Texas Living

The Horse Whisperers Who Heal Bodies and Spirits

By Jennifer Chappell-Smith 7.19.17

They come a little bit broken — some in body, some in spirit. Children, teens, and adults make their way to Healing With Horses Ranch unsure.

Many have never been around a horse, much less ridden one. They stand in a field in front of horses who somehow sense which riders need their help.

“The horses generally choose who they work with,” says Manor ranch founder Patty D’Andrea. She runs this nonprofit organization, which offers equine-assisted learning (EAL) to riders ages 3 to 70 who struggle with physical, cognitive, or emotional challenges. Sessions consist of an hour and a half of riding and grooming the horses with the help of a certified trainer. 

Patty D’Andrea

Thirteen horses with names such as Avalon, Oreo, and Wiseman, plus a donkey named Sweet Pea, make up the ranch’s herd. Volunteer workers and trainers welcome newcomers and greet longtime riders who return time after time because something magical happens in the presence of the horses. Clients may face challenges in other kinds of therapy or at school or with treatment plans, family dynamics, and social issues, but when it comes to these gentle horses, their internal conflicts recede.

“All of the stuff in life kind of goes away,” D’Andrea says. “You get near the horses … feeling their breathing and warmth, and their breathing calms yours.”

She tells of a young girl who barely reacted during her first four lessons: “Now she wants [the horse] to go! She’s trying to get her voice out to say, ‘go’ and ‘walk on,’ and it’s just amazing to see the change in her.”

Trainer Crystal Merkel, 24, sees such transformations happen often. Recently, she rode alongside an emotionally-challenged teenage girl who was frustrated during the ride over some things that happened earlier in the day. Suddenly, her horse, named Dawn, pinned her ears back, stopped following the rider’s commands, and stood still. “The horse shut down due to the student shutting down,” Merkel explains.

“It was as if she said, ‘If you’re giving up, I’m giving up, too.’” Once the girl started to share her frustrations from the day with Crystal, the horse softened. The more the rider shared, the more the horse relaxed. Soon, Crystal and the rider moved on — riding and talking, talking and riding, which has its own healing effect.

It’s those moments that draw Merkel to her job at Healing With Horses Ranch. Living just two miles away and having a longtime love of horses, Merkel discovered the ranch in 2011, when D’Andrea first opened it. Merkel donated a horse to the cause, a quarter horse named Dude that she didn’t have time to ride as often, and soon she was volunteering at the ranch. Then she began coursework to become a certified therapeutic riding instructor through the nonprofit organization Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship International (PATH Intl). “I just fell in love with it,” Merkel says.

A Safe Place

Healing With Horses Ranch started with two or three clients and now sees 60 clients per week. On almost three miles of trails or inside one of two arenas, riders must tune in to the horses. The animals look for answers to wordless questions: Are the riders calm and confident? Are they focused? Do they know where they’re going? Will they pledge to keep me safe and make good on that promise? As riders gain confidence, they begin to answer “yes.”

The real work that occurs at Healing With Horses Ranch is intangible. “Horses heal body, mind, and soul,” D’Andrea says, who still remembers the power of a horse named Knight Star that she had as a teen. “He whinnied for me when I came home from school,” she remembers. After-school rides became a kind of daily retreat. “When I started college, I sold him to buy a car, and that was the biggest mistake I ever made,” she says. After she married in 1983, she heard about therapeutic riding and something clicked. “I thought, ‘I get it,’” she says.

She became an advanced certified therapeutic riding instructor and started the ranch. “I wanted to give back,” D’Andrea says. “[Horses] just accepted me no matter what. They gave me a place where I could breathe. And they made me think about somebody else but me.”

Now she’s created a place where others can have that experience, and she watches horses teach lessons that help in all areas of the riders’ lives. “They learn how to take care of something, when often they can’t take care of themselves,” D’Andrea says.

Giving Back

Another instructor at the ranch, Elyse Greenberg, explains that caring for horses requires focus and organization while maintaining control of one’s own body. “Being around a horse is not a one-dimensional thing,” she says, “What we do here is not just horseback riding.”

Greenberg says she learns lessons from her students, too. “I’m an instructor, and I’m teaching them, but each of my students has taught me something,” Greenberg says, marveling at the perseverance they demonstrate while working with their horses in the face of physical and emotional pain.

That’s why even though she works another full-time job in marketing, she continues to work here part-time and serves as the Healing With Horses Ranch fundraising chair, currently raising funds to construct a roof over one of the arenas to provide year-round riding.

Donations help with horse care ($1,500 sponsors a horse for a year), facility maintenance, and equipment such as riding helmets, and volunteers make the whole operation work. “We couldn’t do it without the volunteers,” Greenberg says.

The people who convene at Healing With Horses Ranch say there’s something special in the way a horse understands unspoken commands from a rider. It’s a haven for patients — children and adults alike — who need one. “I have kids [who] have experienced trauma in their lives that no one should have to experience,” D’Andrea says. “This is their one safe place. They feel like they can talk and breathe and just be and not have to worry.”

Jozlynn Stevens

Sitting Up Straight

For three years, Jozlynn Stevens, 12, has been a regular rider at Healing With Horses Ranch. When her parents first saw ranch founder Patty D’Andrea talking about horse therapy on the local news, they wondered the same thing: Could equine therapy help their daughter?

Jozlynn suffers from an auto-inflammatory disease that causes chronic joint pain, along with a Chiari Malformation that causes migraines. Her health issues mean constant discomfort, but after one visit to the ranch, Ashley and Robert Stevens felt it was a place where their daughter just might flourish.

Today, Jozlynn attends a charter school in Austin that has a compressed afternoon class schedule, allowing her to do physical therapy on Tuesday and Thursday mornings and equine therapy on Friday mornings. Siblings, Lilee, 4, and Noah, 1, tag along, and sometimes their dad Robert comes. Ashley says that it does the whole family good to be in this peaceful, rural setting.

Jozlynn has gained confidence as a rider. “When I first started riding, it felt more high up [on the horse],” Jozlynn says. “I’m sure it’s because I’m growing.”

She’s growing in more ways than one. “She’s really come out of her shell,” says Crystal Merkel, the horse trainer who works with Jozlynn. Once a bit timid, Jozlynn doesn’t hesitate to share information with new riders and offer tips. Her balance, affected by her medical condition, has also improved. Now she sits straighter on the horse instead of leaning to her right side, and at home she can finally ride her bicycle without training wheels.

“More than what it does for her physically, we’re thrilled about what it does for her emotionally,” says her mother Ashley.

She marvels at the changes she sees in other young riders, who, like Jozlynn, have been through a lot. “They become one with the horse, they’re able to fit in at the ranch, and they begin to communicate with adults,” she says, adding that the spirit of communion between horses and riders is hard to explain. “You wouldn’t get it anywhere else.”

Learn more about Healing With Horses Ranch, or find other equine therapy options through the Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship International.

© 2017 Texas Farm Bureau Insurance