Avalon Hills, an eating disorder treatment center in Cache Valley, integrates an equine program with other science-based therapies to help their clients overcome debilitating issues. They cater to a wide variety of eating disorders. Avalon Hills has three locations in Cache Valley: one in Logan, one in Paradise and one in Petersboro, where the equine program is housed.
Brent Greer, the wrangler at Avalon Hills, said he’s seen miracles happen with horses healing clients.
When the clients first come they are very shy, they don’t have life skills to help them cope with the challenges of life.
“We have clients that have never touched a horse. Some won’t even get close to them,” Greer said. “It doesn’t take them long to bond with a horse. The horses help them gain a little perspective, improve their communication skills and learn to focus.”
After riding in an enclosed arena, the clients and horses go to an outside arena and then off to trails along the hills and mountains on the west side of Cache Valley.
Greer is a certified Equine-Assisted Psychotherapy and Personal Development instructor and therapist. He also is certified in the North American Riding for the Handicapped Association, formed to promote equine-assisted activities and therapies for individuals with special needs.
He knows the characteristics of his animals and he gets to know the clients so he knows how to pair up the riders and horses.
“We match the horses’ personalities to the riders’ personalities,” he said. “Riding horses teaches the clients to be assertive. They have to take charge of the horses. They have to learn to watch the ears, eyes and head of the horse.”
Most of Greer’s life has been spent in a saddle. He has two assistants, both skilled riders who help with the horse therapy.
“All of the clients start on Dakota, the Palomino, because he’s lazy,” Greer said. “It’s rewarding to see the clients gain confidence and get on other horses.”
The Idahoan by birth has also lived in Colorado and now in Utah and has always trained horses with the hopes of being able to use the large animals to help people. Avalon Hills gave him the opportunity almost two years ago.
The clients do more than learn to ride; they also are required to care for the animals as part of the therapy.
Dr. Tera Lensegrave-Benson, a licensed clinical psychologist with a PhD and clinical director, said, on average, their clients have been to seven other treatment centers before they come to Avalon Hills.
“A horse is a great biofeedback machine. They sense the rider’s disposition and they intuitively know the rider’s tension,” Lensegrave-Benson said. “Horses can help patients learn to regulate their arousal and ‘Fight or Flight’ response helping them move to recovery.”
The equine experience is only part of the patient’s therapy; they also are exposed to martial arts, yoga and other movement therapies. Dietary and applied neuroscience also is used to help them on their journey to recovery.
“We are a very active program and that’s what sets us apart,’” she said. “We do rope courses, hike, ski in the winter, rock climb and have floated the Snake River among other outdoor activities.”
Lensegrave-Benson, who was raised on a cattle ranch in Wyoming, said they use science-based therapy on clients including brain scans when they arrive.
“We have very few people leave this place and return,” she said. “Most of them leave here with the skills to live a normal life. Some of them even send us pictures of horses they have bought to ride.”