he already knew my story – the slit wrists, the attempted hanging, the despair, the hurt I caused my loved ones, hospitals, jail, psych wards, tasers, stealing, lying, eating rat poison. I got on my knees and told it all and her shoulders heaved and I knew she went through and FELT each and every failure. This big, bad ass animal heard my story and then she started following me around the ring. No judgement; just a buddy in my arms.
Inmate Tammy James* was completing her jail sentence at the Chester County Prison in Pennsylvania. She was chosen to participate in the Chester County Women’s Reentry Assessment & Programming Initiative (WRAP) – a program developed specifically for female survivors of trauma who are transitioning back into the community following their sentence. She was also selected to participate in a new equine-assisted psychotherapy program (EAP), and the “she” in Tammy’s testimonial was a free roaming horse she met through the program.
Kristen de Marco is the Executive Director and Founder of Gateway Horseworks, a Philadelphia-based nonprofit organization that offers EAP to individuals recovering from mental health conditions, abuse, trauma, grief, addiction, human trafficking, and more.
“When we incorporate horses with our clients, the horses become metaphors for how we explore relationships and for what we are facing outside the arena,” Kristen says. “We can work with horses to explore how we feel as people.”
Kristen grew up riding horses but went to work in the fashion industry following graduation from Villanova University. Eventually, she found herself divorced and lost with no direction. Through it all, there was one place she found inspiration – from a small, nervous pony she was rehabbing who had been severely mistreated in his previous life.
“That process reaffirmed for me how important horses can be in the healing process,” Kristen says. “I had to be so present, and horses force us to be in the moment, yet they don’t judge us. They haven’t read our file. You get a clean slate with them.”
Kristen became certified by the Equine Assisted Growth and Learning Association (EAGALA) – the global standard for working in equine-assisted psychotherapy and personal development and developed Workhorse – an equine-assisted, professional development company designed to help corporate teams and schools through team building and motivational programs.
Recognizing a gap in the industry, Kristen founded a nonprofit branch of Workhorse – Gateway Horseworks. All the work with the horses in this program is done on the ground. There is no riding. The horses have no tack, no halters. They roam free. They are in a herd. They are not trained for therapy in any way.
“There is natural horsemanship and therapeutic riding, but this is something quite different,” Kristen says. “When you are on the ground, you have the ability to work in the context of the relationship. We believe clients have the solution to the challenges they are facing and the goals they want to achieve if given the space to discover them.”
A Safe Space to Reconnect
For Tammy James, EAP gave her a purpose while serving time. She participated in the Stable Pathways program, one of six programs offered by Gateway Horseworks.
Stable Pathways is a trauma-informed, equine-assisted psychotherapy curriculum developed to assist women who are in the pre-release center of Chester County Prison. Participants who have felt anxiety, depression, and hopelessness are taught how to develop communication, and rebuild trust and respect through interacting with the horses.
“This is not something normal that the jail would allow women to go off the institution grounds to attend therapy,” says Jennifer Lopez, the Deputy Chief of Adult Probation who runs the women’s re-entry program. “It allows the women to have a safe space while they are incarcerated to reconnect. Prison and pre-release can be really traumatizing experiences. This program allows them a space to decompress.”
“We can work with horses to explore how we feel as people.”
Every Tuesday for eight weeks, the jail provides transportation for groups of eight women to be driven to Kristen’s farm. They are served a meal and then spend time with Kristen’s herd of mostly rescue horses.
“We work with the women to get a sense of what their individual goals are because this is not a prescriptive method,” Kristen says. “We want to know what they are struggling with. A common theme for the women is rebuilding trust with their family. We try to build around what they are hoping to get out of the program. We often will work right in the pasture with the horses. We don’t mandate that they ‘talk about it,’ and that really releases the pressure, and it changes the paradigm of therapy.”
The women are invited to interact with the horses in whatever way they choose. The horses may all be grazing, they might be napping or curious about the inmates in their pasture. The women are encouraged to observe the horses’ behavior but without interpretation.
