A 1,200 Pound Therapist and Window to the Mind: An Interview with Hayley Sumner
“You have to earn a horse’s trust by being true, honest, and aware of both the horse and yourself,” said Hayley Sumner, Founder and Executive Director of Berkshire HorseWorks.
Before founding Berkshire HorseWorks, an Equine Assisted Psychotherapy and Equine Assisted Learning nonprofit organization, Sumner was a self-proclaimed “California cowgirl.” She spent her young life riding horses as a hobby and never imagined that she would change lives through her passion for the graceful giants. However, a move to Kentucky and the purchase of a 6-month-old weanling opened Sumner’s eyes to the work she could do with equine therapy. She began to volunteer at a therapeutic riding facility where she was encouraged to become a part of the Equine Assisted Growth and Learning Association (EAGALA). EAGALA is an international nonprofit association for professionals who incorporate horses to help others with mental health or personal development needs. Sumner’s interest in horses, volunteer work, and social work led her to become an EAGALA Certified Equine Specialist Professional. After travelling around the world as an EAGALA volunteer and working as part of EAGALA’s communications team, Sumner decided to take her involvement one step further and found her own EAGALA program.
“As a volunteer with EAGALA, I had seen the impact of their work, and it absolutely fascinated me,” said Sumner.
Bringing Equine-Assisted Psychotherapy to the Community
The EAGALA model seemed to work wonders across the globe, and Sumner was excited to bring the program to her new community in the Berkshires in Massachusetts. In 2013, Sumner officially founded Berkshire HorseWorks. A year later the organization received its 501(c)(3) status and is currently operating out of the Berkshire Equestrian Center and the Inn at Richmond as a nonprofit, serving people from throughout the East Coast.
The Berkshire HorseWorks team includes three rotating Massachusetts Licensed Mental Health Professionals who bring their different areas of expertise to the team and four equine specialists, including Sumner. The program also consists of four horses that have a wide variety of backgrounds, personalities, and disciplines. Sumner believes that any horse is suitable for therapy work as long as it is not aggressive, a kicker, or a biter. Even horses with some behavioral issues can be effective for equine assisted psychotherapy. For instance, one of Berkshire HorseWorks’ horses has some boundary issues which makes him more effective for work with people who need to establish boundaries in their own lives. Before the horses begin their work in therapy, Sumner and her team expose them to a variety of props, objects, textures, sounds, and other distractions that they may encounter during a therapy session. This helps the horses become more comfortable and helps Sumner and her team anticipate how a horse will react when exposed to such experiences during a therapy session.
Berkshire HorseWorks offers several different programs that fall within the equine assisted psychotherapy or equine assisted learning/team building realm. They offer an anti-bullying program, an empowerment program for girls in kindergarten through 8th grade, an eight-week women’s empowerment and decision making program, a ten-week veterans’ program to help with reintegration into society, and a program for couples that fosters communication in the couple dynamic. Additionally, families can take part in programs and retreats that explore the importance of each member of the family and connect the people as a stronger family unit. Many of the families who come to Berkshire HorseWorks are military families, families that are experiencing disconnect, or families who have a child with ADHD, anxiety, or another disability. In addition to the services that Berkshire HorseWorks provides for individuals and families, they offer corporate and staff development programs. These programs focus on group dynamics, team building, team effectiveness, individuals’ niches within a larger team, and overall bonding within the organization. Just as ropes courses, fishing trips, and golf outings have been used for bonding among coworkers, equine-assisted team-building is now serving the same role in companies. None of the programs involve horseback riding but, rather, rely on human-horse interaction on the ground as the foundation for learning and therapy.
The programs are 60 minutes, 90 minutes, half-day, full-day, or multi-day in length. For multi-day retreats, Berkshire HorseWorks offers overnight accommodations on the property where their facility is located. They also provide various activities such as yoga, hiking, and fishing for customers to participate in so that they can continue to explore and grow during their stay.
An Incredible Impact
While people take advantage of Berkshire HorseWorks services for many different reasons, Sumner sees one commonality amongst all of their clients.
“Most of our customers have all experienced some underlying trauma that has led to the symptoms that are surfacing,” said Sumner.
Horses have a very intuitive nature and are very in tune with humans’ emotions and moods. During therapy sessions, the horses mirror the personalities and feelings of the customers, exposing what has often been buried deep in a person’s heart or mind.
“Horses serve as direct or indirect metaphors for people’s feelings,” said Sumner.
Working with horses encourages confidence, empowerment, communication, introspectiveness, and self-esteem enrichment. People also learn more about themselves and gain the strength to set healthy boundaries that may help them reject abusive relationships or self-harm in the future. Sumner often sees veterans who have returned from deployment and feel disconnected from their families and communities. By working with horses, these men and women learn to express themselves in a healthier manner. They begin to develop the skills necessary to cope with PTSD, TBI, and other psychological impacts of combat. Working with the horses stimulates healing, growth, and success. Even those customers who were initially fearful of horses or lacked any horse experience have progressed significantly through Berkshire HorseWorks programs.
“I have been very much surprised that people with no horse experience or who are petrified of horses are often the first to volunteer or approach the horses and have shown the most improvement with the therapy work,” said Sumner.
In the future, Sumner hopes to continue to grow Berkshire HorseWorks in order to provide equine-assisted psychotherapy to the largest number of people possible. She is working to solidify a strategic plan that includes topics such as the financial feasibility of the program as it moves forward. Because the company does not turn anyone away for financial reasons, she hopes to secure more corporate business in the equine assisted team building portion of the organization to cover the cost of the horses and some therapy sessions. Sumner believes that they can increase business from the corporate world because of their convenient location near New York City, Boston, and Hartford. Additionally, Berkshire HorseWorks is always looking for people to sponsor their horses or families who are unable to afford equine assisted psychotherapy.
Sumner is passionate about the benefits of partnering horses and people and is excited to watch as the animals transform many generations to come.
“You have to be innovative and a problem solver, thinking outside the box, to work with a 1,200 pound animal and asking them to do something,” said Sumner.