Cumberland, Brunswick women offer psychotherapy through horses

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CUMBERLAND — Through Work of Heart, psychotherapy has moved from the couch to the horse.

The non-profit organization offers equine-facilitated psychotherapy and experiential learning. It is run by Louise Poppema of Cumberland, Barbara Doughty of Brunswick and Nancy Coyne of Litchfield.

Work of Heart’s first workshop, “Horse Power and Inner Peace: Horses as Mentors,” will be held at Upper Pond Stable in Litchfield on Aug. 6-8. Another workshop is planned in Cumberland in September or October.

The workshops focus on coming to stillness, restoring playfulness and energy, connecting to nature and one’s own body, and learning about oneself and one’s relationships. Every activity is unmounted, and participants need no riding experience.

Work of Heart incorporated last October, and its work is a spin-off from what the women did at the former Flying Changes Center for Therapeutic Riding in Topsham.

Coyne is a psychiatrist; Poppema is a clinical professional mental health counselor and Doughty will ultimately be one.

“Horses are such effective mirrors of our internal states, whether we happen to be aware of them or not,” Poppema said last week. “Because they’ve developed as prey animals, herd animals, and their life depends on knowing what’s going on and what’s coming at them.”

The size of horses provides a large mirror of those internal states, she said.

Horses read body language, Doughty said, noting that “our job as horse professionals is to become familiar with that language and then interpret it for people as people interface with the horse. The horse does these things, (so) we know that this is how the client is feeling, either subconsciously or not.”

A classic example of this is a client who portrays confidence and acts like everything is fine and under control, Poppema said. But when that person is brought near a horse, the equine may either take off or ignore the person outright.

“That’s when we start to facilitate, we start explaining why this is happening,” Doughty said.

Honesty with one’s emotions is the best way to connect with a horse, Poppema explained.

“It’s when one message is coming from the unconscious, and it’s in conflict with the outside one, that the horse goes … ‘I’m outta here,’” she said.

The horse “helps you get deeper faster,” Poppema continued, “because people will use words, and they have the barriers of long experience of how to fool people … the horse cuts right through that. And it’s not because people don’t want to change. They don’t know how to get past the barriers that, for a very good reason, they’ve built.”

That’s why experiential work is sometimes much more effective than talk therapy, Doughty noted.

“We’re working with body, mind and spirit all at the same time,” she said, adding that the therapists don’t want to hear just words, but rather break through to the emotions. “And we want that deeper spiritual awareness.”

People who are working on change in their lives, such as teens through adults and returning war veterans and their families, are among those who can benefit from horse-driven therapy. Trauma survivors and health care providers can also gain much from the experience.

The Litchfield workshop will run Friday, Aug. 6, from 3-6 p.m. with dinner provided, and Saturday, Aug. 7, and Sunday, Aug. 8, from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. with lunch provided. The event costs $350, and a PayPal option is available on Work of Heart’s website,  workofheart.net. Call 829-3356 for more information or to pre-register.

Alex Lear can be reached at 373-9060 ext. 113 or alear@theforecaster.net.

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Barbara Doughty of Brunswick, left, and Louise Poppema of Cumberland are founders of Work of Heart, a non-profit organization that offers equine-facilitated psychotherapy and experiential learning.

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A Maine native and Colby College graduate, Alex has been covering coastal communities since 2001, and currently handles Bath, Topsham, Cumberland, and North Yarmouth. He and his wife, Lauren, live in the Portland area, and Alex recently released his third album of original music.