When Chesterfield resident Sara Babb discovered she could intertwine her career in social work and counseling with her love of horses, she jumped at the chance to combine both of her passions.
So she started a nonprofit: emPOWER Equine Assisted Services. The program uses horses as part of a team to help people find understanding, solutions and empowerment in their daily lives. Each session tells a story about how the client is feeling and what is influencing his or her behavior. Influences may be recent or an expression of a specific trauma in the past.
Unlike many other equine therapy experiences, the program does not revolve around horseback riding. Everything is done from the ground. Each session’s experience and processing is done at the time of service. There is no emphasis on developing horse care or riding skills.
“I have loved horses since I was very small,” Babb said. “But I never had a lot of exposure to them until after high school and college.”
She began taking riding lessons after high school, and after college she worked with a domestic and sexual violence program and met a person who used horses to help people.
“The way the horses helped tell stories with the family made me want to learn everything I could about the work,” Babb said.
The equine therapy program she began to research and now uses is called Eagala, which stands for “equine-assisted growth and learning association.” The model is a blend of equine-assisted psychotherapy and equine-assisted learning.
The Eagala model has three components: a mental health professional, an equine specialist and horses. Both the professional and specialist must be certified through the Eagala training program. There are also continuing education requirements. It is an experiential approach that can be done with individuals, families or groups.
“Horses are big and powerful, but at the same time they are very sensitive animals,” Babb said.
Horses are social animals and have specific roles in their herds and families, which make them good at reading their surroundings, including the people in their personal space. Even though they are non-verbal communicators, their actions speak volumes about the people they are in contact with, she said. If a person is nervous, the tension can transfer to the horse and the animal becomes nervous.
Recently, one of Babb’s young clients had an outburst of yelling and screaming at the horses during a session, but the horses just stood by and continued grazing, unalarmed. “What that told us is that her outbursts were all a show, and not a real threat or dangerous,” she said.
Because of their senses, the horses are very good at determining the intent of the client. If the client’s behavior had posed a physical threat, the horse would have picked it up immediately and moved away from the client. Babb determined that the client was mimicking behavior to which she had been exposed. There was no physical threat in the client’s environment, therefore the client didn’t express a physical threat in her expression to the horses.
Unique to the Eagala model, practitioners do not reveal a horse’s name, sex or breed. It is up to clients to decide what they think about the horse and what it represents.
“If a horse has a name like ‘Ned,’ for instance, it might bring a negative association with an experience the client had with a person named Ned. Therefore it might ruin the therapy experience right from the start,” Babb said. “So we let the clients name the horse(s) in their session.”
Each client or group is led into a paddock with the horses freely roaming in the area. The clients can choose whether to get close to the horse or not.
“Some clients show affection to the horses and rub their coats, and others keep some distance between them,” she said.
EmPOWER initially began in Louisa County at Cedar Row Farm. Cedar Row’s owner, Aleta Strickland, is the organization’s equine director/specialist. She is a licensed school psychologist and works in the Louisa County school department and has a private practice providing counseling and testing services for children and adolescents.
Although Babb started at Strickland’s farm, she wanted to open a second location in Chester where she grew up. With support from the McShin Foundation, emPOWER opened a branch on Lewis Road in March.
“We are getting a good response from the Chester community, both from sponsors and other therapists,” Babb said.
Sometimes a therapist can get kind of stuck clinically with a patient they have been working with for a while. When they incorporate horses into a session, it often opens the door to new insights, she said. It’s like having an “a-ha” moment for both the client and the therapist.
The program offers individual, family and group therapy, parenting classes, reunification counseling, team building and business coaching sessions. For more information, go to empowerequine.org or call (804) 601-0171.