Darcie Kelly can learn a lot about people by the way they interact with her horses.

A longtime horse person, Kelly, 38, decided in recent years to earn her master's degree in social work. Last summer, she started a business on Green Meadow Drive that uses horses to help with the therapy process.

Fresh Steps EAP (equine assisted psychotherapy) offers treatment through working with horses on the ground as well as through riding. The year-round business has both indoor and outdoor riding rings.

While she can work with adults, Kelly, 38, said most of her work is with children and families. Attention deficit disorder, reactive attachment and post-traumatic stress disorder are some of the illnesses Kelly diagnoses and treats through equine assisted therapy.

"It may be kids that are having difficulty adjusting, or they may have some long-term learning disabilities that are getting in the way of their functioning, and you can see it in their behavior," she said.

She takes referals from AWARE, the Center for Mental Health and other case management agencies in addition to people who contact her directly.

Kelly's practice emphasizes guidelines laid out by EAGALA - the Equine Assisted Growth and Learning Association. The sessions aren't necessarily about learning horsemanship, although that can become part of the process. But the treatment isn't about learning how to ride. It's more about watching how people intereact with the animals and how they interpret the animals' interactions with each other.

"What we're doing is, one, allowing someone to get comfortable with the idea of being around these huge animals," Kelly said. "And two, the books say you'll approach horses in the same way you'll approach life."

And watching people interact with the horses can be more revealing than having them give Kelly the answers they think she wants to hear.

Another licensing organization, the North American Riding for the Handicapped Association (NARHA), focuses more on riding and horsemanship, and Kelly said Fresh Steps will offer NAHRA programing as well. But her focus since opening last August has been on EAGALA.

Early sessions with a client might involve nothing more than watching a pair of horses, and asking the client to describe what the horses are doing and how they're feeling. After some time, the sessions might entail more intensive, problem-solving activities, like catching and haltering a horse, or convincing a horse to jump over a small barrier.

All the while, Kelly observes, and can learn more about a client's behavior from one equestrian session, she said, than she often can with conventional verbal therapy.

"You get at things so quickly. It is considered a brief therapy for that reason," Kelly said. "(As a therapist,) you learn what to notice and how to address it without becoming part of the session. We are there to create a safe environment for them to process."

Craig Struble, a licensed addiction counselor who's interning for his master's in social work, said the challenge of relating to the animal can lay bare a person's emotional strengths and weaknesses.

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"You're always drawing that stuff out through using the horses," he said. "When there is discussion, it's about, 'What are you experiencing through the horse?' We stay away from the 'f' word - feelings."

Kelly said horses make ideal animals to work with because they're big, they can frighten easily and they aren't quickly convinced to do things they don't want to do. Horses are protective of their lives, and even the simple tasks can frustrate the clients at first.

"It's not a feel-good process," Kelly said. "It is very difficult emotional work. There are times a client will leave here somewhat raw, somewhat hurt."

But, Kelly said, the process does work, and often much faster than traditional therapy.

"We've had clients on the verge of getting kicked out of school, and we've worked with them, and they're doing much better."

Reporter John Harrington: 447-4080 or john.harrington@helenair.com.

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