Horsing Around: Opening Gates Offers Unique Therapy Option for Patients

Over the years, many attributes have become synonymous with the Kentuckiana area: a love of basketball, a passion for bourbon, and a mecca of Midwestern hospitality.

But perhaps more than anything else, the region is known for its horses. Each year, as the temperatures warm and the flowers begin their bloom, the interest in these majestic creatures culminates with one of the largest spectacles in sports: the annual running of the Kentucky Derby.

For the Greatest Two Minutes in Sports, all eyes are focused on these beautiful creatures as they race around a mile-and-a-quarter track, jockeying to etch their name into Derby folklore. Around here, everything comes to a standstill when you hear the call to the post, because this region belongs to the horses.

And no one can attest to that sentiment more than Shara Wiesenauer – a licensed mental health counselor and horse specialist. With the help of a $2,500 Community Assist grant from the Community Foundation of Southern Indiana, Shara was able to combine her knowledge of counseling with her love of horses to create a therapeutic outlet that was missing in the area: equine-assisted counseling.

Coming Out of the Gate

The drive out to Opening Gates is filled with every sensation one might look for when traveling to a farm: birds chirping, fresh country air, and greenery as far as the eyes can see. With such authentic scenery, for a moment, you might even forget you’re driving in Jeffersonville, Ind.

Located on Charlestown-Jeffersonville Pike, the sprawling farm has been in Wiesenauer’s family for more than 100 years. When her grandmother passed, she split the property, with Shara’s aunt receiving the land north of Utica Sellersburg Road, and her mom being gifted the land (and current location) to the south.

For Shara, her entire life has revolved around that farm and those animals. Some of her earliest memories are focused around riding the horses, providing them the care they needed and deserved. As she grew older, Shara’s caring nature led her to a career in youth counseling – but deep down, her heart was always back at the stables.

In 2006, she got a call from a close friend who had just seen a news report that changed Shara’s professional trajectory.

“I was working at a local youth service agency when a friend asked me if I had heard about equine-assisted counseling,” Shara recalls, joking that her friend was ‘dangling a carrot’ with her question. “I wasn’t familiar with it at the time, but I asked her to tell me about it. She said she saw something on TV last night and told me to go find the clip.”

It was an ‘ah-ha’ moment for Shara once she watched the video. She saw how therapists were successfully combining partnering horses and helping people. Soon, she found herself going down a rabbit hole of information, teetering with how she could possibly pull this idea off locally.

“Honestly, I just typed equine-assisted counseling into a search engine, and I found an organization that was considered the original founding fathers of the therapy,” Shara says. “So I reached out and went to visit them. I talked to some of their clients, and they kept saying how amazing it was. I didn’t get one negative response. At that point, I knew this was something I had to do for our community.”

According to GoodTherapy.org, equine-assisted counseling is a type of experiential mental health treatment that involves a person in therapy interacting with horses. The therapy is designed for people of all ages and has been shown to treat a wide range of mental health issues, addressing both physical and psychological concerns associated with a diagnosis.

“Any reason you can come to traditional counseling, we can do that here at Opening Gates,” Shara says. “So that means anxiety, depression, self-esteem, relationships, social skills – any reason you do traditional therapy, we can work on it here. We just have the added bonus of using the horses in our sessions.”

As good as the idea seemed, implementation was a different story. Despite her willingness to promote her new program, the organization didn’t get a running start out of the gates. With no marketing professional on staff, Shara was relying on word of mouth to promote her therapy – something that wasn’t successful early on.

“When I first started the program, people kind of looked at me like I was crazy,” Shara says. “And they would assume that I was just playing with horses. Or they would think that I was doing therapy on horses. There was a lot of explaining to people what we did and offering them to come out and see firsthand.”

In 2011, Shara applied for a Community Assist Grant from the Community Foundation of Southern Indiana. She hoped the grant, which awards funding up to $5,000, would not only help provide equine-assisted counseling to at-risk boys in Clark and Floyd counties, but would also help spread the word about the services she offered.

“The number of kiddos we can serve is directly related to our funding. So when we applied for that grant from CFSI, we were hoping it would allow us to serve even more kiddos completely free of charge,” Shara says. “We have so many that need services that can’t afford services, and we won’t turn them away.”

Opening Gates was eventually awarded $2,500 for the group counseling – the organization’s first-ever grant. Thanks to the funding, the male clients met for 12, 90-minute sessions during March, April, and May in 2012. The boys learned tools while working with the therapy horses, such as decision-making, gaining independence, earning trust, and accepting rules and boundaries.

It also helped open other doors for future students who struggle with traditional counseling approaches.

“The grant from the Community Foundation of Southern Indiana was the first grant we got here at Opening Gates. I’m not sure where we’d be if we didn’t have the Foundation’s support early on,” Shara says. “It allowed us an opportunity to start going into local school systems and letting them know that if a child needs counseling and cost is an issue, we can provide some students with counseling free of charge thanks to this grant we received. The response we got from the school counselors and teachers to this program was just remarkable.”

Racing Down the Homestretch

Initially, Opening Gates served any client who was aged five or older. To date, the organization has stuck with that philosophy, though it does vary from season to season. During busy times, Shara will go back to focusing on kids because “it seems they are the largest population locally that is needing services and finding it difficult to get them.”

“With kids, we do a lot of self-esteem groups and social skills work. Those seem to be the two core areas where kiddos struggle,” Shara says. “Parents will say they struggle with anxiety or with depression, so we backtrack to get to the origin of it, which typically involves social issues or self-esteem issues.”

And the results, Shara says, are almost instantaneous.

“Oh, it’s amazing to watch,” Shara says. “I used to do the traditional talk therapy, so I can kind of comment on both sides. I would find myself kind of banging my head because there is only so much you can do. If a kiddo doesn’t want to talk, you’re going to sit and look at them and hope for the best. But out here, I don’t care if they talk – it’s how they interact with that horse. And I’ll make sure that I pick a horse that demands that they interact with them. They’ll annoy the fire out of these kids until they interact with them. And then I use that.”

Post-COVID, Shara has noticed an uptick in anxiety and social skills, especially among children and teenagers. In some cases, she says, the anxiety is so debilitating that it affects other outlets of the children’s lives.

“This extreme anxiety is the main thing I’m seeing right now and it’s really affecting these kids,” Shara says. “And then that is affecting everything else they’re dealing with. They don’t really want to go to school, their grades are suffering, they’re struggling at home with their parents – the list goes on. It used to be across the board with what children were dealing with, therapy-wise. But now, it’s heavy on anxiety.”

Crossing the Finish Line

Fortunately, Shara and her team of horses are perfectly suited to help take some of the burden off schools and parents, allowing kids an outlet to begin working through their issues.

“We are here to provide mental health services – we just get to use horses in our sessions,” Shara says. “We want our patients to enjoy counseling because if you don’t enjoy it, you’re not going to engage in it and get out of it what you need to. With the horses, they are nonjudgmental. This is a natural setting and you’re outdoors – it’s not a traditional in-office setting. So, if traditional counseling hasn’t benefited you, then give our approach a shot.”

If you or someone you know would benefit from equine-assisted counseling, or would like to learn more about Opening Gates’ mission, please visit their website: www.opening-gates.org.

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