By Chelsea Quattrone

When Janet Fenton was five years old growing up in suburb of Washington, D.C., she awoke one morning to see a horse walking down her street, unattended. Her family took care of the horse until its owner was found.

That early experience planted a seed which is coming into bloom at Hope Field in Manteo.

Fenton, who graduated from Manteo High School in 1986, founded Two Hearts Equine Therapy to share the healing that she and her daughters — Isabela and Fenton Rainey — experienced with horses, when Isabela had a major stroke at age 12.

“My child, Isabela, was quite the rider. Very strong willed. Her horse reacted that way with her. After her stroke, she was barely capable of walking or lifting her head. Her wild horse changed his behavior in response to her,” Fenton says. “He dropped his head as he approached to allow her to put his halter on and groom him. It was unbelievable. He is very patient and accepting of her exactly where she is at any given time. Receiving what she can give. It’s beautiful.”

Deep connection

When Fenton talks about horses, you can see happiness in her eyes. She smiles wide as she talks about how she began riding horses with her daughters for recreation, but found healing from within by learning to care and interact with them.

“I realized I am peaceful. It was the surroundings that I chose to put myself into that caused chaos. Horses simply walk away from negativity,” says Fenton, a health and wellness entrepreneur specializing in massage therapy. “I have healed through the time I spend with them in my field.”

Fenton raised her daughters riding horses.

“We rode as much as we could, packing and loading up to camp and ride in the mountains on weekends. We were always tired, dirty and happy. It was our place of peace.”

Fenton Rainey — the eldest daughter, who recently graduated from nursing school and is employed at Surf Pediatrics — is an accomplished rider and trainer. “She still rides, even after all this time, as her outlet.”

Fenton’s mother, Jane Fenton, was a social justice activist and advocate for the Lakota tribe, which is primarily located in South Dakota and North Dakota.

The family had a deep connection to the Stover family, a member of the tribe, who lived on a reservation in South Dakota. They sent packages back and forth for years. When the matriarch of the family — Evelynn Stover — died, Fenton and her eldest daughter honored her memory by taking part in a reenactment of Wounded Knee, which meant riding for three days straight under harsh conditions.

“We chose to do the endurance ride to honer Evelynn because she was a huge example of what true love and tolerance is,” Fenton says. “She changed our lives by letting us be a part of her family and the Lakota traditions.”

Fenton says she witnessed first-hand the therapeutic value of equine therapy when she tended a stable for a substance abuse rehabilitation program. She was assigned to help patients learn to care for the horses. Surprised at the changes she saw in their moods and attitudes — and feeling frustration at the growing problem of addiction in her community and close to home — a seed was planted. She decided to pursue equine assisted therapy as a career.

She studied and became certified through Equine Assisted Growth and Learning Association (EAGALA), the leading international nonprofit association for professionals incorporating horses to address mental health and personal development needs. The model is action-oriented, based on the idea that people typically learn best by doing. She chose the method, she says, because it is a brief, solutions focused therapy.

Sessions involve no actual horseback riding, and no equestrian experience is necessary. Instead, participants interact with a horse or horses in a series of exercises designed to strengthen and develop non-verbal and verbal communication, creative thinking, problem solving, leadership, trust, responsibility, confidence and relationship skills.

The therapy is based on the universally recognized fact that because horses are emotional beings that behave similarly as people do in their social and responsive behavior — ancient Greeks documented the horse’s therapeutic value in 600BC.

Sessions begin with a brief orientation to Hope Field, the small farm in Manteo. The participant states the issue or problem he or she would like to address, and Fenton gives them a task with the horses that directly relates to their problem, such as attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, anxiety disorders, self-harm behavior, depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder, bipolar disease and post-traumatic stress disorder, among others.

Life stories unfold symbolically for participants in a safe and supportive setting. As the horses play out scenarios, clients gain insights and begin to see and feel shifts within themselves.

Fenton says it’s amazing how participants quickly project onto the horses.

“Participants may say things like ‘That horse is like my father. No matter what I do I get no attention.’ ‘That horse is like my sister-high maintenance. I never got any attention,’” she says. “These perceptions may have been deeply hidden, but the experience brings it to the surface.”

Why horses?

Horses are large and powerful. This creates a natural opportunity to overcome fear and develop confidence. They are social animals, with defined roles within their herds. They have distinct personalities, attitudes and moods; an approach that works with one horse won’t necessarily work with another. At times, they seem stubborn and defiant. They also like to have fun. Horses are a lot like us socially — when we work on our relationships with them, we learn how to improve our relationships with other people. The horse’s actions seem to mirror the issues faced by participants.

“Some of the breakthroughs are very fast and cause emotions to surface that have long been tucked away. It’s crucial that a counselor is there to guide them. Once the walls come down, the ego and fear is gone,” Fenton says. “In that organic and vulnerable moment, the horses will surround them. Loving them. It’s an amazing therapy.”

Fenton says the Outer Banks community is ready for a new way of helping those with addiction, PTSD, anxiety, depression, anger management and self esteem issues. EAGALA-based programs have shown success in helping communities and special populations to improve their long-term outcomes, she says.

Her goal is to create a state-of-the art equestrian therapy center, and she is seeking a partnership with public health officials, healthcare organizations and sponsorship from local corporations interested in doing something active to help make change.

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