For some, riding horses is a hobby; for others, it’s competition. Some ride horses for income, while others find the idea a complete terror. But the thought of horses as therapists isn’t often considered.
Paul and Jenny Foltz thought differently.
The Foltzes’ love of horses is evident — from the 16 they own to the well kept wooden barn that smells of hay to the gently rolling hills that surround the home they built. The couple created The Saddle Doctor LC, a business that offers riding and driving lessons, as well as saddle and tack repair, in 1990. They moved to their current location in Timberville in 1996, where they continue to expand.
In The Saddle
The expansion includes a new job for the horses. The Foltzes, along with A.J. Morey and her husband, realized the impact horses can have on humans and their unique ability to respond to emotions and actions. Realizing this potential for horses to aid in learning and psychotherapy, they created Breaking Free, a non-profit program that helps encourage participants to reach their fullest potential through personal interaction with horses.
Housed at the Saddle Doctor, Breaking Free offers individuals a chance to reflect on horses’ behavior and how their emotions and actions affect the animals.
“Horses mirror the people they’re with; they respond intuitively,” Morey, president of the Breaking Free advisory board and a certified equine specialist, said.
Trained through the Equine-Assisted Growth and Learning Association, equine specialists and mental health counselors work together at Breaking Free to tailor a specific program for each individual based on particular needs.
Having extensive experience with horses, equine specialists ensure safety, while the mental health professional protects the client’s interests. Together, they outline specific goals for the client and base horse interaction on what each individual is trying to achieve, whether that be building confidence or overcoming abuse.
Breaking Free is typically geared toward specific groups: court-ordered or at-risk teens, veterans, and most recently, those on the autism spectrum.
Last month, Breaking Free offered a pilot program called Horses Speak for children on the autism spectrum. Research indicates that riding horses improves proprioception — the awareness of one’s body within space due to sensory stimuli — by improving the neural pathways that strengthen the mind-body connection. This is especially true for persons with autism, Morey said. The Breaking Free program teamed up with Shenandoah Valley Autism Partnership to help local families.
Morey talked excitedly about the pilot program, which had five participating families. They hope to continue its growth and are now offering services year round for those affected by autism, on an individual or group basis.
Although it is continuing to evolve, Breaking Free began working with at-risk and court-ordered teens with the program, Hold Your Horses! — geared specifically for those who have difficulty in school or stressful home lives. They also partnered with Harrisonburg City Schools to create Mane Focus, a program for truant children.
“Those who get in trouble are often not social cueing well; [they] miscue and then act out,” Morey said.
The participants have to reflect and alter their reactions based on the horse’s behavior. “Horses won’t lie to you, [but] sometimes you might need to figure out what they’re telling you,” Paul Foltz said, teaching valuable lessons about interacting with others and building social strategies.
By using an EGALA on-ground approach — meaning the participants don’t actually get on the horses — attendees are encouraged to pay more attention by evaluating the horses’ body language, as well as their own.
The client chooses a partner horse who they believe most mirrors them and are instructed to bring them over. Often, this creates a problem for those who are not familiar with horses, but Morey said it’s about creatively figuring out a problem—a skill that’s beneficial outside of the program.
“When you watch the horse behave, you can see how they’re responding to people,” Morey explained, meaning when you’re trying to change the horse’s behavior, you must first change your own.
This experience has proved valuable for troubled teens, helping them learn strategies for self-improvement. “To see them change is really rewarding,” Jenny Foltz said.
Heroes On Horesback
The horses also support change in veterans, helping them cope with trauma or to simply make peace with difficult experiences, through the Horses Healing Heroes program.
Andrea Folk is one of those heroes.
She started her 12-week program with Breaking Free last August. As a retired air force nurse who spent time in Afghanistan, Folk understands the tragedy of war. “I was caring for young men [who] could have been my son, and I was devastated by the loss,” she said.
Though Folk believes her deployment was life-changing and revealed what truly matters, she struggled with reliving those memories.
“What’s neat about this place [is] that it takes me away from all of that. I get to appreciate life and how beautiful it is,” Folk said, staring thoughtfully at the horses.
She described her time with Breaking Free as “bubble time” — being in the moment and everything else fades away. “[Horses] are present in the moment, and [it’s] helpful … to have that reminder of being in the moment because often, as veterans, we get stuck in our heads about things we’ve experienced and ... negative thoughts about ourselves [and] the world,” she said.
Serving now as a volunteer with The Saddle Doctor and Breaking Free, Folk has a chance to give back. “To work with horses is a gift … and such a blessing,” she said.
Those who come through the programs at Breaking Free continue to be impacted by the warmth and love of the Foltzes, who hope to continue helping others make memories and build confidence.
“This is exactly what I needed in my life,” Folk said.
For more information, contact Jenny and Paul Foltz at (540) 896-8505 or visit breakingfreesaddledoctor.com.
Contact Sarah Stacy at (540) 574-6292 or firstname.lastname@example.org.