August 2012 Issue
Healing on Horseback
At River of Hope Ranch in Waynesville, two sisters help victims of multiple traumas through equine-assisted therapy.
For the women of River of Hope Ranch, every day at work is like living out a childhood dream.
Of course, it helps that sisters Josie Muterspaw and Marne Miller work at Cross Creek Stables, on the same farm where they grew up. And that their office — a 12-by-16-foot log cabin assembled for free by Builders for Christ, a volunteer church construction group affiliated with the First Baptist Church of Waynesville — closely resembles a tree house.
The dream is built on hard work, the generosity of others and, above all, faith. The sisters believe that they’re doing what they’re meant to do: use horses to help children overcome symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) brought on by varying degrees of abuse.
“From personal experience, we learned the powerful impact that horses can have on people,” says Miller, noting that their father, an equine veterinarian, taught her and Muterspaw to love and respect animals.
The sisters believe that a higher power is guiding them in all of their actions. “We would never have created this if we didn’t feel that God put it in our hearts to help hurting people,” says Muterspaw.
And it’s their faith that’s helped them succeed in the five years that they’ve been in business. Since opening their doors in 2007, Muterspaw, the clinical director of the ranch and a professional clinical counselor-supervisor, has gone from a handful of clients to a wait list. The sisters are looking to add another counselor and, hopefully, move to a bigger location, one that might even house a small residential space for out-of-town boarders.
For now, the real work takes place around their cozy office on the ranch’s 31.5 acres, located in Waynesville, between Cincinnati and Dayton. It’s there that Muterspaw, who has a master’s degree in counseling, and Miller, the executive director, practice and promote equine-assisted psychotherapy, or EAP, working with children who have been the victims of severe — and often multiple — traumas.
Although their practice is still relatively new, the business was years in the making, with the first seeds planted after Muterspaw met a therapist who was doing EAP, leading her to pursue her own practice. With Miller’s help, she started taking the necessary steps to create a licensed, insured business.
“We’ve always been very firm on making sure things are above par,” says Muterspaw, who has undergone five EAP training programs in addition to her counseling degree. On top of that, the sisters have traveled to other EAP ranches across the country and Miller, who works at the ranch part time, has been through trauma training in case she’s around during emergencies. Needless to say, they’re serious about their work.
“We don’t just come out here and play with horses,” says Muterspaw, adding that she models her therapy around evidence-based practices backed by research in EAP.
This hard work earned her enough of a following to turn a part-time job at the ranch into a full-time career after only four years.
The sisters are quick to credit others for their success, though, like the current owners of the farm (and family friends), Mark and Jody Morris, who offered them the ranch rent-free after hearing what the sisters hoped to accomplish.
“They are amazing, wonderful people,” says Miller, “and through that generosity, we were able to grow.”
The Path to Healing
Proponents of EAP, which, according to Muterspaw, has been around for about 20 to 25 years, mix traditional therapy practices with animal interaction. At River of Hope, the horses are almost always involved in sessions, unless patients are practicing narrative therapy. But even then, says Muterspaw, it’s sometimes easier for the kids to tell their stories during a leisurely, rhythmic ride.
Through a variety of exercises and obstacles, children — some as young as 8 — are able to overcome symptoms of PTSD.
“A lot of them have tried different therapies for years with very little — if any — help,” says Muterspaw. “And then they come out here and it’s just been able to completely transform them.”
The first session usually involves putting the patient in a pasture with five horses and having them harness one. During this exercise, children often find themselves relating the animals to people in their lives, like comparing a kicking horse to an abusive dad, which is all part of Muterspaw’s goal.
“Some of them have never had a close relationship with anything,” she says. “They’re not responsible for the abuse that happened to them but they are responsible, as they know more about [their traumas], to create better, healthier relationships for the future.”
Through EAP, children learn basic horsemanship training and how to build relationships with the animals so that when they leave they can form healthier bonds with people.
Clients also spend time in obstacle courses that can act as metaphors for past traumas and challenges. Everything is used in the sessions, from bad weather to temperamental horses. As Muterspaw explains, horses can read people’s moods and are sensitive to patients’ behaviors. When a horse acts up, it’s the child’s responsibility to calm it down. And although this rarely happens — the animals are either trained or naturally desensitized to children, noise and activity — Muterspaw would love to get some wild Mustangs on the ranch because, as she says, reactive horses teach more lessons.
“If a kid can learn to calm their horse, they can calm themselves,” she says.
Gratified by Success
Muterspaw boasts a significant success rate. Each year, she works with boys from the Mary Haven Youth Center, a juvenile facility in Lebanon. Often, the kids have already been in and out of the juvenile justice system, and repeated attempts to rehabilitate them have failed.
“They’re like little prisoners,” Muterspaw says, explaining that they arrive at the ranch in shackles and chains. Some act out after a divorce or death in the family, while others have scars from physical and sexual abuse. Whatever the trauma, Muterspaw works to teach them positive coping mechanisms that, hopefully, will keep them out of jail and help them build healthy relationships. Last year, after five boys from Mary Haven met with her once a week for 14 weeks, Muterspaw conducted diagnostic testing that indicated her equine therapy had a 100 percent success rate: None of the boys met the criteria for PTSD anymore.
“It’s still not enough, but at least it’s giving them skills that they never had,” she says.
Some kids only need a few sessions to understand their traumas and learn healthy coping mechanisms, while others visit Muterspaw for years. Overall, though, she says there have been very few patients who haven’t finished her program and experienced some level of healing.
“That’s what keeps me going, because it is hard work,” she says. “It’s hard on me. There are times when it’s emotionally so trying. And [then] you have a client that comes out that’s so severe and suicidal and then they leave just being involved in life again, and happy.
“More than anything,” she adds, “we want to be that love and unconditional acceptance for them that, maybe, they never got. And so we live out our faith before them.”
To learn more about River of Hope Ranch, visit riverofhoperanch.org.