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Therapy animals: A look at how some local groups are helping people of all ages Jan 3rd, 2015 | By | Category: Features

Horses Healing Heroes, Animals as Natural Therapy, and JNK Llama Farm

by Jessamyn Tuttle

A few years ago Arleen Gibson of Monroe hosted a friend who had just returned from the Gulf War with PTSD. “He helped around the farm with my horses. The horses seemed to have such a calming effect,” she said.

Gibson, whose family has strong military connections, kept thinking about how her horses had affected the young soldier. She researched PTSD treatment, and learned that traditional therapy can be problematic for veterans. “Some soldiers find it difficult to just sit and talk to somebody on a couch,” she said. “When you have an animal in there, they tend to talk more to the animal than the person.”

Niki Kuklenski of JNK Llama Farm in Bellingham gets a llama kiss. PHOTO BY JESSAMYN TUTTLE


The experience led her to start her own non-profit organization, Horses Healing Heroes. Veterans with PTSD, addictions, flashbacks, or family problems can come to the farm and just spend time with her horses. She has trained and been certified through Equine Assisted Growth and Learning Assocation and is a member of the Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship. In addition to her seven horses she has two goats, adding, “Some soldiers like goats.”

Some participants are intimidated by the horses, and may stand on the other side of the fence, while others might walk in among them, but eventually a horse will approach.

“The horse always chooses the soldier,” Gibson said.

For those who are afraid of the horses, facing their fear can give them confidence and provide a positive experience. One soldier who had been traumatized needed to learn to let the horses into her personal space, Gibson said. “She had to trust the horse, trust me, trust herself.”

The horses don’t require special training for their role. “I’m just letting the horse be the horse,” she said. “That’s what they do best, is be themselves.”

Meeting the horses at Animals as Natural Therapy. PHOTO BY JESSAMYN TUTTLE


Gibson lets the soldiers find their own meaning when interacting with the horses. “They tell their story, the gaps are filled in, the wound begins healing,” she said.

Similar techniques are used by Animals as Natural Therapy (ANT), a non-profit based at Windy Acres Farm north of Bellingham. Sonja Wingard, owner of Windy Acres and director of ANT, first hosted a group of high risk, low-income kids brought out by Catholic Community Services 15 years ago. When Wingard saw how much they benefited from visiting the horses, she began to learn more about the connection between horses and people by attending “horse whisperer” trainings and other workshops.

“Animals help the conversation get going,” she said. “They have a deep knowing about people.”

ANT now serves 400 children and young adults per year, plus a handful of veterans. They run a wide assortment of programs, including one where participants from the youth program take rabbits, dogs and roosters to nursing homes to interact with the elderly. Different programs might specifically address bullying, addiction, or creating healthy boundaries. In the summer they offer a day camp open to all kids. “Amazing things happen, it kind of hooks you,” Wingard said.

Boots at Animals as Natural Therapy. PHOTO BY JESSAMYN TUTTLE


While some organizations use horseback riding as therapy for both mental and physical disabilities, like the Bellingham-based Northwest Therapeutic Riding Center, neither ANT or Horses Healing Heroes puts primary emphasis on riding. ANT programs begin with the participant simply approaching the horse. As they build trust with the horse they can try brushing, then leading.

“So much can happen just leading,” Wingard said. The person tends to find that any difficulty they have creating a relationship with the horse is reflective of problems they have with other people. While there are often therapists on hand to help, the participant discovers on their own what issues they need to deal with by observing the horse’s behavior.

“Horses are amazing teachers because they mirror you,” Wingard said. “If you’re aware of what the horse is doing, you can keep yourself safe… we teach social intelligence.”

Both Wingard and Gibson explained that horses are sensitive to the emotions of humans because they’re prey animals and are attuned to what’s going on with possible predators.

“We see each other on the outside. The horse can sense the turmoil inside,” Gibson said. If the person comes to the horse full of anger and mixed emotions the horse will sense that. “We tell people to check their agendas at the gate,” Wingard said.

NK Registered Therapy Llamas visits schools and reading programs (below), as well as nursing homes (above) and other locations. Visitors learn about the llamas and can pet and cuddle them. COURTESY PHOTO


Animal-assisted therapy may often be associated with horses or dogs, but they’re not the only animals used for it. Niki Kuklenski of JNK Llama Farm in Bellingham has found llamas to be effective where other animals might not be.

“Llamas tend to take it as you want it,” she said, noting that sometimes people who don’t respond to dogs, horses or other animals will respond to llamas, who are quiet, undemanding, and give fuzzy kisses on command.

“The media likes to show llamas that spit,” she said, which gives the public a bad impression. “The llamas we use have never spit on anybody.”

She takes her registered therapy llamas to schools, nursing homes, reading programs, and parades.

Kuklenski has spent much of her life working with llamas. As a high schooler she showed llamas in 4H and FFA, taking them to nursing homes.

“I believe in community service,” she said. When a fellow llama enthusiast, Marilynn Larson, was diagnosed with ALS, Kuklenski registered Larson’s favorite llama, Flight of the Eagle, as a therapy animal so she could visit Larson in the hospital. After Larson’s death Kuklenski continued working with Flight and training other llamas.

It takes a llama with a certain personality type to take on therapy work. “One in 50 animals is appropriate,” Kuklenski said. The llama needs to be able to handle dogs, stairs, sudden noises, and being touched by multiple people. She sees which of her animals show the desirable traits, then trains them to cope with all kinds of stimulation.

JNK Llama Farm reading program web

“We put things on them, goose them… we’re constantly touching them,” she said. “I won’t take anything out I don’t trust 100 percent.”

All of her therapy animals are registered with Pet Partners (formerly Delta Society), with each handler individually registered for specific animals.

While animal-assisted therapy can help people with both physical and mental challenges, it offers a unique opportunity for building social connections and fostering healing.

“Animals have a place in the heart where humans can’t go,” Wingard said.

Published in the January 2015 issue of Grow Northwest

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