FullBucket sat down with Hillary to discuss her passion for helping people and horses, and what she’s learned about both in the 11 years since she started her organization.

"All of our horses are rescue horses that are unwanted or neglected and abused.  ...the ones that have pasts of abuse, we’ve found that clients who have had similar pasts of abuse or neglect join up with those horses or those horses join up with them. And you just start to see the healing start. It’s incredible." 

Hillary Holsteen began Harnessing Hope in 2004 to provide quality equine assisted therapy & learning services and personal growth opportunities to people, while at the same time offering a safe haven and second chance for unwanted, abused, and neglected horses.

As Hillary tells it, she was a horse-crazy girl growing up and loved helping animals in need. As she got older, she developed a real passion for helping people in need as well. While studying to become a social worker, she learned about equine-assisted psychotherapy and was instantly intrigued by the idea she could use her horses as a tool for healing people with a variety of mental health needs including behavioral issues, attention deficit disorder, substance abuse, eating disorders, abuse issues, depression, anxiety, relationship problems and communication needs.  She instantly knew this was her calling and soon after, Harnessing Hope was born.

FullBucket sat down with Hillary to discuss her passion for helping people and horses, and what she’s learned about both in the 11 years since she started her organization.

FB: After finishing college, you focused your attention on equine therapy and got certified, is that correct?

HH: Yes. I loved the idea of using my knowledge of and passion for horses as a tool to help people, and so I went and got my first certification through Eagala. That was an amazing experience and I stayed with them for continuing education. Once Greg Kersten split off, we felt he was such a valuable teacher and trainer that we stuck with his training.

FB: What were some of your goals when you first started Harnessing Hope?

HH: When equine therapy became popular, a lot of people that had horses and an interest in helping people started their own programs, but we started to see a lot of these other organizations had loose structures and requirements. Like they were offering these service, but there wasn’t so much a clinical focus on psychotherapy or the fact that you were dealing with these very large animals.

One of the goals for Harnessing Hope was that we always wanted to be at the top of our industry and always strive for professionalism. We are adamant about safety in this field and only use state licensed therapists and equine specialists that have had a lifelong professional involvement in a horse field. We do this to give comfort to our clients. We want them to know they are getting top-notch services and care.

We just felt like we really needed to help the equine therapy field by letting people see something that is safe and effective and taken seriously by hospitals and mental health professionals.

FB: Do You Have a Specialty?

HH: We have our own staff therapists that are with us all of the time but we are also open to therapists in private practices or at hospitals or clinics who have a client that might really benefit from our program. They can refer to us or come out and get themselves certified and start offering this service as well. Our main therapist is a child counselor – that’s her specialty - so she caters to all of our clients that come through that are children and teens. Each therapist we collaborate with has a specialized field they work in.

FB: How Do People Pay for Therapy?

HH: People either pay out of pocket, through insurance, state funding, or grants/special assistance.  Harnessing Hope has plans of developing a non-profit aspect to help more of the underprivileged community. 

Another future plan in the making is serving Military Veterans and families. Equine therapy has shown to be very effective for Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome, which is obviously something that veterans struggle with a lot.

FB: Who else do you have on staff?

HH: We also have a couple of equine specialists. We have a licensed therapist and equine specialist, both certified in EAP, co-facilitating each therapy session. The horse person watches out for safety and makes observations as to how the horses are responding to the client and activity. Then the therapist takes that information and brings it into the client’s life: how do they deal with or handle situations in their daily lives and is this similar to what happens at home? They can then use metaphors and bring out a lot of the therapeutic aspects for the client. It’s really important to have a strong team.

FB: And what are some of the horse activities that happen during therapy?

HH: We call it a brief approach to therapy because of how intensive it is. Therapists are able to get so much information because they’re seeing their client actually do something. A complaint that a lot of therapists have and why they come to us is because their client sits on the couch and lies to them. (laughs) You know they say they do things one way and then when they find out what they’re really doing in their life they think, “That’s not matching with what you’re saying.” So, in our therapy sessions we put them out with the horses and the therapist can see how they’re really doing things.

And the horses are like mirrors, they give us completely honest feedback, which is really useful. Usually how the client handles the horses is how they’re going to handle people and family members. So we always encourage a commitment of six to 12 sessions, not that that’s going to cure clients, but that’s the commitment we ask for because sometimes it gets really challenging and the therapy can bring things out in a client they don’t want brought out and then they don’t want to come back, they want to give up on it because it’s frustrating them.

