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Horses Helping Humans
Programs at Escalon arena aid in healing By MARG JACKSON

Tucked away near the end of Combs Road, off Sutliff Avenue in Escalon, is a ranch that has become a beacon of hope for many. Healing Arenas, Inc. offers a number of programs designed to provide solutions for humans and horses, working primarily with veterans.

The ranch works in cooperation with the Modesto Vet Center to provide a free of charge program for veterans, Stable Survivors, that utilizes equine assisted psychotherapy and learning experiences that help with posttraumatic stress disorder, grief, anxiety, fear, life transitions and more.

Healing Arenas works in conjunction with the Equine Assisted Growth and Learning Association to “support emotional healing through equine interaction” and provide a safe home for retired racehorses in the process. Julie Baker oversees the Healing Arenas program and said it is a “win, win” situation in that retired racehorses have a chance for a good life and home in retirement and veterans that need some help readjusting get that assistance by working with the horses.

Among those in the arena on a recent evening were ‘My Bad Deal,’ a horse with just one eye; ‘Silent Text,’ an adoptable retiree and ‘Viva Pentelicus,’ a 21-year-old retired racehorse that made $380,000 over the course of 92 races in his career.

“They are all fostered here for therapy,” explained Baker.

She said the horses and veterans often find common ground in that they both can feel they no longer ‘fit’ well in the mainstream of life. Programs at Healing Arenas are designed to help both human and horse work through those feelings. Baker said it’s also an exciting time when some of their retired racehorses go on to other assignments.

“Two of ours have been adopted out by the Stanislaus County Sheriff’s Office Mounted Unit,” she said. “We’ve also had some go on to be used for trail riding, barrel racing, roping … we have adopted out a total of 15 since February of 2014.”

Many of them remain at the arena, though, and are utilized in the programs offered there, proving to be a valuable resource.

The Stable Survivors project brings veterans together with the horses for a multi-week program, part of the time in the arena and part of the time in a clinical setting. The goal is to have three groups go through the Stable Survivors program each year, with two to three ‘alumni’ groups also coming back for a day at the arena to reconnect with each other.

Healing Arenas, Inc. is certified by EAGALA to provide its programs.

“They maintain that this type of therapy can be used as an adjunct to traditional therapy,” Baker said. “This model, being used as an adjunct to office therapy, is very powerful.”
Gena Horton, MSW, of the Modesto Vet Center, who works with the veterans in the Stable Survivor program, said they take time to discuss what happens in the arena when they meet at the center.
“It very often mimics the outside,” Horton said of vets drawing correlation between the arena and day-to-day life.

“Horses become a metaphor for what people are going through in life,” Baker added. “The best part of it is, our participants, or clients, get to participate in hands-on solutions to the issues they came here with.”

Horton said the arena, and working with the horses, provides a “less threatening environment” to deal with those issues than playing them out in real time with family or friends.

Modesto resident Roger Smith is an alumnus of the Stable Survivors Project.

“I love it out here,” he said while spending some time recently with the horses at the arena. “I think it’s a great way to get us, as vets, working together. We can focus on some of those issues we face.”

For Smith, it was PTSD that led him to try to the equine assisted therapy.

“I’m a little hard headed,” he admitted, chuckling, adding that he found a kindred spirit in some of the horses. “It really makes you slow down and examine how to be in the moment. With the horses, you have to pay attention to how they’re reacting to your actions. It’s mindfulness.”

Smith was in the Army for more than 12 years. He served in Desert Storm and was also with the military police at Kosovo.

Howard Stinson of Salida spent three years in the service and is a retired truck driver who came to the program “to find some gentleness.” He said the horses have a way of being a calming presence.

“It seems to be a relaxing time but it can also be stressful, figuring out what the horses want to do,” Stinson said.

Horton said the program has proven to be effective for many local veterans.

“I wasn’t going to any group before I did this,” Smith admitted of now being open to new ways to deal with the issues he brought home with him from his military service.

Baker, who previously worked as a licensed assistant trainer and rider for racehorses, got involved in equine therapy while a student at Modesto Junior College, studying behavioral science.

“I saw an ad in a magazine for EAGALA and I investigated, then I found the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation,” Baker explained, noting that the idea came together when she was able to work out the details to foster the retired racehorses and use them to help humans.

“Now by working with the Vet Center, it allows us to help our veterans who have helped us,” she said.

Additional programs offered at Healing Arenas include Stable Kids, which serves foster youth, Second Chances California which works with probationers and the Retired Racehorse Project, through which residents can adopt quality re-trained racehorses.

On the horizon is a new program, Stable Practitioners, which will be aimed at first responders and health care practitioners.

Covering 10 acres, Healing Arenas currently has six retired thoroughbreds they utilize in the programs, along with a ranch horse and a miniature burro – Chance – who is also used in therapy sessions.

“We have room for more,” Baker said, noting that they are also looking to construct a new horse barn on the property. The non-profit has a fundraiser in the fall and also receives donations but can always use more supporters.

“We’re also looking for more therapists to help us grow,” Baker said. “We could also use more volunteer help.”

Volunteers help clean the arena, feed and groom the horses and handle other tasks.

The next Stable Survivors program is scheduled to begin in late summer and an alumni program, for any veterans that went through Stable Survivors, is coming up as well.

“It’s really a cool, cool thing to have them all come out here again, talk about where they are at now,” said Baker.

‘Shooting for the Stables’ is the fundraising event scheduled in October at the Escalon Sportsman’s Club to benefit Healing Arenas. Last year’s inaugural shoot also resulted in a $600 donation to the Gary Sinise Foundation, benefitting veterans.

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