A far cry from a psychiatrist’s couch, the barn owned by the non-profit grief counseling group Mane Support might seem like an unusual place for therapy.
Executive director Kim Henry insists the opposite. Horses, she writes in her book Hoof to Heart, “have an incredible ability to mirror us and our emotions, to allow us to understand what it means to live in the moment, to be impeccably honest and to be present with their enormous measures of strength.”
Horses used in the program are referred to as “Equine counselors” because of their role in working with clients.
Children and adults who are working through grief can come to Mane Support and work with certified counselors and veteran horses in an “experiential type of counseling” involving activities with the horses, group discussion, and other tools.
While Mane Support is meant to complement rather than replace traditional counseling and therapy, the group’s equine-assisted grief counseling offers something that other methods don’t: the intuitive understanding of a horse.
“The way that they reflect back almost what we think and feel, and sometimes the things that are too difficult to say out loud, is what helps,” Henry says of the horses. “It comes back to giving back to people what they don’t see in themselves.”
The horses used in Mane Support work with people of all ages handling all types of grief, whether over the death of a loved one or the end of a marriage. All of the activities take place on the ground, and the focus is on the relationship between the person and the horse rather than on equestrian skills.
The horses and equine specialists (experienced equestrians) work with experienced horses to tailor each session to the needs of the individual or group involved.
Mane Support originated within another organization, and the two groups split amicably in 2006 to give Mane Support a chance to explore serving both children and adults. Henry and her late husband, Calvin, built the current facilities, which have been home to Mane Support since 2005.
While Mane Support originally charged fees on a sliding scale, the community support that the group has received now allows it to offer counseling free of charge. Though the experience and certifications of Mane Support’s staff make it a highly qualified counseling and therapy organization, they still view themselves above all as a ministry.
Today, there are five full-time staff members: counselor and equine specialist Linda Thaller, and equine specialists Erin Green, Teresa Cogburn and Freddie Cogburn, all of whom hold varying levels of certification through EAGALA, the Equine Assisted Growth and Learning Association, and Henry. In addition to the full-time staff, Mane Support benefits from the work of two practicum students from Maryville College, Stephanie McLain and Sara Roth, and a University of Tennessee masters intern, Ashley Symington.
Just as important as the human staff are the equine counselors, horses who work with a number of different therapy groups during the week, including young children, cancer patients and grieving people going through a great deal of turmoil. All of this requires a particular temperament and a natural intuition about human emotion. “It’s amazing to me how something that large can be so gentle,” says Henry. “We have children here that are 4 and 5 years old, along with adults that are 60 and 70 years old, and everybody in between, but it’s amazing to watch, when you know what kind of force that hoof can put down, and (the horse) is so tender and being so careful when they’re walking behind, almost like they’re on tiptoes. It’s amazing that they can sense what people need and how helpless sometimes we are.”
Henry’s horse, Yank, works as an equine counselor, joining Charlie Brown, Princess Bug, Skylar, Gideon, Little D and Kadar. Some of the horses have been donated, and others are “on loan” from supporters, employees and board members, but all live at the barn full time. They range in size from the very large, like Charlie Brown, to the miniature Princess Bug.
“What we found in the beginning, when we started the program, was that we would try to match participants up with horses,” says Henry, “and we learned very quickly that we don’t get to do that, that the horses pick their own participants.” One horse felt so strongly about a new client that he paced up and down the fence line, obviously anxious and interested, while another horse worked with the person. Finally, Henry and the counselor took the other horse out and brought him in, and the pair got along famously.
Often, during group sessions, the horses will come up and gently push the instructors out of the way, separating them from the clients.
It is this openness to the relationships of the horses to the clients that makes Mane Support so effective. One of the first activities that many clients participate in is “Go Catch a Horse.”
Participants are sent out into a field with a halter and lead rope, separately, but only as optional tools. In this exercise, it doesn’t matter if the halter is on correctly, or how participants bring a horse back, or even if they do bring one back. For some, “catching” is venturing out and having a horse come and show affection.
“What people learn is that this isn’t about ‘be like me’… within this program. They learn that it’s the way they do it that counts,” Henry insists. “With grief and loss, it has to be individual.”
