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Warren's Sande School believes equine-assisted psychotherapy can help people deal with trauma, other issues.

PMG PHOTO: ANNA DEL SAVIO - A student rides a horse during one of the general riding lessons at the Sande School of Horsemanship.The Sande School of Horsemanship has added equine-assisted therapy to the list of programs it offers.

For more than a decade, the school has offered general riding lessons, lessons for riders with intellectual or developmental disabilities, and lessons for kids in foster care.

Sande received funding last year from the Oregon Community Foundation, a nonprofit, and Columbia Pacific CCO, the local Medicaid administrator, to start an equine-assisted psychotherapy program.

"It took Sande nearly a year to find the right practitioner," executive director Kassi Euwer said. "Starting a program is a huge undertaking, requiring resources not typically available in most equestrian settings, which explains why it's so difficult to find facilities offering equine-assisted therapy. It also requires a licensed mental health practitioner with extensive additional training and equestrian experience."

Kayla Hart, a licensed clinical social worker, joined Sande and started seeing clients earlier this summer after additional training.COURTESY PHOTO - Kayla Hart is the Sande School of Horsemanships new equine-assisted psychotherapist.

The therapy program "is designed primarily for youth and young adults who have experienced trauma," Euwer said.

"As it's an experiential intervention, it's especially helpful for individuals for whom talk therapy is not effective. Sande School of Horsemanship has seen the healing power of horses over the past decade (with) marginalized youth and has hoped to start (a therapy) program for many years," Euwer said.

"Together, we help the client build a relationship with the horse which increases bodily and behavioral awareness of self, learn how to build healthy relationships, and gain insights into their own relational patterns," Hart wrote in her staff bio.

"Horses are sentient beings and prey animals that react quickly and authentically to subtle shifts in human respiration, body language, voice tone, muscle tension, and posture. As prey animals, they are constantly on the lookout for possible danger. It is not uncommon for humans who have experienced trauma in their lives to act similarly," Hart wrote.

Hart can currently bill the Oregon Health Plan, but Sande plans to expand to accept more insurance plans. There are also some limited sliding-scale self-pay options.

For some clients, appointments also include an "equine specialist," who assists with "interpreting, caring for and advocating for the equine in mental health sessions" or help when the client is working on horsemanship skills outside of the psychotherapy provider's area of expertise, Euwer said.

A month into the program, Hart was seeing 12 clients and had room to more than double that number.

"Kayla is currently accepting referrals for individuals ages 8 (to) 18, and her niche is serving youth from marginalized populations and/or youth who have experienced trauma. She anticipates starting small-group therapy classes this fall or winter," Euwer said.

Between general riding lessons, the Youth Leadership Program and therapeutic riding lessons for people with disabilities, the Sande School of Horsemanship serves between 100 and 120 riders each week, or 200 to 300 annually. Roughly half of those students are in general riding classes. Around 20% take therapeutic riding lessons, while 30% are in the Youth Leadership Program or the new psychotherapy program, Euwer said.

Columbia County has few mental health care providers. Statewide, Oregon's per capita supply of licensed mental health care workers is more than thrice the local supply in Columbia County, according to Oregon Health Authority data.

A 2018 report from Columbia Pacific CCO highlighted the low access to mental health care in Columbia County, which "hit home to Sande," Euwer said, prompting the development of the new program.

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