Finding help ... from a horse

Locals conduct equine-assisted therapy programs

By Kate Daly | Special to the Almanac

What with all the horses, stables, trails and therapeutic riding programs in the Woodside area, this part of the Peninsula has long been considered horse country. And now there's another reason to call it that – people practicing and seeking equine-assisted psychotherapy.

Amy Hublou of Emerald Hills is a licensed marriage and family therapist with business cards labeled "Horses Healing Humans" and "Nature Based Therapy." She formed Gallop Ventures with two partners in 2010, and knows of at least four other people offering similar services to clients between San Francisco and San Jose.

Her partner, Wendy Millet of Menlo Park, says that what sets their business apart is their combined depth of experience. Ms. Hublou practices traditional talk therapy in her Menlo Park office part of the time, and devotes the rest of the week to working in the field (literally) with horses to help individuals and groups of people deal with challenges such as relationship problems, mental health issues and substance abuse.

Ms. Hublou recalls how much she enjoyed having a horse when she was younger and her parents got divorced. After grad school, she found herself wanting to incorporate horses into her work with foster children, and that led her to getting certified by the Equine Assisted Growth and Learning Association.

Ms. Millet has been around horses "forever" and developed leadership and management skills at Stanford Executive programs and various jobs. She now serves as director of a private ranch in Pescadero.

Their third partner, Brian Damkroger, comes from a mixed background of corporate, government and academic experience.

The partners combine their talents to put on workshops and retreats for corporate clients such as Apple and Google, and for other groups looking to self-reflect, improve their communication skills, or build team leadership.

To do this, Gallop Ventures often uses the Stanford polo team's 22 horses. The herd lives in a large hilly pasture at Webb Ranch near 280 and Alpine Road.

After listening to a safety talk, clients are invited to walk up and interact with the horses.

The energy and dynamics can be very telling, Ms. Millet explains, because it's as if "the horses are mind readers, they are reading body language."

"The horse, Ms. Hublou says, "doesn't care if you are an executive or a 10-year-old with Asperger's syndrome. How you show up in the moment is how you show up in life, and boundaries are a huge issue."

Take the example of the client who was asked to perform an exercise that involved her telling her professional goals to a horse. The horse ran away to the other side of the arena. When the woman tried to put a halter on the horse, he ran away again.

Ms. Millet says after the client "finished her whole rant, Amy asked, 'Is there anything else going on? Close your eyes and take a deep breath.' The woman then said, 'I'm really unhappy with this work.' And the horse walked across the arena and nudged her in the shoulder."

Another client, Becky Bacon, says when her book club of seven women recently worked with Ms. Hublou and Ms. Millet for a three-hour session, "there wasn't a dry eye. ... It was a really profound experience. It was life-changing in a lot of ways."

"It kind of cracks you open, cuts through everything," Ms. Bacon adds. "People were going through transitions and big relationships, and when you are working with horses, the horses mirror back what's true."

Gari Merendino, executive director at the National Center for Equine Facilitated Therapy in Woodside, serves as an adviser to Gallop Ventures. He has hired Ms. Hublou to come to the facility once a week to run a social skills program for "kids on the (autism) spectrum."

Ms. Hublou also uses NCEFT horses in teaching kids yoga and working with individual clients. Mr. Merendino sees the mental health part of her work as "complementary" to the physical therapy his organization offers.

During the summer, Gallop Ventures puts on therapeutic camps for kids using horses, art and nature to focus on social and emotional learning.

"Art and Horse" workshops are available throughout the year to give clients a chance to pull out paints and use horses as an "interactive canvas."

Another offering, "Somatic Horsemanship," includes movement and riding.

There's also the non-horsey option of "Ecotherapy," designed to get people out experiencing nature on foot.

Workshops fees vary. Sessions start at about $150 with a minimum requirement of six sessions.

Ms. Hublou figures she has worked with more than 400 clients since she started adding horses to her practice. In 10 years, she says, she has received only one negative response from someone who wasn't a horse person. Otherwise the feedback "is always really positive." She says clients often say: "I learned something about myself in a short amount of time."

Ms. Millet says the partners sometimes even receive an S.O.S. for a follow-up session: "Having trouble at work, please send a horse!"

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