine specialist and owner of Spirit’s Quest in Roberta. Jobe and Coley work together for many of their counseling sessions, with Jobe acting as the horse specialist and Coley as the mental health professional.
“They read body language. They read energy. And they don’t come with a lot of baggage,” Jobe said. “So when you interact with a horse, they give you an opportunity to try out new behaviors that you can’t necessarily — or, it can be difficult to do with the people in your life.”
Anyone can benefit from equine-assisted therapy, Jobe said. She works primarily with children, while Coley focuses mostly on adults. The key, Jobe said, is an open mind. Equine-assisted therapy can help with conditions like anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder, and clients also can attend sessions in conjunction with talk therapy, Jobe said.
The approach is typically short-term and solution-focused. After six to 12 weeks, clients are usually ready to move on.
Shannon Singletary was the sole first responder to attend the first responders event Friday morning. Coley had invited local police, firefighters, emergency medical technicians and sheriff’s deputies to a free demonstration, which she hoped might inspire them to come back for a therapy session.
After two hours with the horses, Singletary was hooked. As office manager of Palms Medical Transport in Byron, the EMT spends her days fielding phone calls and navigating emergencies.
When her office decided to send a representative to the event, Singletary was curious. She had never heard of equine-assisted therapy before and didn’t know what to expect. By the end of demonstration, though, she was ready to bring her kids and co-workers for a session.
“It works,” Singletary said.
Coley and Jobe led Singletary through a series of activities to reduce anxiety. Singletary held her palm to a horse’s ribs to feel its breathing. Then she made a path with pool noodles meant to represent a normal day at work, and tried, without success, to guide a horse through the winding maze.
Singletary didn’t expect the experience to be so emotionally intense, but at times she felt a lump forming in the back of her throat. Singletary doesn’t like to talk about her feelings. With the horses, though, she could work through her emotions without bearing her soul.
“In a sense, you’re beating around the bush, but you’re still getting it out,” Singletary said. “You’re feeling those feelings again. You’re processing those feelings, but you’re not actually having to say what it is that’s going on.”
‘A mirror for their emotions’
Equine-assisted psychotherapy has been around for about two decades, and the field is growing, said Laura Murphy, manager of the equestrian center at Wesleyan College.
Wesleyan offers a minor in equine-assisted therapy, taught by mental health counselor Susan Jung. Now in its second year, the program has three students, who all hope to incorporate horses into their therapy practice.
Jung and her students spend about half of their time in the classroom and the other half out in the arena, getting hands-on experience with the horses.
“I know I personally always feel, like, less stressed and more centered after the sessions,” said Samantha Camp, a Wesleyan senior studying psychology and equine therapy. “And it just really reinforces the idea behind it.”
Jung, who also practices traditional psychotherapy, thinks equine-assisted therapy is the most effective form of mental health counseling she’s ever used. She got her Eagala certification about 18 years ago, and she’s seen firsthand the life-changing impact it has had on her clients.
“I think people don’t realize how effective that this work can be — that the horses can create, kind of, a mirror for their emotions and help them sort through a lot of their issues in life,” Jung said.
She once watched a child stand paralyzed in the arena, unsure of how to create an obstacle course, as Jung had asked her to do.
“Then all the sudden, the horse came over and started moving things around the arena, and then went back and stood by her,” Jung said. “And she looked back at me and said, ‘I guess I should ask for help more often,’ and that was her — that was her learning for the day.”
Coley wishes more people knew about equine-assisted psychotherapy because she thinks it would help them prioritize their mental health. She said people don’t hobble around and refuse treatment when they break their leg, so they shouldn’t put off mental health care, either.
Mental health should be thought of as a basic need, like food and shelter, Coley said. That’s why she works with patients to ensure that payment never inhibits anyone from getting the care they need.
The PEACH Pit doesn’t accept insurance, but Coley offers what she calls an “equity payment plan,” which allows clients to pay what they can — even nothing at all — based on their insurance status and income.
