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A Part of the Herd: How Horses Can Heal


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Photo by Joe Cox, courtesy of  Colorado Therapy Horses

Photo by Joe Cox, courtesy of Colorado Therapy Horses

It was in the round breeding pen where Richard McMahan was launched 20 feet through the air. Landing on his back, his intestines perforated. His arteries popped. He was rushed to the ER, where doctors pumped 14 units of blood into his septic body, snipped nine inches off his colon, and hooked him up to a dialysis machine to compensate for his failing kidneys.

Hours earlier, McMahan, along with two veterinarians, was breeding two horses, a mare with a stallion. “A violent act,” McMahan, six years later, said of the horse breeding process. When the mating commenced, he trailed the veterinarians, who guided GiGi, the 1,200-pound mare, back to her pen. His job was to remove the hobbles — the restraints used during breeding — from her knees. “I unhooked the one on her left knee,” McMahan said. “About the time I got squared up with her butt, she jerked forward to kick off the other hobble and double barreled me right in the belt buckle.”

He flew backward and landed on his back, his insides gurgling with blood. When he awoke out of a coma 10 days later, the doctors told him had he made it to the operating table two minutes later than he did, he would have surely died.

That was 2010. Today, McMahan, 70, is the CEO of Colorado Therapy Horses, an equine-assisted therapy ranch in Greeley, Colorado. His herd, his “staff,” consists of 17 Trakehner horses, a variety of horse originally bred by the Prussians in the 18th Century to pull cannons and carts on a battlefield. Their coats range from bay (brown) to black; the mean age is 15, the youngest seven, the oldest 29. GiGi, the bay colored mare that nearly killed McMahan six years ago, is one of his most popular horses.

The herd roams a six-acre lot of grassy prairie and dirt. Roaming with them are veterans with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), children with autism, recovering drug addicts, sexual abuse victims (or even abusers) and people suffering from depression. They brush, pet, feed and walk with McMahan’s family of Trakehners.

“Horses are like big dogs,” McMahan said over the telephone on a recent evening in August, just after feeding his herd. “They don’t care who somebody is, what color, what they’ve done, where they’ve come from. They are the epitome of unconditional love.”

Photo by Joe Cox, courtesy of  Colorado Therapy Horses

Photo by Joe Cox, courtesy of Colorado Therapy Horses

A New Addiction

Johnny Martinez usually arrives at the ranch, often on his Harley Davidson motorcycle, an hour or so before Richard or his wife, Judy. He walks into the herd of horses — who wade across three paddocks and a loafing shed where they can take shelter from the elements — and says hello. He feeds them biscuits and carrots, sometimes sneaking extra grain to his favorite horse, a 14 year-old purebred named Pebbles.

Martinez, 56, is the ranch manager and the only salaried staff at Colorado Therapy Horses, including McMahan and his wife. Born and raised in Greeley, Martinez said he spent much of his teenage years and ensuing decades addicted to various substances: marijuana at 14n. Cocaine. Alcohol. And eventually, methamphetamine. “That was the hardest.”

Martinez found McMahan’s ranch through treatment court in 2013, when he was caught with a meth pipe. If he couldn’t comply with treatment court, he said, “they were going to send me to prison for seven years.” So he wound up back home in Greeley, assigned to community service at the ranch for 20 hours each week — a two-year endeavor.

McMahan, who has bounced around the country in various counseling roles for nearly four decades, first met Martinez in 2008 through a parole and probation program. Years later, Martinez wound up at his ranch. “Johnny didn’t trust counselors,” McMahan said. “We’re kind of a prodding group.” Trust, McMahan said, had to come through the horses first.

But Martinez started out a skeptic of equine therapy. After all, if his addiction persisted through years of clinical treatment, how could a horse make him sober? “It took a couple of times because I was headstrong and I said ‘this ain’t gonna work,’” he said. “But that horse is gonna love you unconditionally no matter what. Realizing that and seeing the love that they bring to me just came all of a sudden.”

