Not Just Horsing Around: An Interview with Colleen Cheechalk
Colleen Cheechalk recently talked with us about her experiences with the human-animal bond and the amazing work she is doing with her organization, Borrowed Freedom.
In the Beginning
Colleen Cheechalk has always been an animal lover and after being diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis, Cheechalk turned to her dog to help her through the struggle. As her dog began to help her by assisting with physical activities, it became apparent to Cheechalk that the dog was also benefitting her with its healing presence. Interested in this effect of the human-animal bond, she began researching these benefits and came across Equine-Assisted Therapy (EAT) and Equine-Assisted Activities (EAA). As an avid horse lover, Cheechalk was inspired by the idea and those interests led her to a career working with the human-animal bond.
In 2005 Cheechalk began formally studying the field. Her educational background includes Social Psychology and training in recreational therapy, health and wellness. Cheechalk is certified in Equine Facilitated Learning and Equine Facilitated Psychology by Greg Kersten of OK Corral and has an American Hippotherapy Association certificate in Level 1 Equine Skills and Hippotherapy Treatment Principles. She also holds an Orthopedic and Therapeutic Specialist Certification from the American Council on Exercise. Cheechalk also holds other personal training certifications, has completed several other relevant equine training opportunities, is currently serving an educational consultant to Nickelodeon Networks and is the PATH Intl. Region 2 Community Connections Chairperson.
Cheechalk uses her vast amount of training to run Borrowed Freedom, an organization that she officially began in 2009. Borrowed Freedom’s staff, along with an array of horses, dogs, a donkey and a mule, provides EAT and EAA to clients of various ages. The youth client base goes as young as two and half years old and mainly consists of clients that have found the organization on their own or through referral by their therapist, educator, or community service provider. The majority of the adult clientele participate with Borrowed Freedom through institutions and group homes.
Cheechalk had many goals in mind while creating Borrowed Freedom. Promoting human and animal welfare alike is the organization’s mission. Borrowed Freedom uses rescued horses that often come from abuse situations or inappropriate environments. Cheechalk acknowledges that the use of rescued horses helps clients relate better with the animals during therapy sessions. “We all have something about us that is different. It might be physical, emotional, socio-economic, and it might be something that makes us not feel 100% good about ourselves at any given time. When a client first comes here, I find they almost always find their new partner through mutual selection,” says Cheechalk.
Borrowed Freedom also strives to create a proper, safe environment to do the therapy and activities. The well-being of the therapy animals is a high priority to the organization and Cheechalk believes it is one of the biggest issues facing the field of EEA and EAT. “We knew it was vital to help change the perceptions of what EAA and EAT's are, and create a standard of care for the horses and the humans in programs offering EAA and EAT. The majority of facilities and programs are wonderful, but because there is no licensing or mandatory regulation of this field, there are many opportunities to cut corners and ignore the legal and ethical issues,” says Cheechalk.
Borrowed Freedom offers a plethora of programs for their clients. The main differences between these programs are their roots in either EAT and EEA. Licensed health professional are needed when conducting EAT work like Hippotherapy and Equine-Facilitated Psychotherapy, both of which Borrowed Freedom provides to their clients. Hippotherapy uses the special movements made by a horse to assist a trained therapist in physical, occupational, or speech therapy. Equine-Facilitated Psychotherapy is also a medical treatment that includes both mental health professional and horses to help patients manage various mental health needs.
Borrowed Freedom also provides EEA programs like their Horsemanship program that teaches clients how to respectfully and safely interact with horses. The program offers humane education, care instruction and riding lessons for clients. The organization also started an Equine-Facilitated Breast Cancer Recovery program that serves as a therapeutic, spiritual approach for those recovering from battling with breast cancer. The Excelsior Warriors and War Horses program similarly serves as a healing tool to the nation’s veterans returning home from duty. The veteran is paired with a War Horse, a thoroughbred racehorse that has raced more than 50 races or earned more than $100,000. Cheechalk recognizes that both the horse and veteran relate and bond due to their physical and psychological wounds. “These horses and our Veterans share a metaphorical tale. They are part of a brotherhood where they give their lives for the service of others. But when that service is over, either through injury or need, they are often left without the help they need to transition into their former lives or a new beginning,” explains Cheechalk. The horse and veteran help each other heal through experiences of camaraderie, trust, and learning.
Cheechalk puts a large focus on not only the benefits of riding the animal, but also the importance of the work the clients do on the ground to strengthen the human-animal bond. “I think it is the most important part of what we do,” she says, “Ground based activities help us learn to be better partners, friends, communicators in our everyday interactions. Connecting with the horse before any riding is done allows the animal and the client to be more at ease in the learning or healing environment and overall helps to create stronger benefits from the interaction. Cheechalk has witnessed first-hand the benefits that result from EAT and EAA. She recounted an emotional memory in which a client who had just experienced tremendous loss found solace in the company of one of the therapy horses. “Some of the most prominent [benefits] we have experienced are improved self-esteem, self-reliance, honesty, trust, and responsibility. I am very proud of the new respect and compassion they find for the horses and other animals,” says Cheechalk.
Cheechalk also recognizes the research opportunities that are happening in the field. “Just in the last decade the opportunities for research have become so promising. Each month I receive news from organizations who are exploring treatment for PTSD, for Autism, for Sensory Processing Disorders, Mental Health and Learning Disabilities,” Cheechalk says. Borrowed Freedom is currently collecting preliminary information for study and is excited to be exploring opportunities for its growing field of work.