“We don’t penalize anybody because they can’t pay,” she said.
Coley’s determined to help others, especially groups whose mental health often gets overlooked. She served for 25 years in the Army and Army Reserve and is particularly interested in bringing equine-assisted therapy to other veterans.
“It’s just my way of giving back to a community that has supported me for decades,” she said.
Like first responders, veterans often suffer from PTSD and other mental health issues but are reluctant to seek out therapy.
“I know the power of these horses in helping people,” Coley said. “I want to use this to help.”
Samantha Max is a Report for America corps member and reports for The Telegraph with support from the News/CoLab at Arizona State University. Follow her on Facebook at facebook.com/samantha.max.9 and on Twitter @samanthaellimax. Learn more about Report for America at www.reportforamerica.org.
The PEACH Pit is partnering with Cathy Woods Yoga and Enrichment Programs to offer Renew and Reconnect: a restorative horse and yoga self-care women’s retreat through Body, Mind, Equine.
This fundraising event is April 12-14, 2019, at The PEACH Pit Georgia, Fort Valley.
Register today to use yoga principles to improve horsemanship and life in general. Experience rich, heart-connected time with yourself, others and the spirit of the horse, through meditation, yoga and optional saddle time.
All levels welcome.
Lodging is shared in one of two 12×32 lofted cabins. Each cabin can sleep up to eight, but we will reserve space for only six in each: three sleeper sofa/chairs downstairs and three beds in the lofts, which are accessible by ladder and have sleeping space (not standing room). Each cabin has a shared bathroom (shower, toilet, sink).
The rate includes five meals (light dinner Friday; breakfast, lunch and dinner Saturday; brunch Sunday).
Cathy created this nationally acclaimed program and has been featured in Forbes; Western Horse and Gun; Equitrekking; and Yoga Digest.
Learn more about Cathy Woods Yoga Body, Mind, Equine.
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Our eldest board member, the woman who ensured The PEACH Pit had a place to call home, turned 95 on Aug. 18.
As part of the birthday celebration, alumni of the Fort Valley State University Baptist Student Union Gospel Choir gave an impromptu musical tribute.
She was a longtime educator and principal, and headed the FVSU BSU for decades. She’s a world traveler and motivator. She’s a role model for hundreds of former students and anyone who’s fortunate enough to cross her path.
Most importantly for us, she’s a wonderful ambassador for The PEACH Pit, spreading our mission and vision far and wide, whether at the senior citizens center where she volunteers twice a week, at church or at any meeting she attends.
Please help us congratulate Margaret McCormick on turning 95.
Before summer officially began, activity at The PEACH Pit began heating up.
First, we partnered with Spirit’s Quest to co-host an eight-week Peach-Quest Social Skills Summer Camp for 20 school-age clients in Peach and Crawford counties. Camp activities focused on eight *power tools: respect, responsibility, relationship skills, boundaries, empathy, choices and consequences, and personal ability.
The PEACH Pit also hosted almost 200 students of the Fort Valley State University freshman class for a day of service, and we partnered with volunteers of WellCare Health Plans to help manage the activities.
The contracted summer camp kicked off in June, with four weeks in Fort Valley, and moved to Roberta’s Spirit’s Quest in July for the final four weeks. Campers experienced:
- Equine-assisted psychotherapy,
- Yoga therapy,
- Horticulture therapy,
- Horse care and horsemanship,
- Horseback riding lessons,
- Fishing and
- A heritage animal experience.
Many campers had never encountered any of the camp offerings, and some had never attended summer camp.
While the camp offered fun activities, the primary activity was equine-assisted psychotherapy, horses incorporated into daily group therapy sessions focusing on one power tool a week.
Based on weekly surveys from parents and guardians, the camp met its primary objective: to provide children with foundational social skills that would help them be productive members of society.
From the surveys, 21 percent of parents or guardians reported being “very unsatisfied” with their child’s behavior in the areas taught during camp. “Very unsatisfied” was the lowest possible ranking on the survey. Thirty percent reported being “somewhat unsatisfied” with their child’s behavior before camp.
