Unbridled Connection’s Equine Therapy
Serves Military and First Responders
By Sheila Julson
Kelly Jones knows how effective equine-assisted therapy, a form of horse-assisted psychotherapy, can be to help people work through grief to become mindful and focused. Yet she noticed that some families could not afford the $200-per hour fee charged at South Wind Equestrian Center, the for-profit equine center she founded in 1999.
South Wind began providing equine assisted psychotherapy services with licensed therapy teams in 2015. Out of that came an idea to form Unbridled Connection, Inc., a not-for-profit organization providing the same level of care and therapy for first responders and active military.
Jones incorporated Unbridled Connection as a 501(c)3 this past February. The organization is committed to providing confidential and anonymous high-quality therapeutic care for military members and first responders suffering with post-traumatic stress from combat; tending to terrible auto accidents, lake drownings and other accidents; or responding to abusive situations. Unbridled Connection’s board members consist of first responders and military members. Clients pay $35 per session, which goes toward care for the horses and to fairly compensate the high-quality therapists on staff.
“The reason first responders and military are our target audience is because we want them to process through the major traumas that keep causing nightmares, flashbacks or emotional response to loud noises and other triggers, which can make them eventually have to quit their jobs,” Jones says. “If we can help them process through what they’ve already endured—and working with horses has been proven to build resilience in human brains—we can give them tools to use the next time a traumatic event happens.”
While post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is the more common term, Jones is careful to omit the word disorder. “When we’re labeling something as a disorder, it tends to shut people down and make them have a shame response instead of a response that they are hurting,” she says, “and the stigma in our society for mental illness is shame. With this population, we’re aiming to help. The daily traumas and experiences are causing post-traumatic stress symptoms such as anxiety, depression, eating disorders and alcoholism.”
Jones notes that working with horses is good for this population because they get to experience what it feels like to be connected. Horses have a keen ability to evaluate their environments and reflect the emotions of the people nearby. “Horses are social creatures. They understand being in a herd because a herd provides safety,” she explains. “They’re hard wired to be in healthy relationships. They’re very upfront and don’t play any games. You can’t manipulate a horse, and you can’t use a mask and pretend everything is fine. Horses read intentions.”
Clients begin with an intake session with a licensed therapist and an equine professional, and then they meet the horse they choose to partner with. They enter the Round Pen, a 50-foot diameter area where they begin to work with the horse. “In the Round Pen, the horse has no ropes or halters, and it’s at liberty to go wherever it wants while we explain the horses and how to work with it,” Jones says. “Working with horses is a bridge into our healing relationship. We are not trying to create ‘horse whisperers’; we’re teaching clients how to have a healthy relationship with a horse, and in turn they will get to go outside of the ranch and apply these principles to healing relationships with humans.”
Jones says clients come for weekly or bi-weekly sessions, and there’s also an intensive, where clients come out to the ranch and spend a weekend at an on-site Airbnb. The weekend consists of therapeutic riding sessions and ground sessions. “This creates a safe space within the brain where there should be a lot of healing,” Jones concludes. “Clients can spend the weekend thoroughly relaxing, and their brains can process trauma in a safe, calm and quiet space.”
Unbridled Connection is located at Ponderosita Ranch, at South Wind Equestrian Center, 15214 Faubion Trail, in Leander. For more information, call 512-689-7793 or visit UnbridledConnection.com.
Sheila Julson is a freelance writer and contributor to Natural Awakenings magazines throughout the country.