Horses aid people in therapy |

Horses aid people in therapy

by Susie Vasquez

The missing piece to coping with communication, conflict resolution, anger issues and more, is often … a horse.

Suzy Tarantino-Fernandez, a Gardnerville resident and licensed clinical social worker, has built her practice around that principle. She has loved and owned horses all her life and now uses them in her practice, equine-assisted psychotherapy.

On a Friday in December, the living is easy at Rancho Espiritu, Tarantino-Fernandez’s “office” on the eastern slope of the Pine Nut range.

The therapy horses, a 16-year-old Andalusian gelding named Edil and 12-year-old Azteca gelding named Cisco, turn with a flick of the ear as people approach, extending their noses in greeting for just a moment.

They tolerate the banter for awhile, before turning to bask in the morning sun.

“These animals have good instincts,” Tarantino said. “It’s powerful to watch what they do and they all seem to love their work.”

For example, when one woman who had suffered sexual abuse experienced a breakthrough during one session, the horse gently wrapped his head and neck around her, she said.

Families can have such a difficult time communicating with teens and once, when a family argument broke out in the corral, the horse took off, Tarantino said.

She started bringing her horses and clients together in 1995 and is now one of a small group practicing this type of therapy. Through horses, participants learn about themselves and others by processing their feelings.

It’s an effective therapeutic approach addressing all mental health needs, from autism and depression to anxiety and family conflict. These animals actually speed up the healing process, making it easier for Tarantino to understand family or individual dynamics, she said.

“Horses are so multi-faceted,” she said. “I have a whole new respect for equine behavior and what it can do for us.”

All therapy sessions take place with the client (or clients) working from the ground, performing a series of horse-related activities requiring the group or client to apply certain skills such as communications, assertiveness, problem solving and creative thinking.

“I give my clients simple tasks to complete, like haltering,” she said. “They will fumble around until they get it right and when they do, the sense of accomplishment is huge.”

In most cases, other than when they are abused, horses disburse anxiety. People hold their anxieties in, but that ability is finite and when people reach a certain point, they blow, Tarantino said.

“Horses have mastered the art of being in harmony with the moment and they want to be our companions,” she said. “I know horses have had a powerful effect on me. You can’t be around horses and not feel their power.”

People become emotional after being around horses. The animals detect and mirror people’s emotions. Trauma survivors disempowered by sexual, physical or emotional abuse can overcome their fears using this type of therapy, Tarantino said.

“As they begin to gain a mastery of themselves while working with the horse, you can actually see their physical appearance change,” she said.

Tarantino-Fernandez said most insurances accept this type of therapy. She can be reached at 782-7675, or 721-3979 or through her Web site,

n Susie Vasquez can be reached at or 782-5121, ext. 211.