The Horse Knows the Way
Equine therapy heals mind, body, and spiritsource
Richmond Consolidated Schools students connect with their equine friend. Berkshire HorseWorks is now located at 101 Patton Rd., Richmond.
Photos by Gregory Cherin
If you spend any time with Hayley Sumner, you’ll see that her spirit is unstoppable. Her passion for horses, combined with a focus to help others, brought her to her current incarnation as executive director of Berkshire HorseWorks, an equine-assisted psychotherapy and learning center she founded in Richmond.
Before blazing this trail, Sumner was on a very different path. For 20 years, she owned and ran a bicoastal public-relations and strategic-marketing firm, where she worked with clients like SONY, MTV, Woodstock 99, Miramax, “The Tonight Show,” “Saturday Night Live,” and NASA.
As interesting as it was, something was missing. So she packed up an RV and went on a solo journey, ending up in Lexington, Kentucky, where she was changed forever.
Horses do that to people.
Now, Sumner is using the very principle of transformation in her work at Berkshire HorseWorks, an EAGALA-accredited facility. The internationally renowned Equine Assisted Growth and Learning Association’s model incorporates a ground-based, solution-oriented collaboration between a licensed mental-health professional, an equine specialist, and horses—all working together to create positive change for a diverse population with mental-health, communication, and/or learning issues.
On any given day, you can see Sumner in her cowgirl boots with her dog, Noche, who looks more like a wolf, by her side. Up at 5 a.m., she might be hauling hay, mucking the paddock, or readying Spirit and four other therapy horses she rescued for a session with an at-risk child. Participants include those in the foster system or from a broken home, or one who is dealing with drug addicted, physically abusive or incarcerated parents. Some children with IEPs (Independent Education Programs) are considered at-risk if their learning challenges aren’t school supported due to underfunded programs that help with tactile, kinesthetic, and experiential learning. Equine-assisted learning is also a gift for any child who is being bullied at school and could use a dose of self-love.
“The confidence and self-worth my son has found from these magnificent animals is truly remarkable,” says Gisella Kearns, mother of a visually impaired 12-year-old boy who also suffers from ADHD, anxiety, and other mental-health and behavioral issues. “My son was socially awkward. After working with Hayley and her team, he was able to find his strengths and began to develop communication skills.”
What makes horses so special? “They’re extremely sensitive to their environment,” says Sumner. “They instinctively analyze and react to our body language and other nonverbal cues. As a result, we’re able to gain insight into our own nonverbal communication and behavior patterns.”
“Horses help clients of all ages become more engaged in the therapeutic process,” says Lynn Thomas, licensed clinical social worker and founder and CEO of EAGALA. “This form of therapy is especially helpful for children and their families as the horses provide an emotionally safe way to project the strong and difficult feelings that stem from trauma and loss.”
“Often, veterans come to us with PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder], anxiety, depression, addiction, and suicidal thoughts as a by-product of combat trauma,” says Sumner. “Reintegration into the family system is difficult. They feel the of loss of the camaraderie they shared while deployed and of their family as they knew it.” Horses give them a whole new herd with which to connect, helping people work through emotional barriers, which can strengthen resiliency and coping skills.
“The veterans who participated tell me that never have they found anything else to be so life changing. It gave them hope,” says Susan T. Lisi, chief steward at the VA Medical Center located in Canandaigua, New York.
In-between on-the-ground therapy sessions, Sumner is setting up meetings with Berkshire County school superintendents, veterans groups, psychologists, the Pittsfield Police, and corporate team-building leaders. She’s also writing grants and corralling potential donors who can sponsor individuals, families, or groups in need.
It’s a far cry from her old life roping in dinner reservations for LA clients on Rodeo Drive. And it was her stop in Kentucky that paved the way. There, she found herself sitting next to a sheik at a horse sale at the famous Keeneland horse complex in Lexington, Kentucky. Hungry to experience this world-renowned auction, she admits the adrenaline rush got to her. So did a racehorse named Definitive Whim, a dark, six-month-old bay, with intense eyes and a calm and quiet strength. “I could feel her deep sensitivity,” says Sumner, “I saw her drive, her assurance, her secure sense of self.” The connection was so palpable, that at the sound of the gavel, Definitive Whim was hers.
“Not in a million years did I ever think I’d be the owner of a racehorse,” says Sumner, who soon settled in an old rented brick house on a tobacco and cattle farm in Paris, Kentucky—the place Secretariat called home.
She thought it was a good sign. She found a trainer, and lived on the farm for almost three years, up before dawn, seven days a week, as she began the process of developing a bond with her equine powerhouse. During that time, she also pursued a master’s in social work and got her EAGALA certification.
Then came a pivotal life moment. Definitive Whim had to be put down. Sumner was devastated. Her time in bluegrass country came to an end, and her journey to the Berkshires began—a move that has proved lucky for her and those who need healing.
Off to the Derby
Berkshire HorseWorks will host on July 15 “The Derby,” an experiential gala and service auction to benefit those at risk in the community.