It was while Lynette Otto, of Frost, and her family were living in Wyoming that she first heard of a new therapy involving horses.
“Since I was a kid, I’ve always had horses in my life,” the former wildlife biologist explained, “and I began hearing about this new field of therapy where people were using horses to help clients understand more about themselves and work through issues. I thought, ‘Wow, that sounds really cool.’”
Recognizing the heart she had for people, Otto made the decision to return to graduate school, and in 2009, began her pursuit of a counseling degree in order to become a licensed professional counselor. Upon completing her degree, Otto and her husband, Jay, began the transformation of Shayna Meadows from a farm into place of personal growth and healing.
“I started to have a big dream for this place while I was working on my degree, and after several years, we were finally able to do it. Shayna Meadows Therapy and Wellness first opened in March, so it’s been a long time coming. It’s been a long journey.”
Named for Otto’s first horse, Shayna Meadows offers a variety of services – including professional counseling services, traditional therapy and equine-assisted psychotherapy.
“Right now, most of my clients are coming from referrals from physicians,” she explained, “and I have a lot of clients who have a trauma background. However, the majority of my clients right now are dealing with depression and anxiety. I have more adult clients than kids, but that’s what’s going on right now.
“I do some substance abuse and recovery, too. In counseling, we always want to stay within our scope of professional practice, so there’s nothing that I would take on professionally that I wouldn’t do with the horses. For example, if someone comes out here and they’re actively using drugs – like they’re high at that moment – I’m not going to put them with the horses. It’s not safe for them, and it’s not safe for the horses.”
Otto expressed a desire to open her services up to veterans, as well.
“That’s not a population I know a lot about right now,” she said, “but I’m going to go to Huntington this week and work with a college doing some workshops. I hope to be able to become more informed on being able to work with combat veterans and PTSD, and we’re hoping that the VA will begin recommending therapy like this for vets more often.”
According to Otto, horses can act as a calming influence for clients and help clients dealing with trauma – particularly veterans – to focus on the present.
“With trauma, it’s so hard to get people out of the past,” she explained. “The past has been really significant emotionally for them, and to get them to even be in the present, sometimes falls to the horses. It’s a good bit of treatment.”
Another way that Otto utilizes the horses in sessions is by having her clients view the horses as metaphors for what might be happening in their lives.
“We teach the clients to lead the horses around,” she said, “and that’s like taking control and being assertive in your life, and we discuss what that feels like physically. Sitting in an office and speaking to your boss in a more assertive way is not the same. If you can feel that control in your body, though, it can help you understand it a little bit better.”
Pool noodles are used to represent obstacles in a client’s life. Otto explained that the point is to see which horse will go through the obstacle with the client and what happens when the client tries to go through it with the horse.
“Sometimes, the horses will get stuck in the same places that the people get stuck,” she added.
Otto encourages clients to observe the herd when they are brought into the arena and to see what each horse is like. For one client in particular, she found that the horse she was drawn to the most did not want anything to do with her.
“So, I asked myself ‘What does that tell me about her relationship pattern?’” explained Otto, “and it kept coming up throughout the session. It was just her in the arena with the horses and me. In one exercise, we were on one side of the area and the other side represented her new life. She had labeled the horses as members of her family, and the focus was that, if she were to step into her new life, who would be the ones to go with her.
“Horses are definitely therapeutic. They’ll all about being safe and secure, so they’re watching all the time to make sure that they’re safe. That means they’re a little bit more authentic emotionally. They’re really intuitive about our emotional state, and so, sometimes it helps us to see things a little differently because they’re so big. When they do something, you notice it. We have these body language interactions with people, but we don’t always notice it as much. They can react to people’s emotional states because they just notice them in a different way.”
One requirement Otto has for her horses is that they be engaged and show an interest with interacting with clients.
“They’re a range of ages, breeds and personalities,” she said of her horses, “and that’s really fun in therapy because, like I was telling you, all the horses came up to this client the other day except for Zhivago. If they all act the same, it’s sometimes harder to tease out what’s going on.”
When it comes to Shayna Meadows’ horses, the younger clients often view McCullough – the American Mustang born in the wilderness of the McCullough Peaks Wild Horse Range in Wyoming – as the bully of the herd. Described as similar to watching a play, Otto uses the horses’ interactions to talk to her clients about what’s going on and how that can be related to what may happen in a classroom or their family.
“Kids, especially, will often project onto other horses,” she explained. “I had a client one time that described McCullough as sad because he was sad. It was all about him projecting onto her. That’s a little easier than looking at an eleven-year-old and asking them to tell you how they feel.”
In addition to McCullough, Shayna Meadows houses three other horses – Dancer, the son of the center’s namesake and the oldest member of the herd at 25; Zhivago, a retired dressage competitor; and Cinco, a former racehorse and the newest – and youngest – member of the herd.
Each of Otto’s clients are scheduled for an hour and a half session, and in the future, Otto hopes to see her services grow to include therapy – such a grief and recovery – groups, wellness retreats and an option where people, for $50, can come and play with the horses for a day.
More information on Shayna Meadows Therapy and Wellness and its services can be found a www.shaynameadows.com, or by calling Lynette Otto at 304-799-4141.