Learn how Idaho Horse Therapy Center is helping veterans, at-risk teens, and first responders cope with trauma.

Photo Courtesy Idaho Horse Therapy
| Credit: Photo Courtesy Idaho Horse Therapy

There's no fooling a horse. The 2,000-pound animals can read body language and mirror human emotions—anxiety, fear, apprehension—even when we're unaware that we're feeling them. That's exactly the point at Idaho Horse Therapy, an equine-assisted nonprofit in rural southern Idaho devoted to bringing struggling veterans, at-risk teens, and first responders back to themselves.

Founder Johnny Urrutia grew up on a cattle ranch in Shoshone, Idaho, where horses were companions as much as they were tools for the job. He worked as a math teacher, competed on the professional rodeo circuit, and toured as a country musician. But horses were always his calling, so Urrutia decided to use his horse skills to help others. 

In Canyon County, Urrutia works alongside licensed therapists and about 40 horses as a Level II equine specialist certified by the Equine Assisted Growth and Learning Association. In hour-long sessions, Urrutia and his colleagues guide activities (riding, rope leading) between human and horse, tailoring the treatment to issues the client might be dealing with. "Horses can feel your energy, thanks to a limbic system they use to sense the magnetic fields of predators," says Urrutia. "As soon as a human steps close to a horse, there's no facade. It's genuine emotion. It's a horse's natural skill to find out who we are and what we are."

As clients work with the horses, they learn how to relax around them, be clear and concise as they lead them, and never force the animal. "When you've experienced trauma, you're stuck in flight mode, which traumatizes the nervous system," says Urrutia. "Horses have the ability to regulate out of a flight mode." They can help you out of yours, too. And when you're mindful around a horse, you can calm their nerves, just as they're doing for you.

Twenty years into equine-assisted therapy, Urrutia has learned that it pairs well with other healing practices. In his weeklong intensive program, USA Re-Boot Resort, Urrutia combines it with meditation, diaphragmatic breathing, and brain wave optimization. Best of all, Urrutia doesn't charge a dime to his clients, fundraising to make sure the treatment remains free. "It's important for people to step out of their lives to do this," says Urrutia. "But when you leave here, you're going back into a toxic environment. Our goal is to help people get to a point of resilience where it doesn't matter where they are."

This article originally appeared in our Harvest 2020 issue. Get the magazine here.