As the saying goes, “you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink. A cliche, yes, but for some, a lesson that needs to be learned.

People use this phrase to describe others, placing blame at their doorstep during disagreements; rarely do they see themselves as the “horses” in these situations.

At Opening Gates Inc., those working through issues ranging from minor to complex are given the chance to cope by working with a unique tool: An actual horse.

“[The horses] add the element of the unknown when people are working with them,” Shara Wiesenauer said.

Wiesenauer is a licensed mental health counselor and president of Opening Gates. The nonprofit organization is located at Hunters Brook Farm in Jeffersonville, which is owned by Wiesenauer’s mother and Opening Gates horse specialist, Carole Wilson.

“When something doesn’t work, you have to regroup and focus as a team,” Wiesenauer said. “That’s how it works with therapy.”

Wiesenauer and Wilson are certified through the Equine Assisted Growth and Learning Association. As the association states, equine therapy involves the “[incorporation of] horses experientially for emotional growth and learning,” a concept to which Wiesenauer took to after much research.

Participants don’t ride the horses, but interact with them at length, completing structured tasks in order to achieve the overall goal of understanding. The equine association believes that this approach can have an incredible impact on individuals who complete the session, allowing them to confront a variety of issues such as abuse, anxiety, communication problems and depression.

“I’ve worked as a traditional therapist before and know that people can tell you anything,” Wiesenauer said. “It can be difficult to open up to a complete stranger. [Equine therapy] sessions put the focus on the horse.”

Wiesenauer works primarily with children and teenagers, but also has handled family and team-building cases. She said this transference of the spotlight allows clients to focus on their own emotional responses to situations, revealing patterns in how they cope and interact with others.

“If you put a stubborn kid with a stubborn horse,” Wiesenauer said, “you are then able to ask, ‘See what it’s like working with someone a little like you.’”

Kathy Lombardo is a case manager at Childplace, an organization that has utilized Opening Gates’ services in the past.

“I don’t know any kids who have disliked it,” she said. “[They] get right in there and it’s phenomenal to see them progress.

“The skills they learn are ones that will really help them with college interviews, in relationships, even jobs.”

For the younger clients, the horses are the first draw. During the 10 to 12 week therapy program, each client is assigned a horse that is solely their own.

“The kids always get excited because they think they’ll be playing with horses,” Wiesenauer said.

The horses used at Opening Gates are rescues, each with their own unique stories. Wiesenauer said that during the therapy sessions, many of the children bond with their horses after hearing how they have experienced hardships in life just as they have.

“It’s amazing to watch how the horses affect the clients,” Wilson said. “The kids will tell you ‘[The horse] really likes me.’”

She said it is these responses that touch her heart.

Wiesenauer grew up around horses and has worked with them all her life. She is excited that through Opening Gates, she is able to combine her profession and her passion.

“I don’t dread going into the office,” Wiesenauer joked. “[And], it’s great to be able to help people. That’s the biggest reward.”

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