The woman: Shelley Hill Smith (at far left), associate at Spirit Reins, an Austin nonprofit specializing in Equine Assisted Psychotherapy.
The mission: Improve the emotional and behavioral health of children and families with the help of horses.
The commitment: “Parents tell us that they feel like they have their kids back. That’s when it’s all worthwhile.”
Top 3 ways she’ll change your life:
- Develop trust, understanding, and confidence in the intelligent and honest company of horses.
- Move past trauma by building healthy relationships: first, with a horse, then with yourself.
- Have you hugged a horse today? Guaranteed it’ll turn your mood around.
In sum: Spirit Reins was founded to serve children who have experienced abuse, neglect, or other traumatic events. Today the two ranch locations are a safe place for hundreds of families and children to heal and form new bonds – with each other, and of course, with the horses. Happy trails to you.
Behind the scenes
It is 2:15 p.m. and I am standing in the middle of a dusty round pen, trying a Jedi mind trick on a horse named Arthur.
Come here, I will silently. Arthur is facing squarely away from me, and doesn’t so much as swish his tail in my direction. I feel rejected and impatient.
“You need to increase your energy,” Shelley Hill Smith observes from her spot outside the pen.
That’s a vague suggestion, which Smith deliberately leaves open to interpretation. I picture myself as a ball of light, and in my mind, turn up the voltage. I also take a hopeful step forward, in case Arthur’s not receiving my telepathic signals.
He turns and looks at me. Immediately, I glance down and away and wait, as I’ve been instructed. And to my delight, that’s all it takes. Not unlike most humans I know, once Arthur realizes that he has a say in all this, he generously agrees to meet me halfway. Actually, more than halfway: He plods over and stands by my side.
A few minutes later, I am hugging him, breathing in his horsey smell and confiding in a whisper that this is the high point of my day. It isn’t necessarily part of the exercise, but Smith doesn’t stop me.
One life saved, countless changed
In 1999, Rhonda Smith (no relation to Shelley Hill Smith) was a human resources executive for Dell Computer Corporation. On a daily commute like any other, driving along Interstate 35, an 18-wheeler lost control and crashed into her. All around her, every inch of the automobile was totaled. But somehow, the small space that she occupied was spared. Smith survived the accident – a miracle, by some approximation; at the least, an extraordinary second chance. She left her corporate job behind and devoted her life to helping children.
She established Spirit Reins in 2003. In the years since, services have expanded; the employee count has grown to five (including Shelley Hill Smith); and a second location was just christened May 9. But the mission remains the same: Improve the lives of children and families with the help of horses.
Spirit Reins’ primary clients are families whose children have been diagnosed with emotional, behavioral, or psychological disorders. Most have suffered trauma. In nearly all cases, they tried more conventional therapy first.
They come to Spirit Reins for something different.
Lessons in lifemanship
Spirit Reins’ counselors are trained in conventional trauma-informed therapies, including art therapy, play therapy, and talk therapy, among others. They use all of these tools to meet clients exactly where they are.
But then of course, there are the horses.
“Horse psychology is the basis for everything we do,” says Shelley Hill Smith, “because it is relationship-based.”
Husband and wife team Tim Jobe and Bettina Schultz-Jobe, Spirit Reins’ program director and clinical director, respectively, are the experts behind this model. A horse trainer of 40 years, Jobe helped introduce the world to Equine Assisted Psychotherapy (EAP), the notion that horses can help with psychotherapy. He and Schultz-Jobe went on to develop the trauma-focused “Natural Lifemanship” model that Spirit Reins uses. The model empowers people to build healthy relationships – first, with a horse, then with themselves and others.
My work in the round pen with Arthur reveals a core principle of Natural Lifemanship: Horse and human both have choices. This is not about saddling up and muscling through exercises. It’s about working with a horse, often from the ground, to build mutual trust.
“We live in a world where if we can’t properly control ourselves and our behaviors, someone else will,” says Smith. “When we’re kids, it’s our parents, our teachers, and in many cases, the juvenile justice system. It’s the same principle with horses. If I can’t properly control myself, the horse will feel the need to take control of the situation. But when I have control over my own behavior and emotions, the horse will control himself properly. Nearly every single time.”
Boundaries, trust, self-control: These lessons are essential for healthy relationships. They’re also hard learned. For many of the children at Spirit Reins, they once seemed impossible. But for whatever the reason, horses – perhaps because they command respect; perhaps because they can’t know our past mistakes or judge us for wearing mismatched clothes – are able to reach us in ways that our fellow humans can’t.
And for clients who have experienced trauma, riding can have its place. Studies show that, under clinical supervision, processing a traumatic memory while experiencing the rhythmic side-to-side of a horse’s gait can physically move where that memory is stored. Essentially, it is pushed from the emotion center of the brain, where it is most vivid and distressing, to the frontal cortex, where it is under the authority of language and ration. The memory still exists, but some of the pain has been released.
Healing with horses
Spirit Reins partners with local groups such as Communities In Schools; Community Partners for Children; and Austin Travis County Integral Care. These organizations often refer children who desperately need help, but haven’t responded to other therapy attempts.
“Horses have an uncanny ability to get through to kids who have shut down in offices,” Smith says. “Horses are honest and immediate in their response, in a way that people can’t be. They help us have insight into our own feelings.”
Again and again, families on the verge of despair have watched their children improve at Spirit Reins. Smith explains that some of the horses are well-trained and rider-ready. But others are untrained, and may have experienced trauma of their own. On her first day with the horses, the child chooses which she’d like to have as a special “friend,” and how she wants to teach or help it. The goal might be to build enough trust that the horse will someday allow her to ride it; depending on the horse, the goal might be much more modest. Typically every time she comes back, the child will work with that horse, a long-term exercise that requires patience, compassion, and often, a sense of companionship that the child has never before experienced.
The bond between horse and child, free from the complications of human relationships, helps the child understand her own worth – this horse needs her, too; she is not alone in her struggles – and also her own resilience. By working together, child and horse heal each other.
A ranch where children find hope
“Parents tell us that they feel like they have their kids back,” Smith says. “That’s when it’s all worthwhile.”
One such child was a 12-year-old boy diagnosed with Aspergers, pervasive developmental disorders, and post-traumatic stress disorder. After traditional outpatient therapy proved unsuccessful, the boy’s doctor recommended that he leave his parents’ home to live in a residential facility. As a last resort, his parents approached Spirit Reins.
Some months after their son began sessions, they sent a letter to Spirit Reins staff.
“You asked if we would give you a chance to help,” they wrote. “We did and it has been one of the best decisions we have made.”
“For the first time,” the letter continued, “James is starting to see how behaviors affect all those around you. He is starting to connect the dots between his actions and the power that he has to change and impact that. He is learning that because of the work with the horses. He is learning that because of Bettina and Mr. Tim, and [all of] you. He is feeling the importance of relationships, because he feels that bond with Handsome and Hope and Muffin. We, too, are learning different ways to talk and communicate, as well as cope.”
“For the first time,” they said, “we have hope.”
Special thanks to photographer Bob Stickney at stickneyphotography.com for volunteering his time and talents to help tell this story. View more photos in the bonus album on the 52 Locals Facebook page.
Visit spiritreins.org for more information about the therapy services at Spirit Reins. The center accepts all major insurance carriers, including Medicaid, Star, and CHIP. Email firstname.lastname@example.org to volunteer. Stay connected on their Facebook page.