The activities are all very different. Not everyone starts on the horse. In fact, horseback riding is not really the focus of the program. To give you an example, a beginning session is sometimes just observing a herd of horses and talking about how they communicate. Their communication is non-verbal, which is one of the most effective forms of communication. And even just by watching the horses clients can say, “That horse reminds me of so-and-so,” and the therapist can say, “Let’s talk about that,” or “This horse looks like an outcast,” and a lot of times the clients are talking about themselves.

From there it might be to pick one horse and put a halter and lead on, and sometimes just that act takes all 12 sessions. We let the client lead their therapy. We don’t act as if we have all the answers, it’s more about what comes out in each session is what needs to come out.

FB: Tell us about your beautiful herd.

HH: We don’t purchase our horses and we don’t buy therapy horses. All of our horses are rescue horses that are unwanted or neglected and abused. Some horses that come to us are not suitable for therapy so we either find them homes or they go in our “money pit retirement” part of the program. (laughs) But the useful ones for the therapy are, we feel, even more powerful because the ones that have pasts of abuse, we’ve found that clients who have had similar pasts of abuse or neglect join up with those horses or those horses join up with them. And you just start to see the healing start. It’s incredible.

We have a horse who was tied to a tree and beaten and that horse found a child that we didn’t know yet had a history of abuse, we had no idea. And that horse walked right up to that girl. She was able to heal by thinking “How can we help Frost? How can we help him not feel so scared of people?” Stories sometimes help all of us understand and heal.

FB: How do you know which horses will be appropriate for your program?

HH: When they first come to us we let them settle for a while. Once they’re relaxed and have a routine we can see their real personalities come through. From there we want them to be real. Because we’re not doing therapeutic riding, a lot of our horses aren’t ever ridden in therapy, so they don’t necessarily need to be safe in terms of running away or spooking. The things we need to know are that this horse is not going to bite no matter what this child does, you know, hangs on their back or tail, they’re not going to kick. They’re not going to do anything that’s going to be aggressive. If we see aggressive tendencies, those horses are not used. But other than making sure they show no aggression, we like the horses to have a spirited personality and life in them.

FB: Where have some of your horses come from?

HH: We never go looking for horses, they always find us. And they come from all different places. We have ex-race horses, we have ex-show horses that were basically pretty high end in the competition world and developed injuries or arthritis, and to many of those owners, that’s kind of like, “Well, that’s what they’re used for and they’re useless to us now.” We kind of feel like our society has become disposable with animals and children, we’ve worked with a lot of foster kids who are near and dear to our hearts, and we want both the horses and the kids to feel that they are wanted, they have a purpose, they’re special. So with the horses our feeling is, you may not be able to make your owners money anymore in the show world but you’re going to be able to help these kids heal. Our belief is full circle, help the horses who can then help the people.

FB: How do the horses generally respond to the clients and activity that happens during a therapy session?

HH: That’s the coolest part. They’re so responsive to every single person, what that person’s about and their energy. I mean they read people really well right off the bat. People think of horses as livestock but they have their own personalities as well. And then on top of that when they’re around a person they act differently depending on that person, so, we can plan all day and night which horse we should use for which session, but at the end of the day each horse is going to do exactly what needs to happen and react to that person how that person is feeling that day.

For instance, if a child comes in feeling really angry, a lot of times a horse will just walk away. They will literally move as far away as they can. And other times they may sense that child, or adult, needs comfort and they come right up to them. They are so totally honest and mirror everything that is really going on.

FB: What role does FullBucket play in your organization?

HH: I think the biggest way that FullBucket has helped is that they have now developed the domestic giving aspect of their giving program and Harnessing Hope is the first domestic equine therapy program they have helped. We give our horses the FullBucket supplement, and they also helped to cover some of our hay and grain expense.

Something Dr. Franklin had asked me point blank at the beginning was, “What does your program struggle with the most, and what do most therapy programs struggle with the most?” And what we all struggle with is the overhead costs. We want to help these people but these horses are so expensive, and that can sometimes take away from being able to help a lot because you’re so focused on the care aspect of the animals and making sure their needs are met. The help from FullBucket has relieved such a burden on us. I would say the demise of most therapy programs is cost of care of the horses.

FullBucket’s focus is now domestic giving because they’ve seen such success in their giving programs in other countries. I know right now they’re also working on a canine therapy program because they have the canine product. I was really excited to be the first organization to receive such amazing help, and I’m actually working with them to find quality programs that could benefit from their giving program as well.

FullBucket’s belief is, if we can help the animals that are helping the people, then we’re doing a good thing.

To learn more about Harnessing Hope, visit their website.

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