FORT CALHOUN — Her fingertips are cold, despite the yellow streaks of mid-morning sun slanting through the red barn door. It’s autumn 2011, Sharon’s second trip to the suburban Omaha stable. She tightens her grip on the rope, digs her boot heels deep into the dry dirt and leans for a hard pull.
There’s no give.
The 52-year-old ex-Marine turns and meets her therapist’s eyes -- dark and wide, eyes rimmed with a white edge that suggests an unwavering stubbornness. She tugs harder on the rope. Her jaw clenches. Her knuckles whiten.
Still no slack.
So she lowers her voice and commands him forward in the deep, harsh tone she learned during her four years in the military.
Switching tactics, she turns and whacks the therapist with an open palm.
Then something happened that she can’t explain, something that she’s often thought about, that she’s turned to over and over again for years. She just dropped the rope. For the first time since that long night three decades ago, Sharon Robino-West let go.
Let go of that night when she was 21, kneeling on the floor, clutching a Bible in her shaking hands after the stranger at the Marine base repeatedly raped her.
Let go of the years she felt powerless and dismissed as a woman in the military.
Let go of the helpless feeling of watching her son try to drink away memories of the Iraqi desert.
After everything else she had tried — after years of nightmares, of trusting no one, of pushing herself to run marathons — Sharon let go of the rope on that perfect autumn day in a red barn on the edge of Omaha, sleeping straight through that night for the first time in decades.
“That moment with Archie was a breakthrough for me,” Sharon said. “I was confronted with the fact that maybe the way I’m doing things isn’t the way people are going to respond best. Horses or people.”
To be clear, Sharon’s therapist has never taken a college class, never studied psychology, never been to medical school. In fact, Archie is an aging, 1,200-pound chestnut quarter horse with white spots and a stalwart spirit.
For years, he’s been called upon to help heal a wide range of psychological issues — from PTSD to bulimia, from depression to marital strife. Along the way, he has amassed a patient list any licensed psychologist would envy. He works out of Take Flight Farms, a nonprofit equine assisted psychotherapy program near Omaha.
“Archie is the most relatable of the program’s horses,” said Quinn Lawton, a licensed equine psychotherapist. “He’s got scars of his own, and he intuitively knows what each person needs.”
How Sharon needed to let go. How Keynan Meeks, a lonely Omaha fifth-grader, needed a friend.
And they both found it in an obstinate and unrideable elderly horse with a bum back leg.
* * *
Archie is one of nine four-legged therapists at Take Flight Farms near Fort Calhoun. The program’s mission is providing psychotherapy and learning under the Equine Assisted Growth and Learning Association model. The research-based model, which involves no riding, incorporates a mental health professional and an equine specialist to customize a program for each client. The programs are experiential — clients learn through hands-on activities with the horse and then discuss behavioral patterns and how they relate to everyday life.
For example, a session for someone facing anger issues could include an obstacle course the client would have to back the horse through. Each obstacle represents a barrier to success in the client’s life. When the session ends, the client discusses the ways in which he or she used strengths and strategies to overcome each obstacle.
The number of sessions varies with each client, ranging from half-day workshops to a few months of weekly meetings. Each 50-minute individual session costs about $160.
“People think of therapy as in an office talking once a week,” Lawton said. “It’s hard to explain that working with a horse, without riding, can offer a legitimate therapy. But this is a proven model and we see it work every day out here.”
Since its inception in 2002, Take Flight has partnered with more than 40 local and regional agencies, working with more than 2,300 veterans, students, corporations and various outpatient programs.
“The horse can be a metaphor for whatever a client has faced in their lives,” Lawton said.
The program looks to provide a variety of horses that embody a range of personalities.
Archie’s personality has served as countless metaphors.
In human years, the 30-some-year-old horse would be 85. The swollen hind leg — a traumatic injury from a barn collapse years ago — ages him even more.
“There’s this instant connection and understanding between Archie and those with history of trauma,” said Sara Weiss, Take Flight’s program manager. “There’s no reason he should trust people but he does every day. He loves people -- I swear he glares at us when we don’t use him.”