It was more than a wave of love that came over him: “Spending time with the horses saved my life,” he said, his voice shaking. Twenty hours each week became 40, sometimes more. A two-year community service requisite evolved into a life-changing passion.

Martinez, a father of four, especially loves watching a group of children with autism come out and interact with the horses. He watches as the children’s faces change, as their shoulders loosen, a horse-induced calm washing over their being.

“I’m addicted to the horses,” Martinez said. “I’m a part of the herd now.” He’s been sober for nearly three years.

Photos by Joe Cox, courtesy of Colorado Therapy Horses

Photos by Joe Cox, courtesy of Colorado Therapy Horses

The Guide

It was through a 16 year-old girl who had been sexually abused by her two older brothers that McMahan realized the healing power of horses. That was 1999, in Fort Collins. He was a psychotherapist and discovered a young woman he was struggling to connect with was a competitive horseback rider in her youth.

As a therapy technique, he decided to re-teach her how to ride. His wife owned two horses, so he propped the girl atop one on an English saddle (as opposed to a Western saddle), which gave her a bit less control, forcing her to engage with the animal, and thus her fears, more directly. Fear, McMahan gleaned over his decades of dealing with people awash in unseen scars, is at the root of anxiety, depression and PTSD.

“Perfect love makes fear go away,” he said, and it’s in experiencing the gentle nature of a thousand-plus-pound creature, it’s unconditional love, that makes equine therapy work. McMahan said that horses empower the powerless: the girl who was sexually abused, the middle-aged man who dealt with his childhood trauma by forgetting the past.

“It’s all about how people deal with fear. It’s how people try to control their fear — which they can’t — and so it’s really using the horse as an object of change,” McMahan said.

Following a stint as a teacher after his undergraduate studies at Colorado University, McMahan taught baseball at the University of Northern Colorado. He did that for 10 years, then switched gears, moving to Southern California to work at a group home, “working with the kids nobody else wanted to work with” from Watts and Compton.

Frustrated with trying to put a bandage on wounds too deep for a counselor to patch up — “the kids were perishing because of a lack of knowledge,” he said — McMahan returned to Colorado for graduate school. He took courses in psychotherapy, in vocational rehabilitation, in vocational evaluation, and graduated in 1988.

He opened his psychotherapy practice in Fort Collins in the late ‘80s where he encountered the young lady who would eventually spur his current pursuit. He’s been in Greeley since 2003, empowering the powerless with a growing stable of gentle, hooved therapists.

In 2012, the ranch became a nonprofit organization, run on private donations and sponsors. Representatives from one of those sponsors, PDC Energy, met McMahan at an event hosted by Weld County last fall called “Celebrating Our Community.” Soon after meeting Richard, Susan Fakharzadeh, community relations manager at PDC, and over 30 of her colleagues volunteered for a day at his ranch. “We were talking business in a field of horses,” she remembered. “It’s rather disarming.”

Fakharzadeh echoed a common sentiment. “You’ll walk away having gotten more than you can possibly give. It’s hard not to be really humbled and want to be a part of the future of this group.”

Photo by Joe Cox, courtesy of  Colorado Therapy Horses

Photo by Joe Cox, courtesy of Colorado Therapy Horses

Taming Fear

A four-term military veteran with tours in over six countries and a Purple Heart, Deanna Felde was scared of the horses when she first encountered them a few months ago. “These are 1,200-pound animals that could squash you without a second thought,” the veteran who experienced some of the bloodiest battlefields in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars said. “But they don’t.”

A certified physician’s assistant, Felde, 46, was a medevac — a dangerous position with combat pay that had her whisking dead bodies and soldiers with limbs blown off to the hospital. To her friends in the military and on the ranch, she’s simply “Doc”.

