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From: Community Impact
By: Beth Wade
Williamson County home to many equine-assisted therapy centers
To many people horses are a source of transportation or recreation, but for some, working with horses is a way to help those with physical, emotional and mental disabilities.
Equine-assisted activities and therapies have been used to treat a multitude of conditions ranging from physical, sensory and speech disorders to mental health issues and post-traumatic stress disorder.
“We do a lot of work building relationships [with the horses],” said Mary Lynn Szymandera, a substance-abuse counselor and former director of equine-assisted psychotherapy at The Arbor treatment center in Georgetown. “That [skill] is interchangeable with people.”
In Williamson County several nonprofit organizations and riding centers offer equine-assisted therapies and activities, including Ride On Center for Kids in Georgetown, Spirit Reins in Liberty Hill and Open My World Therapeutic Riding Center in Leander.
“The movement of the horse and relationship with the horse is an amazing catalyst for change,” said Nancy O’Meara-Krenek, who founded ROCK in 1998.
O’Meara-Krenek said during the past 16 years she has had colleagues leave to help start their own similar organizations.
“ROCK can’t meet all of the need [in Williamson County],” she said. “I think the reason [equine therapy] keeps growing is that people keep recognizing that the horse can be a real healing factor, and people want that. With changes in medical care we have to have stuff that works to get people back to independence and improve life skills.”
ROCK staff and volunteers work with about 150 clients, including children and adults, each week. The center also works with a class from Georgetown ISD in 10-week sessions, and gauge each client’s individual abilities to determine how they will interact with the horse, O’Meara-Krenek said.
The center also has a program for veterans with mental and physical injuries that helps them integrate back into their normal life, Szymandera said.
“[The program] allows the veteran to learn again that they can function in the world—they just need to take baby steps to get there,” she said. “It helps them rediscover who they are and build relationships and trust again.”
During a presentation to ROCK supporters, O’Meara-Krenek said she had a veteran once tell her, “When you learn how to lead a horse, you learn how to lead yourself.”
Rhonda Smith, founder and executive director of Spirit Reins, said she has seen a significant increase in the number of clients her nonprofit is serving. The organization offers psychotherapy services to at-risk and emotionally traumatized youth and their families.
“We’re serving probably over 100 clients a week right now, and we have about 80 families on a waiting list right now, and probably another couple of hundred referrals that are waiting from collaborative partners we have in the community,” she said. “From a mental health perspective, I think the growth in this [type of therapy] is because traditional therapy isn’t working for these kids.”
Many of the equine-assisted therapy and activity centers require a diagnosis from a doctor before clients may participate in any activities.