* * *
The 10-year-old boy was scared to touch the horse at first. He’d never been around an animal so big, but he’d seen them kick and bite in the movies.
So Keynan Meeks hung back, kept his eyes down, toeing hills and valleys in the dirt. He’s wider and at least a head taller than the other boys in his fifth-grade class at Jesuit Academy, an inner-city Catholic school in Omaha. Sometimes when he stands with the group, he looks like he’s trying to make himself smaller, arms pulled in tight against his hips.
Now in his second year at the school, Keynan still doesn’t have many friends. It’s not that they say mean things to him, it’s that most of the time they don’t say anything at all.
“I just want to go up to people and say ‘Hi,’” Keynan said, his voice barely audible. “But I’m scared they won’t like me.”
His words are soft, mumbled. His sentences rarely more than a few short sound bites. Someday, when he finds his voice, he’d like to stand in front of a classroom and teach American history. Or maybe behind a podium as the mayor of a big city.
But first, he needs to be heard.
Keynan holds the halter awkwardly in his hands, taking slow, tentative steps toward Archie, who stands patiently in the middle of the arena. It’s Keynan's second week, but still there’s a lump of fear low in his chest.
Archie’s ears swivel toward the shy boy.
The horse drops his head, touches his muzzle to Keynan’s hand. The boy slips the halter over the horse’s ears.
“He was listening to me,” he said. “He trusted me.”
A student calls out Keynan’s name, asking him to come over and help him put the halter on another horse’s head.
“You can’t put a bridle on people,” Keynan says, a smile edging his words. “But I can learn to help them and lead them.”
At school, Keynan is reading books about leaders — Washington and Franklin. A shy pride washes over his face when he tells his principal about the "A" he got on his Malcolm X book report.
On this afternoon, Keynan is wrapping up the last of four sessions at the barn.
Before he leaves, he walks over to Archie, his steps sure and confident. He runs his fingers under the flaxen mane and pats his neck.
“You’ve been a good friend.”
Quinn Lawton grew up a horse girl. She had her first horse out at Faulkner Stables in Lincoln when she was 8 years old, eager just to smell the barn.
“Growing up, horses were my therapy,” she said. “They kept me out of trouble, gave me confidence. There’s really no better therapist than a horse.”
In college, the now 35-year-old found her second passion: helping others. After graduating from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln with a psychology degree, Lawton earned her master’s degree in community counseling at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. She started as a volunteer with Take Flight, then became a certified Equine Assisted Growth and Learning Association practitioner in 2006.
Take Flight has given her an opportunity to combine her passion and profession. This year, she will start offering sessions at the Lincoln stable where her love for horses started.
“The connection between a horse and a person is powerful in so many ways,” she said. “Horses teach us about ourselves.”
* * *
It’s September 2014 and Sharon sits at a picnic table near the arena, her first time back at the barn since 2012. She breathes deeply, taking in the earthy smell of hay and sawdust.
“I’ve missed this place,” she says.
Her hands are still in her lap. She’s not incessantly clicking her pen or checking her phone -- habits she’d thought she’d never break.
Today, she sees herself in the women she talks with in her office at the Women’s Center for Advancement in Omaha. She can see the fear in their eyes, hear the uncertainty in their voices when they arrive.
“Us women veterans are so scared,” she said. “We were taught not to admit we need help. We desperately think we can control it all. The last thing we want to do is open the floodgates.”
Since that day in the arena three years ago, Sharon has let the waves of emotion come. Last summer, she began the process of filing an assault claim against the Marine who raped her 30 years ago.
This spring, the military validated her claim.
“The equine therapy is what made me feel safe enough to come forward,” she said.
She walks down the row of stalls, touching each horse’s muzzle, sharing memories of the ones she recognizes.
In one of the middle stalls, Archie stands with his head down, munching a pile of hay.
“Hey Archie,” Sharon says, her voice rising. “It’s been awhile, boy.”
Archie lifts his head, strands of hay falling from his mouth. He walks to Sharon, puts his neck over the stall door, lets her pet his face, comb her fingers through his forelock.
She’s whispering now.
“Thank you, buddy. I have so much to thank you for.”