With fewer activities available and pressures mounting months into the COVID-19 pandemic, Berkshire HorseWorks is offering horse therapy sessions for families and individuals who are stressed. I brought my sister, an essential worker, to the day-long program to see what it’s all about.
Walking through the Richmond, Massachusetts facility, the word “sanctuary” comes to mind. Lounging in the shade of oak trees to your left and right, donkeys and horses flick their tails and munch on hay in their paddocks.
But, as my big sister, Samantha Orchard, and I would find out — the program is much more structured than walking around and petting animals.
“I feel like I needed something like this today,” Sam says. “I’m excited to do this.”
It starts at the white board.
“This is our emotional safety board,” says Hayley Sumner — Founder and Executive Director of Berkshire HorseWorks. “So whatever those words mean to you so that we hold a safe space for people. From 3-year-olds to whatever.”
Sam and I both write, “No judgments.”
Next, Sumner brings us to a table and tells us to pick a card.
“You two take a look at these photos and if you can pick a card that most represents your relationship as sisters,” Sumner says. “Each one of you pick a card.”
Some have horses in herds, some fighting, some running, some just standing alone. Sam and I go for the same card – two brown horses facing each other.
“You know I was looking at that,” Sam says.
“Because at first it looks like they’re joking,” I say.
“It looks like playfulness,” Sam says.
“And we like, play a lot,” I say.
“So that’s giving us information,” Sumner says. “The way you just did that whole thing. It’s really interesting.”
We then move outside for the Equine Assisted Psychotherapy session: a series of tasks designed to inspire internal reflection. Sumner says the program will give us some tools to cope, heal, communicate, and empathize in a stressful world.
Sam is working from home during the pandemic, doing customer service for a bank.
“I’m literally at my desk from 8:30 in the morning until 5 at night,” Sam says. “Literally looking at nothing but monitors. Not one, not two, but three. And just non-stop dealing with customers.”
She says she needed a way to clear her head and get out of the house.
There is a task about observation versus perception, then one about how we approach the animals, then one involving hoola hoops and pool noodles that you’ll just have to experience for yourself.
After each task, Sumner asks us questions about what we learned, where we went wrong, and how we communicated with each other.
“I feel like, you’ve known me 29 years, my whole life, and we’ve never had to actually been in a situation where we were asked to problem solve together,” I say to Sam.
“Yes, yes. Yes. Like you tried something and it didn’t work and I’m like okay what if we did this,” Sam says. “You know, we balanced off each other nicely. It gave me a different insight on you.”
Finally – the main event, a trail ride. And Sam’s first time ever on a horse.
“Sammy, how do you like it,” I ask her on the trail.
“I love it,” she calls back.
Trotting for the first time, Sam looks like a natural. She looks more innocent than I’ve ever seen her.
“I needed a break from my atmosphere. From my reality,” Sam says. “I needed a day out in nature with no cell phones. No — you know — people calling me or demanding every second of my time. Like, it was nice to just have that one-on-one time with you and the horses and just like — just — not worrying about anything.”
Sumner says this is part of the appeal of Berkshire HorseWorks and what they hope to provide: a place where families and essential personnel can find peace.
Wendi Koch, lovingly known as “the donkey whisperer” here, says the program is designed to help participants come to realizations on their own – through each activity.
“If they have a question they’re directed to go back to the directions they were given,” Koch says. “So it’s not that they don’t get help but it’s to get them thinking about problem solving and trying to attempt to work through whatever they need to work through.”
Sam says after riding her large, white horse, Spirit, she now feels less… stuck.
“I felt empowered,” Sam says. “Like, I feel like I haven’t done something to push me out of my comfort zone in so long that I forgot how good it felt. So, for me it was a very empowering experience and it made me realize, like, I’m still that strong individual. Like, to not get so complacent in my life.”
Koch says no matter what, being here will make you feel less alone.
“It’s togetherness,” Koch says. “Whether it be you with your family your coworkers or just… with the animals.”
Berkshire HorseWorks’ professional team is comprised of Massachusetts licensed social workers, psychologists, psychiatrists, and equine specialists who work with referring clinicians to provide treatment. They personalize each program and cater to people with post-traumatic stress, sexual trauma, workplace and every day challenges, and also work with families who just want to get to know each other better.
I thought my sister and I knew each other pretty well already – but I never saw her as someone who wanted to be in the great outdoors. Turns out she needed it. As 2020 drags on, we probably all do.