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Horse Sense

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — It’s taken a horse to teach Laverne Martinez some of the most important, lasting lessons she’s learned about shaking her addiction to street drugs.

How to get involved
Sponsors for this year’s Metro Detention Center-based equine therapy recovery programs are still being sought, and program organizers Win Simon and Dr. Florian Birkmayer say they hope to develop a men’s group through the community custody program, as well.
Private therapy is also an option, as are workshops for other groups. To learn more about Southwest HorsePower Inc., a New Mexico nonprofit, contact Win Simon at 379-1974 or 268-8919, or email at

Since she began a program teaching methods of interacting with horses, she has even found greater success relating to her grown daughter and grandchild.

“I’m trying a calm approach with my kids,” she says with a grin. “No yelling and screaming and tantrums.”

Now, Martinez, 47, is studying to complete her high school GED with dreams of working as a cosmetologist.

For about a year, the program has been available to selected women with drug and alcohol convictions who are under house arrest through the Metro Detention Center’s community custody program (CCP).

“It’s ‘wow!’ across the board,” says Christina Garcia, the corrections officer involved with the program, which has received funding from United Way and the Hancock Family Foundation.

Ankle bracelet in place, Martinez joined a group of about a half dozen fellow inmates for once-a-week afternoon outings this winter that were far different from the women’s day-to-day schedules. A typical day might otherwise be filled with school, work, community service, drug court requirements, mandatory Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous meetings, therapy sessions and random drug tests.

Instead, they leave the city behind to spend a few hours outdoors in the rural South Valley, where rarely-heard giggles mesh with emotions ranging from frustration to humor.

The women are participating in a therapeutic equine program and benefiting from coordinated interactions with horses, a horse specialist and mental health therapists. In the space of a dusty corral at WT Equestrian, life lessons are imparted about teamwork, trusting each other, gaining confidence, overcoming fear and building self esteem.

Fast learning

Equine-assisted psychotherapy is not a new concept, says Win Simon, the director of Southwest Horse Power Inc. Simon is certified through EAGALA (Equine Assisted Growth and Learning Association), an organization that provides a structured model for using horses experientially for mental health treatment. While Simon and the team that comprises holistic psychiatrist and addictions specialist Florian Birkmayer and clinical social worker Nathan Fox concentrate on working with inmates, the method has been used therapeutically in other circumstances to treat issues ranging from child abuse to eating disorders.

“All of us can benefit from having our emotions brought to the surface,” says Birkmayer, “and I don’t know of a faster way to do it.”

But why horses, those powerful creatures whose very size is intimidating to most humans?

“Yeah, I was a little scared,” concedes Viola Garcia, 52, and under house arrest after a DWI conviction. “I had a bad episode with one when I was a kid. But I figured they’re just as afraid as I am.”

Viola Garcia’s words hit the nail on the head, says Birkmayer.

“Horses mirror human body language,” he says. “They reflect your emotional state even if you are not aware of it. Horses put you in the here and now, something needed for these women who are usually out of touch with emotions and feelings. Many have been in abusive relationships; some have had kids taken away. There’s all this negativity in their lives: ‘You can’t do this. You can’t do that.’ They come here and get a glimmer of positive emotions and not being so utterly powerless.”

Quiet words

Viola Garcia uses a soft approach as she guides a miniature horse through a four-square pattern in the dirt. Quiet words and a gentle touch keep the small horse nearby even when she releases the rein. Later, Martinez and Viola Garcia stand atop a hay bale giggling as a full-size animal nips close to their boots as he eats.

“The horses put you in the now,” says Martinez. “We can’t change the past, but we can do things better today and tomorrow.”

The horse’s size creates a natural opportunity for many women to overcome fear and develop confidence, says Birkmayer.

To speed the transition, Simon starts off with three miniature horses that quickly endear themselves to the women. Like humans, horses are social animals with distinct personalities, attitudes and moods. An approach that works with one animal won’t necessarily work with another as the women first learn to offer food off their hand or listen to the animal’s heartbeat with a stethoscope.

“That’s where the patience part comes in,” says Martinez.

Calm decisions

As they set about accomplishing the day’s exercise with the animal, there’s more to be learned: how to relax, stay calm, overcome stress, and make decisions, often as part of a team.

Convincing a horse to “lunge” or walk in a circle at the end of a rope can be a challenge. Moving the big animal minus verbal commands into a marked square is even more difficult. An uncooperative horse, most often responding to a client’s attitude or fears, is a patience-builder. Riding the horses is not part of the program, the directors say.

The goal, says corrections officer Christina Garcia, is to take the lessons learned at the stable and incorporate them into an everyday life that has too often been filled with violence, negativity and coercion.

For Christina Garcia, that means helping the women break a cycle that repeatedly hits the replay button that leads them back to jail.

Birkmayer offers a practical example, pointing out that the most attractive horses on the farm aren’t necessarily the nicest. He encourages the women to think about their choices in partners, drawing a parallel that brings both laughter and grimaces.

“It’s easy in my profession to turn people into professional patients,” says Birkmayer. “But this is about the women changing themselves. It’s reminding people of their own innate self-healing abilities.”

New choices

Christina Garcia, who talks with the women daily, sees lessons learned at every turn. Talk flows in this outdoor setting, a far cry from mandated group discussions, where women sit in a circle of chairs with heads down and little interaction.

“Horses don’t offer the instant gratification of getting high,” Christina Garcia says. “The women have to earn the animal’s respect. Nothing comes without some work. There’s no such thing as instant gratification out in the world. We’re trying to empower the women to make their own choices and stick with them.”

The equine therapy program began in April 2011, and by the end of the year, 65 house arrest inmates, nearly all on drug and alcohol charges, had participated.

While Christina Garcia’s figures reflect a short time frame, a glance through her roster revealed only two previous offenders had returned to jail. The consistent feedback from all sides is that the program should extend beyond the current four to six weeks.

All hope the beneficial lessons imparted by horses and therapists are lasting.

Christina Garcia says, “I tell my women all the time that when they’re out of the corrections program to try this: If they’re feeling overwhelmed, take a drive in the country. It’s good for your soul. Get away from town. Clear your thoughts. Rather than falling off the wagon and running down to the liquor store to grab a bottle, redirect yourself. Give yourself a little peace and sanity. It’s only minutes to a rural area. You’re still in town, but you feel as though you’re a million miles away.”