After the power tools were taught, at least 50 percent of parents and guardians reported being satisfied with their child’s behavior, with about 15 percent reporting being very satisfied, the highest possible ranking.
The biggest shift in parent satisfaction with their child’s behavior was with respect. The results showed 63 percent reporting being unsatisfied or somewhat unsatisfied before camp. After the week of respect discussion, all parents and guardians reported being at least satisfied with the behavior in this area.
Another notable shift was with boundaries before and after camp. Before camp, half of parents and guardians reported being somewhat or very unsatisfied with their child’s behavior with boundaries. After camp, that number changed to 75 percent who were at least satisfied.
The FVSU Day of Service, coordinated with the iHelp Center, was Aug. 17, the final day of New Student Orientation Week.
Students arrived on two charter buses and wore T-shirts on their school colors of blue and yellow, with “iHelp FVSU” emblazoned on the front. WellCare volunteers were in orange-and-white T-shirts, making for a very colorful day, despite rain showers.
The rain dampened efforts to complete the planned activities – including erecting two tents, clearing overgrown brush, caring for the horses, stacking hay bales and erecting fencing. However, 10 dedicated FVSU volunteers and WellCare volunteers joined board members of The PEACH Pit in completing one tent.
Other volunteers were able to participate in two demonstrations of how horses can help clients in counseling.
Before summer ends, The PEACH Pit will host first responders for demonstrations on how they can put themselves first in getting mental health care, and we’ll be preparing for our third Horsepower and Heroes Retreat for women Veterans.
Stay tuned for more busyness at The PEACH Pit.
*We adapted concepts from “Power Tools for Living” by Robert and Nancy Magnelli; and “Head ’Em Up, Move ’Em Out” by Susan Jung. All are activities are based on the Eagala model of psychotherapy.
Hey exercise enthusiasts, have you ever said, “Thank you for your service”? Well, here’s a chance to truly thank our Veterans and active duty servicemembers.
The Horsepower and Heroes Heavyweight Hack is your chance for a great day of working out while raising money to bring Veterans to The PEACH Pit for a free two-day retreat. All (that’s 100 percent ) of the proceeds will go to fund The PEACH Pit’s Horsepower and Heroes Retreat on Nov. 10-12, 2017.
This fundraiser will include team and individual workouts of the day, with prizes to the Top 3 teams and Top male and female. Registration is $160 per team (two men and one woman per team), and $45 for individual competitors. Additionally, proceeds from T-shirt sales will help fund the retreat.
Register by 10 p.m. April 30 and get 5 percent off (code HAHX).
Why are we doing this? Well, it’s our way of giving back. Our primary goal at The PEACH Pit, founded by a Veteran, is to provide affordable, low cost mental health counseling to all clients, especially our living heroes, our Veterans and servicemembers.
Sadly, a 2016 Department of Veterans Affairs report indicates that about 20 Veterans commit suicide daily. We want to do our part to prevent those deaths. To that end, The PEACH Pit is selecting Veterans from a pool of applicants for the free two-day outdoors retreat at our farm site in Georgia.
The fundraiser was the idea of The PEACH Pit board chair’s son, a CrossFit enthusiast and Army helicopter pilot.
By the way, a hack, in horse terms, is a short trail ride, generally at a leisurely pace. In nonhorse language, it’s an efficient way of achieving a goal.
You’re the heavyweights, we have the horses and the goal is to raise money. Register today for the Horsepower and Heroes Heavyweight Hack.
If you know of a Veteran interested in attending our Horsepower and Heroes Retreat, have them check out that event.
Thanks for helping us thank them.
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Not only did Andrea M. Gibson help bring seven teens from Macon to volunteer at The PEACH Pit on Jan. 14, but she also shot pictures and video. Pictured below are Katherine Hosmer, left, and Jessica Wornum. Check out her work and learn more about what we do.