News and Tribune


April 10, 2014

BEAR HUGS: Charlestown boy finds guidance, comfort in therapy horse

Opening Gates in Jeffersonville helps children with behavior issues

JEFFERSONVILLE — Ethan Vaughn’s attention deficit hyperactivity disorder made it difficult to control his emotions and impulses in every facet of his life.

That is, until the Charlestown 9-year-old met Bear.

“The kid has a heart of gold. He is the sweetest boy I have ever met, but he was his own worst enemy,” said Kerri Vaughn, Ethan’s mother, who said Ethan had trouble reining in his “craziness.” “... He has taken control of himself again, and it’s awesome.”

Ethan and Bear, a 27-year-old Irish Draught horse, were at Valvoline Instant Oil Change in Jeffersonville on Wednesday for its Donation Derby, celebrating one of five grand openings in the Southern Indiana region in partnership with Opening Gates, an equine assisted counseling and learning program at Hunters Brook Farm in Jeffersonville.

The Allison Lane location, in addition to new Valvoline businesses in New Albany, Corydon, Madison and Brandenburg, Ky., charged $24.99 for full-service oil changes Wednesday instead of the regular $39 and donated $10 of each sale to Opening Gates, which is Bear’s home. Michael Middleton, area manager of Valvoline Instant Oil Change, said their goal was to raise $3,000 among the five locations for Opening Gates.

“What better way to keep in with the Kentucky Derby theme than with a sponsorship that we can help and donate to a local horse therapy group?” Middleton said.

Opening Gates provides experiential therapy to treat anyone with mental health disorders through interaction and care of the horses. The nonprofit organization also offers group, individual and family counseling, self-esteem sessions and lessons in reading and math.

Shara Wiesenauer, founder, president and therapist of Opening Gates, said that 98 percent of their clients are children.

“Someone can come for normal daily stressors all the way up to some of the disorders that have been diagnosed,” she said, listing depression, anxiety and ADHD as common conditions. “When you see someone’s confidence start to improve, some of those other areas start to disappear.”

Kerri brought Ethan to Opening Gates in November for a 12-week group session because he was having trouble in school and she didn’t want to bump up his medication dosage.

“He just couldn’t contain himself,” she said. “It was sad to watch and very hard to deal with.”

In Ethan’s case, Wiesenauer said she knew Bear was the right match.

“I intentionally partnered him with Bear because Bear is very gentle, he’s very safe, but he’s also very stubborn,” she said. “So knowing that Ethan struggled with the hyperactivity, a horse that’s stubborn is a perfect fit because it’s going to provide Ethan multiple opportunities to wind down and rethink things and regroup and respond in an appropriate matter.”

When Ethan first approached Bear, the horse became startled by his intensity and eagerness and ran away, Wiesenauer said.

“[Bear] wanted to no part of it,” she said. “Ethan wanted to interact with Bear, so we processed that.”

Wiesenauer said she helped Ethan understand why the horse backed away, and with this new realization in mind, she encouraged Ethan to try again.

“And immediately you could literally see him take a deep breath and approach him slowly. And Bear stayed,” she said. “So it’s that immediate feedback.”

Ethan’s story is just one example of ways that interacting with the horses at Opening Gates helps children with mental health disorders. Wiesenauer asks each of her clients to apply their experiences with horses to people in their lives — and it works.

“We have been so fortunate with the success rate that we’ve had with the clients,” she said.

Although people who come to Opening Gates don’t ride the horses — they’d be too focused on not falling off the horse that they wouldn’t focus on their goals — their care, grooming and interactions with the animals help broaden their worlds.

“The kids start to think about others and their ability to be able to help and then how good that feels to know that they’ve been able to help,” Wiesenauer said.

Kerri said the improvement she’s seen in Ethan has been monumental.

“He’s very cautious for Bear’s sake and he worries about Bear’s feelings and he worries about Bear’s physical condition,” Kerri said. “It’s his best friend.”

Ethan said that Bear is a complex creature.

“He’s really hard to explain,” he said as he plucked grass from the ground to feed the horse from his hand.

If Bear sees someone is going to approach him too quickly, the horse will run away, the third-grader said.

“And he’ll see that if you’re going to be good, he’ll be good,” Ethan said.

Text Only | Photo Reprints

Students of Ms. Kitzmiller's first grade class sing and dance in the gymnasium at Grant Line Elementary before heading to their classroom to begin the school year Thursday morning in New Albany.


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