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Goshen Therapy Farm Pairs Horses with Stressed People

by Steve Grinczel

Published: Friday, November 13, 2020

Kori Cripe tries every day to live by the words in an Erma Bombeck quote kept on her office desk.

"It says," and she was paraphrasing the late American humorist in the shadow of her barn on Monday morning, "I won't leave this earth without all my talents being exhausted."

To reach that end, Cripe combines her longtime passion for horses with her profession as a mental health counselor at The Barn is Therapy practice which she operates at her family's farm, Meadowbrook Barn and Historic Home (established in 1860) northeast of Goshen.

In one of the more innovative examples of agricultural diversification, Cripe and fellow therapists, Becca Snider and Kahlil Schertz, provide a counseling option for farm folk and city dwellers alike—children, teens and adults—that's a 180-degree turn from a traditional office setting.

Sessions can take place in a show ring, pasture or the barn and involve a specialist and one to six horses from Cripe's certified herd of 16, which includes some miniature donkeys.

"Usually, it's introducing the client to whatever herd of horses that we have out there, setting up some kind of activity and talking through what they want to work on for that session," Cripe said with Sid, an 18-year-old mini paint breed horse, occasionally neighing at her side. "Whatever's going on in the ring is usually a metaphor for what's going on in their own lives, and they draw on that to reach a conclusion themselves.

"We provide the space for them to learn what they need to work on and what solution can come out of it. The horse is just as much of a counselor as I am inside of the ring."

The Barn is Therapy team also offers remote programs, with horses in tow to facilities such as schools, nursing homes and hospitals.

"School kids and families are our biggest clientele," Cripe said. "We do get people from the country, but people don't come to us because they're comfortable with horses, necessarily. I'd probably say a third of the people we service are from rural places. Most kids don't have this kind of interaction with animals, but once they do, they love it.

"It goes back to our roots in this area."

Farm stress has become such a major concern in recent years, in 2018 the U.S. Department of Agriculture included funding in the Farm Bill to provide mental health assistance, while university extension services across the country, such as those with Purdue and Michigan State, have designed programs to address it.

The nature of Cripe's private practice is grounded in her experience growing up on a farm and involvement as a leader with the Middlebury 4-H club.

"I showed horses my entire 4-H career here and in Elkhart County," she said. "So when I graduated (from Northridge High School in Middlebury), I wanted to still do something with horses and kept on as a leader and things like that."

After receiving her undergraduate degree from Goshen College, she went on to earn her master's in counseling from Indiana University, South Bend.

Eventually, she found out about Utah-based Equine Assisted Growth and Learning Assn. (EAGALA), a world-renowned leader in equine-assisted psychotherapy. Cripe and Snider, a lifelong horsewoman, became certified equine specialists and mental health counselors through EAGALA and decided to start The Barn's Therapy at Meadowbrook where Cripe's husband, Troy, "does hay" when he isn't working his full-time job as an ag manager for a harvesting equipment company.

"We both love agriculture and wanted to promote it somehow, so that's why we decided to incorporate something here on the property that allows us to give something back to the community through counseling," said Cripe, whose renovated main barn is also hired out for events such as service club and organization meetings, and weddings.

Schertz, whose love for horses began when he earned the horsemanship merit badge from the Boy Scouts in 1974, is a retired fourth-grade teacher from Middlebury schools. He is also EAGALA certified and joined the team within the past couple of years.

Cripe's clientele is just about equally split between adults and children. The sessions are all comprised of ground work, which means no one gets up on or rides a horse.

Horses are instrumental in her counseling of various conditions and situations including anxiety, depression, family and divorce issues and grief.

"We had started out the school year seeing a lot more anxiety and depression with groups of kids because of COVID," Cripe said. "Now it's really turned to more grief sessions with kids and adults, some tied to death and then also some tied just to the loss of normalcy in the last three or four weeks—the loss of activities, the loss of being able to get together.

"A lot of our clients have never ever been in a room, or the barn, with a horse before, so that's a whole new experience for them. But horses are very intelligent, No. 1, and they catch onto people's personalities, feelings and emotions. That's what makes horses probably the most popular and well-adjusted animal to do counseling with."

Cripe has worked with 4-H members she has come to know, children in juvenile detention and families working through adoption. Cripe's practice fills a niche standard talk therapy can't.

A couple who runs a dairy business recently came to The Barn seeking relief from stress borne from their economic situation.

"More of it's to do with the uncertainty of the unknown, but some of it's working through stress in the home with marriages, so we work with both parents and kids in the arena," Cripe said. "Some people look at going to an office for counseling as a negative situation, whereas here they can be outside and touch animals and have interaction with something that's beyond them.

We see resiliency, we really do, but we're also seeing an increase in depression and suicides, and it's gone up since COVID hit. Horses can take off the stress of people because they can feel what's going on within their lives."

To illustrate the healing quality a horse can bring to a situation, Cripe cited a recent session involving a girl working her way through the foster care system.

"She had to be with us for so many sessions, and she did not want to be here," Cripe said. "I thought this was going to be a disaster, a whole hour of just watching her. So, she laid down in the pasture, and was like, I'm going to be here, but I'm not going to do anything.

"Within 10 minutes, the one miniature horse went over and laid down beside her, and that is not common. He picked up on something she needed and was going to come down to her level to get her attention. Eventually, she sat up and he put his head in her lap, so then we could talk about how he trusted her and she ended up trusting him. That started a relationship and she ended up coming out to finish six sessions."

Cripe is also working with Middlebury schools to develop a program that will involve horses appearing in the academic buildings next school year.

"This will be groundbreaking," she said. "Middlebury's the first one to start it. It's exciting."

The Barn is Therapy works in conjunction with LoveWay Therapeutic Equestrian Services, which addresses the physical needs of physically handicapped persons.

"We have some interaction as far as referrals because mental health is a separate need from physical health," Cripe said. "I learn something at every session I do because horses act differently with every person."

Unfortunately, Cripe hasn't been able to take her horses to nursing homes for months because of restrictions in force due to the pandemic.

"That's been hard because those people still need touch, and they can't get that right now," she said.

Cripe's practice is flexible enough to offer services on a sliding scale, meaning she can adjust her rates based on a client's ability to pay. The Barn also accepts donations, which are used to cover sessions for persons without the financial means to pay.

"We do a lot of things pro bono, just because, for people in need," she said. "That's the nice part, to be able to do that."

Cripe is responsible for the daily care of the horses, but occasionally gets help from 4-H'ers and clients, past and present, who volunteer to muck stalls and do other chores.

"I've got lots of girls who just love to brush horses, so that's been fun and I get to know them better, too," she said. "I feel very blessed because I've been able to combine my own hobby into a career for me, doing something I enjoy working with."

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