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All the Pretty Therapists 

Bend's smartest horses ride to your emotional rescue

Equine therapy can really add some horsepower to your quest to get along better with your partner. Photo by Yoko Ikeda.

Equine therapy can really add some horsepower to your quest to get along better with your partner. Photo by Yoko Ikeda.

My couples therapist has grass between his teeth.

Not surprising.

He grazes most of the day, this majestic creature, and yet still finds the time to provide clients with much-needed emotional support. Did I mention he's stunningly handsome? Long legs, two giant brown eyes, a flowing mane and the innate ability to figure out exactly what's going on in your head...sort of like Tony Robbins with a tail and a penchant for hay.

Equine Facilitated Psychotherapy (EFP) has come to Bend and it's not just for couples. Turns out certain horses, when properly trained, possess therapeutic qualities that can help virtually anyone feel better. EFP is used for a long list of psychological ailments including depression, anxiety and trauma.

And no matter what else happens, you get to do your therapy work outside! Or at least in a barn.

My adventurous girlfriend and I first discovered EFP over the summer. Well, she discovered it. I spent most of that time pretending I wasn't hearing someone suggesting horses could improve our relationship. "A horse therapist?" I said. "Seriously? As someone who knows nothing even remotely related to this subject, I can definitively tell you it sounds ridiculous."

Now you have a tiny peek into why we desperately need couples therapy. Well, at least I do.

So we made an appointment. That night I had vivid dreams of a very distinguished horse slumped in a chair wearing a tweed blazer, khakis and brown loafers. A matching dress shirt. Open collar. I mean, could even the most fashionable horse pull off a tie?

Hang on. Was I about to spill my innermost personal secrets to BoJack Horseman? So far, my anxiety was on the upswing.

When the day arrived, we drove out to Healing Reins Therapeutic Riding Center, a charming 20-acre equestrian facility in southeast Bend. Right in the middle of this farmland sits a large barn with over a dozen horse stalls, but most of the horses roam freely in the adjacent paddocks. As we got out of the car, a couple of very friendly dogs appeared, seemingly waiting to greet us, while a storybook variety of ponies, chickens, goats and other animals milled about in nearby pens.

Welcome to my psychotherapy fairy tale.

Oh yes, there were some actual people too. The horse teams up with real humans. Two, actually. Our sessions include a professional licensed therapist as well as a highly-skilled horse trainer. (There's no riding involved. She's there to help things run smoothly and add additional expertise to the process.)

Here's how the sessions work: The therapist, minus the horse and trainer, meets with us first. Often, as opposed to old school therapy, this conversation takes place under a tree. We spend about 15-20 minutes discussing what happened over the past week and getting a sense of the issues we need to work on. That can potentially generate questions beginning with the phrase, "How did that make you feel when he...?"

The standard answer? "A little annoyed."

Then it's time for the main event. The three of us wander over to the paddock where our horse (sometimes two!) and the trainer await. EFP is based on the theory that horses are intuitive and will react to human behavioral patterns that might otherwise go unnoticed. In other words, these calm, zen-like animals have the uncanny ability to actually process our feelings.

Our activities with the horses vary from week to week and each exercise has a specific purpose.

For example, one time our therapist asked me to design a sort of obstacle course for the horse — and then instruct my girlfriend on how to walk him through it. This helps illustrate how well we can work together as a team. Another time, my girlfriend went into the paddock and hung out with the horse alone, while the therapist asked me to simply observe their behavior. For the record, the two of them shared a few casual laughs and, from what I could overhear, made dinner plans.

These horses serve as living "biofeedback machines"—providing valuable insight into the nature of our relationships. Incredibly, they can pick up on things only a horse would know.

Like the fact that I once lost $200 on the Kentucky Derby.

It's a totally enlightening experience. Just being in the presence of these animals is humbling. Horses live in the moment. They mirror your moods. If they sense you're calm, they're generally relaxed. If you're throwing off some tension and/or lack of confidence, they might decide not follow your directions or lose interest in you altogether.

The results so far? It really works. After about a month or two of therapy sessions, our relationship has improved dramatically!

Speaking of which, here's some quick advice for Brad and Angelina: Sure, things appear bleak right now. But on the off chance you're still clinging to hopes of repairing your marriage, there's no better place to work things out than these 20 acres of quiet farmland in a tiny corner of Central Oregon.

Magical horses included.

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