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Hug a horse: Spot to Talk offers equine therapy as a mental health resource in the Flathead

by TAYLOR INMAN
Bigfork Eagle | November 3, 2021 12:00 AM

Adolescent and children’s mental health clinic Spot to Talk in Bigfork hopes their equine assisted psychotherapy program can be an option for those seeking a different approach to therapy.

Mental health specialist and Spot to Talk owner Claire Wick said the treatment allows people who might not respond to traditional talk therapy another way to work through challenges they are facing. Spot to Talk is trained through the Equine Assisted Growth And Learning Association, or Eagala. This is one of the models therapists use for equine therapy, which requires an equine specialist and mental health professional to work with a client while they interact with equine in a sandbox-like approach. Clients can interact with the horses as much as they want to, allowing for a very open-ended way to work through their problems.

“Let’s say they want to work on decision making, I might ask the client to start off with seeing where they can see some decisions being made in the field and we let them just kind of explore,” Wick said. “It takes the pressure off of feeling like they have to answer questions and be prepared to talk about something, but really lets them use the space, the props, the equines to find the solution to their story.”

Wick said the therapy is helpful for people struggling with depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder, or substance abuse. She said it is also appropriate for almost all ages since clients don’t ride the horses, but interact with them in other ways.

Equine specialist Erica Gerber owns the five horses used for Spot to Talk’s equine therapy program. She has a background in education and met Wick through working at Summit Preparatory School, a now-closed therapeutic boarding school for teens in Kalispell. Gerber said she and Wick wanted to bring equine therapy to the school for some time. She was inspired by the school’s “challenge trips” where they would take teens on excursions into the wilderness to hike, backpack, ski and more.

“I took my horses we have now on two of those trips, backpacking in the Bob … I would also bring my horses in for my animal science course, and the kids were wonderful with it. A lot of them connected with the horses, we would teach them how to do physicals or dentals, the kids just loved it, some of them just thrived,” Gerber said. “So we saw how powerful it can be, kids can be shy and all of a sudden they blossom with the horse.”

Gerber said even just petting and being around horses can be therapeutic to some people, but the premise of the therapy is to work with the horses and their props in the arena to storyboard issues they are working through.

“They can have different elements, things that are animate or inanimate be the characters in their lives or stories, or themes in their stories, or scary things in their lives and then start working them out through proxy … it helps them externalize it.” Gerber said.

She said horses can be particularly great to work with because they have their own individual personality, making it easy for people to see themselves in the animals. She said they are prey animals and are very sensitive to human emotions.

“People are just mesmerized by their beauty and size, so even if they don’t have any horse experience, they are just amazed by this beautiful, big animal, so they make a connection that way,” she said.

Spot to Talk held an event for the community with their horses at Herron Park in Kalispell at the end of October. Wick said the event allowed people in the community to meet the therapy horses and therapists at Spot to Talk. She hopes events like these help to break the stigma of seeking help for mental health issues.

“I think one of the challenges, especially here in Montana, is that there’s this ‘pull yourself up by your bootstraps’ mentality, and that works for some people and that’s great, but for others, they might need additional support and something outside of their family. So showing that it’s approachable, that it can be done with equines, that it can be done in an approachable way, there’s a lot of different options but really we’re just trying to build connections with the community,” Wick said.

Wick said getting out mental health resources can be vital in areas like the Flathead where distance is just one example of a barrier that could keep someone from getting help. Spot to Talk also offers telehealth services for those who cannot join an in person session.

Wick hopes Spot to Talk can offer more events like their “Heys and Neighs” day at Herron Park, but for now, their equine therapy services are being offered to anyone who is interested, as well as their normal therapy services. She said all new clients receive a free consultation. Visit spottotalk.com, or call 406-201-9711 for more details about how to set up an appointment.

Bigfork Eagle Editor Taylor Inman may be reached at editor@bigforkeagle.com