To this end, they incorporate activities like journaling, art, games and even creative movement, all intended to give clients another means of communication to address grief and loss. One activity that has been popular with kids has been painting on the horses. Henry says, “They are a moving target and life can be that way as well. It also allows people to know that they don’t have to be perfect, so if the horse happens to twitch, and the paint brush slips, well, oh well.”
Another benefit of working with horses, surprisingly, is their size and therefore the risk involved. Educating clients about how to be safe around such powerful animals works as a kind of therapy in itself.
“The clients we work with -- sometimes they don’t have anybody left to keep them safe, sometimes they don’t think ahead to keep themselves safe, with particular losses that they’ve experienced in their lives,” says Henry. “The horse cares about them in ways that we can’t. When people are not only physically small in stature, but emotionally small in stature from all the stuff that’s happened to them, the horse can definitely sense that as well. They are very kind to people who are hurting.”
In addition to the individual sessions that Mane Support conducts, they offer a number of programs addressing specific challenges of grieving, including groups for widows, military families, children dealing with divorce and even grandparents raising grandchildren.
There are multiple bereavement groups and camps for children and teens, and the monthly Triple C Ranch (Calvin’s Courageous Cancer
Survivors) offers cancer patients of all ages a chance to bring their families to the Mane Support barn and pastures for a day of camaraderie with each other and the horses.
Among the groups that have provided funding for Mane Support is the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation, which sponsors TrailMakers, a once-monthly group for breast cancer survivors of all ages. Pat Green describes what she gained from TrailMakers this way: “I have been professionally involved with cancer patients, both from the treatment and recovery phase as well as the times that treatment is no longer effective. However, as a cancer patient, all this insight needed a boost. When I was invited to attend the Mane Support group I was intrigued and excited but not anticipating any major reaction on my part. As the session began, I found myself safe to experience and express feelings that I knew I had as well as others that were a surprise to me. I amazingly had many ‘aha’ moments then and I have continued to ponder and understand feelings and insights that I gained.”
Mane Support also works with corporate and community groups, as well as school and church groups on such social or “herd” skills as communication and teambuilding.
“With all of our activities, communication is really key, and that’s one of the main things that gets lost a lot of times, whether it’s a death or a divorce, or what have you; communication is broken,” Henry says. “(We)try to get them to understand, if I don’t do this, if I’m not able to communicate with this horse, what am I doing out here?”
Because Mane Support doesn’t charge for its grief-counseling services, it relies on the community for support to supplement the grants it receives. Their largest event to date was the first-annual Hoof to Heart fundraising dinner, held on the evening of Saturday, Aug. 22.
Guests toured the facility, sat down in the barn’s arena to enjoy a dinner catered by Royal Oaks, and listened to personal tributes from individuals and families who have benefited from Mane Support’s work.
Even the thunderstorm that pounded the barn’s metal roof that evening added to the event - Henry points out that “it was kind of metaphorical,” encouraging patrons to listen more closely to the speakers. Appropriately, a rainbow spread across the sky just as guests began to head home.
There are several ways to become involved in Mane Support’s work. In addition to monetary gifts, donations of materials are always welcome.
Among the items needed are office and art supplies, horse supplies, snacks for kids and adult groups, Co-op or Tractor Supply gift cards, bottled water, paper plates and other paper goods, coffee and hot chocolate.
Mane Support is also in the process of building a memorial garden and path, built over the hilltop burial site of Dakota, one of the first horses involved in the program. Paving stones for the paths are available for purchase, either engraved in honor or in memory of a loved one, or with another message for $40. Blank stones cost just $20.
For more information about Mane Support, visit www.manesupport.org or call Kim Henry at 865-414-0557. Mane Support is located at 2919 Davis Ford Road in Maryville.
n On Saturday, Nov. 7, Mane Support is sponsoring a Hoof to Hear Trail Ride at Cades Cove Stables in Townsend. The one-hour ride through the mountains can be scheduled from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. for $35, with part of the proceeds going to Mane Support. The first 50 people to register also receive a Hoof to Heart Trail Ride sweatshirt. For registration and more information, call Kim Henry at 865-414-0557.