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Patients and families learn from horses that mirror their behavior
Lisa Weinwurm, right, of Equine Reflections leads a group meeting in assisted therapy, in Winder. - photo by JOSH JONES

Lisa Weinwurm wasn’t looking at the clients during a recent therapy session, she was more concerned with watching horses.

"The horses are the ones who reveal things that may or many not be going on with the family, the relationships," Weinwurm said. "That gives us the ability to pose questions to our clients."

On a recent Thursday evening, a group of parents with Family TIES — Gainesville’s Parents of Children with Mental Health Issues support and educational group — attended an equine therapy session at Weinwurm’s stable, Equine Reflections LLC in Winder.

The unique therapy provides an opportunity for parents to observe how their actions and reactions might influence the horse’s behavior. Reflecting on the animal’s behavior and what feelings or reactions it might have spurred in themselves allows parents the opportunity to explore relationship and familial problems.

Weinwurm said the animals pick up on the subtle changes in a person’s body language or tone of voice and horses in particular have a unique perspective making them ideal for animal therapy.

This group session focused on boundaries and the fine line between enabling and nurturing. Parents were asked to use props, like pool noodles, an umbrella, a ball or a pole, to create representations of the obstacles in their lives. Then they were asked to lead the horses through their "life path" while a mental health councilor and an equine specialist observed.

If a horse stalled at a particular obstacle, perhaps one representing a divorce or other difficult event, the specialists asked what the parent thought about the horse’s behavior in regards to the particular event. The parent might then see how they handled the situation or how they could approach it differently.

In another exercise, parents were asked to build boundaries with the props. Parents were challenged with bringing the horses into the boundary and keeping them there. Some parents attempted to bribe the horses with grass, but eventually, the horses left the boundary. Other parents tried moving the boundaries to include the horse, but the horses would run away.

After discussing the horse’s behavior, the parents noticed similarities between the animals and their children and saw how their behaviors were influencing their children.

"It never ceases to amaze me the things that are revealed in these sessions, ..." Weinwurm said. "Because the horses are very authentic and they never lie. They’re always mirroring us and what’s going on with us."

"With the horses they are flight animals," Weinwurm said. "And because they have a predator-prey nature, they are vulnerable to predators. Humans are essentially a predator to a horse."

Weinwurm said the equine therapy shows parents the need to look through their child’s point of view when dealing with conflict or challenges.

Family TIES is a nonprofit focused on preventing child abuse and neglect by offering support and education to parents and children.

Dee Dee Mize, Family TIES executive director, said a lot of children with mental health issues are dealing with adult problems they’re not equipped to handle.

Mize said many parents today experience high levels of frustration because of life and parenting pressures in general and don’t always know how to help their children through their own struggles.

"It’s kind of like the icing on the cake," Mize said. "But not in a good way, in a tragic way because families start falling apart. The families are not connecting anymore. They’re not communicating anymore. It’s kind of like there is a blow up everyday."

Part of the therapy process involves getting parents to think about the ways they were raised and trying to break parenting habits that don’t work.

Mize said parents can do a lot of good by letting children know they’re acting in their best interest, providing support and being consistent with rules and expectations.

"My goal is when they come in to basically give them the coping skills to be the best parents they can possibly be and to know they’re not perfect," Mize said. "... It’s got to be a balancing act where you’re constantly being consistent."