UNION, Ky. -- As Grace Thornton gently glides her paintbrush across the smooth, brown surface of her horse Goliath, a message in blue begins to appear for her dad:
“I wish you were here.”
It's an ending to a week of healing for the 11-year-old, who attended the STARS Equestrian Grief Camp at Potter’s Ranch in Union, Ky. She lost her 41-year-old father, Vaughn, when she was just 4. Her dad died of a heart attack in 2006.
“[I miss] going on vacation with him and having a lot of fun,” said the sixth-grader who lives in Independence.
Her mom, Kay Thornton-Williams misses him too. Vaughn, she said, was very social and very involved with Grace.
But over the past year, she noticed her daughter growing more agitated and frustrated with little things in her daily life. She said Grace was having panic attacks, crying and unable to manage her own emotions.
Grace has talked with counselors since she was 4, but this summer her mom added another approach: animal therapy.
“I don’t want to just fix the problem with medications if she can [learn] to deal through this,” said Williams about sending her only child to a newly formed equestrian grief camp in Northern Kentucky.
Grace was one of 14 children, between the ages of 9 and 17, who attended the camp in August. The camp was headed up by horse whisperer and Program Development Director Beth Long of Potter’s Ranch and camp co-visionary Vivien Finnigan, a counselor with the St. Elizabeth hospice STARS program. The Northern Kentucky based hospital offers a series of grief support groups and the horse camp, which was new this year, is an extension of those.
More Than Just Riding Lessons
Potter’s Ranch is hidden among cornfields and the foothills of Union, Ky. and dubs itself a “youth ranch and family life ministry. Shaping lives for tomorrow.” This summer the serene country setting was transformed into a place of healing for children who have lost loved ones.
The camp was the brainchild of Long and Finnigan who put their heads together eight months ago to come up with an alternative to the behind-closed-doors, office-visits of therapy for children dealing with grief. Instead of a human counselor, the women turned to nature and horses, which they believe help children and teens work through pain and sorrow on the road to healing.
Horses have the ability to soothe because they communicate through body language, which helps children learn how to cope and better communicate their own emotions with others, Long said.
“Horses have an additional sense, because they’re herd animals, they establish leadership to protect—they are in tune to what’s going on around them,” said Long, who is certified by Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship International.
“Goliath has helped because he’s another protector,” said Grace. “Whenever I’m stressed, I just hug him.”
Since children typically hold their emotions in their body because they don’t have the language for it, they need physical activity to release it, said Finnigan, who has been specializing in child and family counseling for seven years at St. Elizabeth Medical Center.
Activities with the horses are two-fold for the kids, she said. Riding releases their emotions and calms them, and leading the horse boosts confidence and trust.
With a little therapeutic hoof help, children can build a relationship after a traumatic loss, she said.
Since horses are empathetic, they can gauge a child’s emotion and return the same feelings back to the child. If the child is scared, the horse will be too. If the child is calm, the horse will be calm.
The horses, in essence, help the kids look inward to gauge their emotions, Finnigan said.
“It’s like a mirror—horse can allow them to see what’s going on with them and [help] them control their emotion,” she said. “It helps them heal at a deeper level with a connection like that.”
Healing Beyond The Horse
Grace met Goliath on her first day of the four-day camp. She leaned into his side, reached her arms around his belly and placed her head on him. She felt his breathing and then slowed down her own breathing to match his pace, in turn calming down.
“What happens is they begin to relax and it creates a connection. They start to bond,” said Long. The hope is that in the future when Grace is anxious, she can consciously make the decision to look inside, realign her breathing and calm herself.
Finnigan’s goal is to have kids leave camp able to handle their emotions and to draw upon what they’ve learned to continue healing. She also hopes the skills they learned will last their lifetimes.
Learning To Live
Grace said that her dad taught her to be kind to others and to live life to the fullest.
“I’ve learned that it’s good to enjoy life while you can and try new things,” said Grace.
One of those new things, was painting messages on her horse to her loved ones, to her horse and to herself to remind her of what she learned while she was there.
Her message to herself, “I’m faithful.”
It helped her mom too: “It makes me happier and more relaxed to see her happier and more relaxed.”
The first equestrian grief camp was held in July. A second camp concluded in early August. Long and Finnigan said that they hope to schedule at least two or three grief camps during the summer of 2014.
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