After her final tour in 2012, she thought she had eluded PTSD. “I came back thinking I was one of the ones not affected,” she said. But then, she noticed herself getting easily upset. “Instead of going to Wal-Mart in the middle of the day, I’d wait until one in the morning when nobody was there,” Felde said.

She sought treatment and was diagnosed with PTSD. The Veterans Affairs office in Greeley, where she lives, prescribed her with a regimen of medications. She attended traditional therapy. A few months ago, her psychiatrist recommended equine-assisted therapy, and she has been coming to McMahan’s ranch for a month and a half, six days a week.

“You don’t feel like a patient at all out here, you feel like a person,” she said. Now, like Martinez, she’s addicted. “You can have the most stressful day, come out here and leave in a great mood.” Just being near the horses, feeding them, witnessing their gargantuan grace, she said, has helped her immensely. Within a month and a half of equine-assisted therapy, Felde dropped one medication entirely, and decreased the dose of another.

McMahan thinks the therapeutic effect the horses have on patients like Martinez and Felde happens on a deep, spiritual level, “on a whole different level than I think we know,” he said. “We can feel them and they can feel us.”

According to a recent study by researchers from the University of Sussex in England, there is scientific evidence that seems to prove a certain kinship between horses and humans. Using two different photographs of a human face — one showing a positive expression, the other a negative one — the researchers found that the horses were able to distinguish between the two emotions.

Their study, the researchers concluded, showed that horses demonstrate the ability “to spontaneously discriminate, both behaviorally and physiologically, between positive and negative human facial expressions.”

But for Felde, results are found out in the field. Results are her needing less medication. They’re in the excitement she feels before she heads to the ranch every morning, which she likened to going to the movies. It’s in Pebbles, her favorite horse (Martinez’s too), licking her leg in the morning.

“I don’t think about anything,” Felde said, describing how she feels when she pets, feeds, and leads the horse around the pen. “I don’t think about life in general. I just come out here and hangout with the horses and completely relax.”

The Herd

Indiana Jones. Maverick. Mustafa. Ivana. Pebbles. Shilo. Those are the handles of six of the 17 silent giants at Colorado Therapy Horses ranch. None of them are for riding. There are three stallions — all used for breeding purposes. All are Trakehners.

McMahan said thousands of Trakehner horses served in the Nazi army in World War II, mostly for hauling supplies. None of his horses were rescued, which, according to McMahan, is why his herd is especially well suited to connect with humans.

“Our herd has never been hurt by humans,” he explained. And with rescue horses, who are potentially coming from an abusive environment, “you don’t know what kind of baggage they bring.”

Hippotherapy, the practice of utilizing horses for therapeutic purposes, dates back to at least as far as the ancient Greeks. Hippocrates wrote about the curative powers of horse riding. But equine-assisted therapy involves no riding. The horse and the human walk eye-to-eye.

“I believe human beings have the power to fix themselves, but they need to guided into doing that,” McMahan said. “That’s what I think happens out here a lot.” There are a handful of ranches that offer hippotherapy treatment in the Denver and Boulder areas, but McMahan’s ranch is one of the only where a patient will never get on the back of the horse.

Back in 2010, when he was nearly killed by GiGi, the 1,200-pound mare that hoofed him square in the belt buckle, McMahan experienced the wonder of horses through the eyes of a patient.

The day he was released from the hospital, he booked it home, and before his wife Judy could get out of the car, “I was out of the car and in the paddock,” he recalled. He came to see GiGi, who was the first horse to walk up to him. He told her he forgave her. She licked his zipper shaped scar. “She almost lost her human,” he said. “She was happy as a duck in a puddle to see me.”

The best part, McMahan said, was the sensation he felt during his “love fest” with GiGi. In the hospital, he was experiencing symptoms of PTSD: anxiety and depression. He was having nightmares. But that all went away the minute he faced his fear, when GiGi’s love pulsed through him. “It was confirmation that I wasn’t dreaming, that it was real,” he said. “That it really does work.”

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