The first tug on Michele Allison’s heart happened when she heard a radio interview about an Oregon program that paired rescued horses with abused children.
“They helped heal each other,” she remembers thinking, amazed at the possibilities. “I was deeply moved and knew it was something I wanted to do.”
Right away, the 44-year-old Davenport woman began dreaming of a day when a similar horse therapy program for abused or traumatized children might be launched in the Quad-Cities. She even imagined working there someday.
But that day did not arrive, and Allison eventually realized she would have to be the one to bring such a program to this area.
“I felt so compelled,” she said. “And things started falling into place. People started coming to me and saying, ‘I’ll help you.’ It’s something I’m supposed to do.”
So, she and her husband, Toby, created Juan Diez Rancheros, a nonprofit organization that provides free horse therapy for children who are in counseling for abuse or emotional trauma. They set up shop over the winter at the former zoo area of Fejervary Park in Davenport and are officially opening the facility with a fundraiser/grand opening event June 4.
Allison used to have “a very good, steady job as a marketing director for a local company,” she said, but she quit to follow her heart.
“This is all I think about,” she added.
The new program is not like any other horse therapy offered in the Quad-Cities. It’s not horseback riding. Instead, it allows children and their licensed professional therapists to interact with horses on the ground, doing things such as leading the horses or grooming them. She said this type of horse therapy is common in larger communities around the country.
As the children interact with the animals, the therapist and Allison — who has 35 years of experience with horses — observe the child and the horses’ behavior, which offers clues to what might be going on with the kids, she said.
Instinctively, horses tend to mirror the emotions and behavior of people around them. If a person is happy, angry or scared, the animals will react the same way, she said.
“Horses can’t lie,” she added.
To further her understanding, she is working toward certification through the Equine Assisted Growth and Learning Association.
She will offer the service for free, thanks to funding she is counting on from grants, donations and fundraisers.
“I know the community will believe in what I’m doing, and I think that’s going to fund it,” she said. “The kids need it.”
The therapy is for young people from about the age of 5 to 24 years. As people get older, they build emotional walls that are harder for horses to see through, she said.
The Spanish name of the program means “John Ten Ranch,” representing the 10 horses Allison hopes to use. She wanted the name to sound Southwestern and fun, she added.
So far, she has received good feedback about the therapy option. Jim Wunderlich, a licensed clinical social worker under contract with School Health Link in Silvis, Ill., said he often uses a therapy dog in his practice, but he never had used horses — until now.
He recently took a young child in his counsel to Juan Diez Rancheros for a therapy session and found the horses to be “a very effective tool.”
Horses always seem to “read” whoever they are around, and he said they tend to treat people differently based on what they sense about them.
“I don’t know how they sense it,” he added. “It’s just archaic. It’s just a different way of doing things.”
During the session, Wunderlich said two small horses were able to move freely inside a corral and the child was allowed to interact with them as he or she chose. The counselor observed, but did not intervene or encourage in any way, he said.
Allison was there, taking notes about how the horses reacted to the child, interpreting what those behaviors by the animals represented. With that information, Wunderlich said he was able in turn to interpret more about his client through his experience with human behavior.
“In my experience, when I saw it used, I think the client really experienced kind of an awakening and a different way to handle self,” he said. “The horse tells you what it wants and expects a certain standard. If you trespass and do something that’s wrong, the horse will tell you about it.”
In that way, he believes the child was able to recognize “ ‘If I act this way, the horse acts this way. So if I’m nicer, the horse is nicer.’ ”
Eventually, he hopes the child will take that leap in thinking to: “ ‘Maybe if I behave differently with people, they will behave differently with me,’ ” he said.
The city is allowing Allison’s horse therapy organization to use the property for free in exchange for her willingness to offer programming for kids. The arrangement also has provided someone to maintain the formerly abandoned property where the zoo closed two years ago.
Ken Asta, of the Davenport Parks and Recreation Department, said he hopes to see other activity happening in the zoo area this spring and summer. He has high hopes for building a playground made of natural materials, along with other project ideas.
But the horse therapy addition to the park is a huge improvement, he said.
“We think this is a great use of the area,” he added. “The city is very fortunate to have them in here.”