Kristen says, “We encourage the clients to notice anything unique about the horses’ behavior and then the facilitator will go out and talk to them. It allows the clients to start to share their story without pressure and creates this distance, which is called a ‘self-distancing approach’. It allows the clients to really internally process what’s happened without having to externally verbalize it.”
Many of the women do not understand that they have experienced trauma. They simply believe that what they have experienced is normal life.
“For the first time they begin to understand that they are not bad people. They are not crazy and there is not something wrong with them. This is just how their trauma has manifested,” Jennifer says. “It takes multiple services and modalities to treat trauma. To reconnect with nature and horses brings women back in touch with themselves in a way that may or may not happen through medication and talk therapy.”
‘We Want to Share the Good News’
Dr. Page Walker Buck, an Associate Professor of Social Work at West Chester University, has been researching animal-assisted interventions with a focus on understanding the human and animal bond. While anecdotal evidence exists to support the idea that animals can be therapeutic, Dr. Buck is looking to conduct systematic evaluations and research to provide objective evidence for EAP and other animal-assisted programs.
“The vast majority of women who have been incarcerated have mental health symptomatology and have symptoms of PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder),” Dr. Buck says. “These women have often told their stories over and over again and have done talk therapy. What we are finding is that if you have active trauma symptomatology, the cognitive process is not always working in a way that is able to reap the benefits of talk therapy. The research shows that the presence of an animal, especially a large prey animal, has an impact on the human nervous system.”
Through her research, Dr. Buck conducts in-depth interviews, which are then systematically transcribed and thematically coded, with the women in Stable Pathways. The hope is that by creating such an objective and rigorous evaluation process, the program can be repeated and expanded to help more people.
One of the most consistent feelings from the women that came out of these interviews is the feeling of safety. “There is something about a prey animal that allows a surprising connection, and there is something about the way horses relate to people who have experienced trauma that actually makes the people feel safer. The people become part of that herd safety,” Dr. Buck says.
She goes on to explain that there is a neurochemical reaction involved with the prey animal and human interaction. Some studies suggest that there is a release of oxytocin in the brain which interacts with and lowers the stress hormone cortisol. People experiencing PTSD and trauma often have high levels of cortisol, which can have extremely negative impacts on cognitive function, mental and physical health, and the nervous system.
“There is something about a prey animal that releases oxytocin in the brain, which is different from when people are in the presence of a predator animal,” Dr. Buck says. “We want to take our time to do the research. We don’t want to overstate anything, but we want to share the good news we are finding.”
Empowering the Future
Kristen and Dr. Buck hope that graduates of the Stable Pathways program will have a reduced rate of recidivism and that the women are able to see themselves in a new light and believe that they are worthy of love and belonging.
Dr. Buck underlines the need for continued research and is hesitant to embellish any preliminary findings, but she says, “It is my belief that if the women can get some traction in trust, in feeling love and experiencing hope, my clinical insight tells me that these feelings are linked to reasons why people don’t reoffend and don’t come back into the prison system.”
“To reconnect with nature and horses brings women back in touch with themselves in a way that may or may not happen through medication and talk therapy.”
Emily Pierson*, another Stable Pathways participant, says, “The horses trust us to touch them. They just allow it. In this process I am recognizing how often I let my body be abused. I have been raped, strangled, bullied, and abused. This has made me realize that the power of touch should be sacred and exquisite. I thought I would never want to touch lovingly again. These horses have changed that. I never knew how much I needed safe touch.”
For those of us lucky enough to be around horses, we know the magic and power these animals possess. But not everyone does. “I think making this therapy accessible to this population is huge. Kristen created a nonprofit for women who would never be able to experience this,” Jennifer says. “It’s what the world needs.”
Kristen and her team is in the process of kicking off a capital campaign to raise money for a permanent facility for the programs with a long-term goal to build a program located at the prison complex.
If you’d like to donate to Gateway Horseworks or contribute to Kristen’s capital campaign, please click here.
*Name changed for privacy reasons
All photos by Penny Hansen.