Equine therapy center in southeast Weld adds cancer therapy to program
Initially, Linda Epple and Shellie Whitfield said they were worried the drive out to the ranch southeast of Roggen might deter some equine therapy participants. The commute had the opposite effect, though. Participants told them the drive gave them the chance to reflect on what had happened that day.
“I’d never been out to that part of the state before,” said Ruth Raymond, program participant. “It was great to enjoy the view and then on the way back have time to reflect. Once you get out of the city, things move at a slower pace.”
Mule Creek Therapeutic Riding Center can be reached at 970-347-7597 or via email at email@example.com.
That’s because Linda Epple, who owns and operates the center, recently completed a pilot program for a new equine therapy called Moving Beyond Cancer. The program caters to participants recovering from breast cancer treatment.
While Mule Creek has been in operation since 2014, this is the first program designed to reach those recovering from cancer. Participants come from all walks of life and don’t necessarily have an equestrian background. This is where Molly comes in.
“Sometimes you get someone out here who has never been around animals and it can be overwhelming,” Epple said. “In those cases, interacting with Molly can help.”
Epple said simply grooming the donkey, which she described as a “non-threatening equine,” can help participants acclimate to their new surroundings.
The four-week pilot program had two participants and featured two-hour sessions once a week. The participants divided their time between interacting with the horses with the help of trained volunteers and engaging in artistic self-expression, which is facilitated by local artist Shellie Whitfield. The small number of participants and the generous length of the sessions allowed for a personalized experience.
Interaction with the horses is invaluable, even if participants don’t ride them.
“A horse will recognize your anxiety level,” participant Ruth Raymond said. “Once you relax and slow down, the horse will actually come to a complete stop and stand still. I had a lot of anxiety about the future and about meeting with doctors every three months and because you’re so different after you have cancer. Being with the horses reminded me that sometimes you just need to take a breath and relax.”
Raymond said she doesn’t consider herself an artist or an equestrian, so the program consisted of many new experiences for her.
“One of the exercises we did was called ‘around the world,’” Raymond said. “I would stretch and turn around on the horse’s back a full 360 degrees. At first I was afraid the horse was going to move but she didn’t move an inch.”
This isn’t a strict regimen of psychological treatment, though.
“I’m not a therapist,” Epple said, standing in the barn she built on her family’s historic property specifically for the program. “I’m just a facilitator. It’s not about me.”
Epple emphasized the fact that the heart of the program consists of participants’ interactions with the horses. This is why choosing the right horses for the job is important.
Not every horse is cut out to be a therapy horse. They must be sound in all gaits, meaning they must be able to move in a fluid, rhythmic way whether walking or running. They must also have the temperament for therapy.
Epple said only two horses were used in Moving Beyond Cancer, one of which was a 17-year-old quarter horse named Pie.
While Pie isn’t a small animal, she is very relaxed and followed Epple’s lead into the barn’s arena at an easy walk.
Epple demonstrated how interactions between horses and participants might start.
“Horses greet each other by touching noses,” Epple said, standing several feet in front of the animal. “So what you do is stick out your fist and just approach her like this.” She made her way to the horse, which acknowledged Epple’s fist with a nudge.
Epple also stressed the importance of keeping one hand on the horse when moving around it as a way of remaining connected to it.
These activities are designed to build trust between participants and horses. After that trust is established, participants can take part in more in-depth exercises, such as therapeutic riding or even lying on the horse’s back.
This sort of therapy isn’t a drug or a cookie-cutter treatment — it is a unique experience.
“I was so glad I was able to participate in the program, and I would highly recommend it,” Raymond said. “I really learned a lot about thinking outside of the box.”
Moving Beyond Cancer has always been about that kind of thinking, even in terms of equine therapy. The program is one of few that combines traditional horse-participant interaction with artistic expression.
This is where Epple’s partner in the project, Shellie Whitfield, was able to use her skills as a professional artist.
Whitfield, although raised in Colorado, had a career as an art teacher in Atlanta. Upon returning home, she said she was surprised by the lack of programs and facilities designed to use creativity to help those recovering from cancer treatment. Those programs were abundant in Atlanta.
One of the first things Whitfield said participants did in the art portion of the sessions was to cut words from magazines describing themselves.
“And when you get 100 words on a collage, that’s a huge picture of who they are inside,” she said.
She said participants also painted with watercolors mixed with oil. This caused the colors to run and gave them little control over what the piece looked like in the end.
“There was a lot of anger with that, I think,” Whitfield said. “But life is kind of like that, and in the end they wound up with something beautiful. Art imitates life in that way.”
Raymond said she felt the same after completing her painting.
“What I took away from (this project) is that it’s going to turn out how it’s going to turn out,” she said. “Sometimes you can’t control everything in your life, and that’s OK.”
Both Epple and Whitfield felt it was important to move beyond cancer — not through it or past it.
“A lot of the participants are at a point now where they say, ‘What comes next?’” Epple said. “There’s a lot of talk about ‘what are you going to do now?’”
Whitfield said it is the act of creating art — rather than the end product — that matters. Through that catharsis, a participant can move beyond cancer.
“Creativity is at the core of our beings. What we want to do is create a stage and an environment for participants to remember who they are, and to help them figure out who they are after the trauma they’ve experienced,” she said. “Because you’re not the same person after you’ve had cancer.” ❖
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