Berkshire HorseWorks: Therapeutic programs for those at risk

Since opening its doors, Berkshire HorseWorks has provided services to nearly 300 clients, most of whom are suffering from mental and behavioral challenges. On Saturday, September 17, Berkshire HorseWorks will host the first annual “Horses and Hikers for Healing” event.

Richmond — On Saturday, September 17, Berkshire HorseWorks will host the first annual “Horses and Hikers for Healing,” a scavenger hunt through Hollow Fields Reserve in Richmond, to benefit those at-risk in the Berkshires. The event, for hikers, nature lovers and families, is being offered in collaboration with Berkshire Natural Resources Council and will kick off at 10 a.m. from Berkshire Equestrian Center in Richmond; all funds raised will go directly toward supporting psychological programs for at-risk youth and families.

Berkshire HorseWorks, founded in the summer of 2013 by Hayley Sumner, brings the powerful EAGALA (Equine Assistance Growth and Learning Association) Model of Equine Assisted Psychotherapy (EAP) and Equine Assisted Learning (EAL) to the community. Sumner, an EAGALA Certified Equine Specialist for 9 years, is quick to point out that this is not a riding or horsemanship program: all legs are on the ground, human and horse side by side, ready to learn. These unique programs offer individuals the tools to cope, heal, compete, challenge, communicate, lead, empathize and thrive in today’s world.

Hayley Sumner, founder and director of Berkshire HorseWorks.
Hayley Sumner, founder and director of Berkshire HorseWorks.

In the waning days of August, I had a chance to see Sumner — a self-described California cowgirl with a Montana heart — in action on the 27-acre compound in Richmond where four months ago she launched a pilot program with inmates from the Berkshire County House of Corrections. On this particular late summer day, while the distant rush of truck traffic could be heard on Route 41, three inmates clad in sunny yellow t-shirts and drawstring waist pants arrived to address their in-house therapeutic goals in an alternative setting. The three men, along with two support staff from the Sheriff’s Office, were the second of two groups from the BCHC to take part in an 8-week program with Sumner. “Horses become a metaphor for various people, situations or things in [the participants’] lives” explains Sumner who, along with colleague Dom Sacco, illustrates the importance of the team approach espoused by EAGALA. Dom Sacco, a school adjustment counselor at Monument Valley Middle School in Great Barrington, has worked with Sumner since the inception of the program, which is about to celebrate two years as a non-profit. The facilitators’ goal for this population? To build off of each session, “[and to] move on safely, quietly, [while] making good decisions and avoiding bad choices,” Sacco says.

Each week inmates are engaged in a series of exercises that aim to address treatment goals. On the afternoon I witnessed, the men are given a task: to build their first day out of prison, using a series of props, while incorporating the horses (symbols of the supports in their lives). As the men create their scenes, there is a return to the previous week’s session, and the group is prompted to share what they learned. “[I got] confirmation that it’s going to be OK” says Carlton, sporting a smile that masks the challenges he is facing, including having left behind a trio of sons to navigate his absence. “My voice was heard by [Smitty Pignatelli] being here” says Aaron who goes on to express an idea: “It is all about change. Thoughts lead to actions which lead to behavior which lead to habits which define character. And this becomes your destiny” he adds, a fitting comment for someone who, in six days, will be free after serving six months of a seven month sentence, his 19th time at BCHC.

“I know where I want to go, it’s just a means of getting there,” Aaron says, holding up his props: a pair of plastic camouflage binoculars, a sharpie marker, four plastic Easter eggs, and a single green die. Aaron explains his first day out to me, pointing to a neat line of props. “Binoculars are for perspective; if you change how you see the world, the world changes,” he explains. “Eggs are for seeds; you reap what you sow. I want to get back into my kids’ lives on their terms” he goes on to acknowledge. As for the single die, “I’m not going to gamble [with what I have] so much anymore” he says. “A failure to plan is a plan for failure.” As for his support system? “Whatever you throw my way, I’m going to take,” he says. “I’ve been trying to grab whatever I can…by means of support, [in order to] start the amends process.”

2-inmatesThe inmates, dealing with a host of challenges ranging from sobriety, anger management and mitigating the effects of trauma, find support in the arena that complements the therapy each receives at BCHC. Through a series of 90-minute sessions, Sumner and Sacco are able to bring to life, in a controlled environment, everyday scenarios that can be daunting for these men who see their rehabilitation as being hampered by a lack of tools. Sumner’s program was designed to enable success, and the root approach is teaching the “concept of observation and perception” Sumner says. “To observe cleanly [is to] see behaviors, rather than ascribe meaning [to actions]” she explains. “We always use clean language so we are not leading,” Sumner continues, pointing out that making assumptions, particularly about behavior, is what often leads to trouble in any relationship.

The experiential modality being espoused by Berkshire HorseWorks gets to the heart of the matter: one equine facilitated session is equal to four talk therapy sessions. As a result, these two modalities are used in conjunction with one another. When sharing space in the arena with horses, individuals get called out if there is incongruity between one’s speech and actions. While intimidating at first, it is this type of “aha moment…[that] helps facilitate transformation and change” says Sumner.

At BHW, the emphasis is on non-mounted activities which incorporate horses and require individuals or groups to discover and apply certain skills. Participants learn about themselves and others by connecting with the horses and then observing and discussing the team dynamics, behaviors, and patterns that arise. What happens in the arena is often a metaphor for one’s life, family or group interaction. For Carlton, the horses represent family; for Hal, they are a symbol of his faith, a constant that keeps him firmly footed in reaching his goals: to get back to his son and to living. And these men are just one of myriad groups growing within the literal and figurative arena at BHW. The Rex Foundation, created by members, family and friends of the Grateful Dead, recently granted $5,000 to fund an 8-week empowerment program for young girls coming from abusive homes and foster care. Since opening its doors, Berkshire HorseWorks has provided services to nearly 300 clients, most of whom are suffering from mental and behavioral challenges.

3“My hope when starting this business was to be able to help organizations and our community concurrently. If we can offer a new way for people to honestly examine themselves and their impact on team dynamics while facilitating change through effective communication, increased problem solving and creative thinking, then that will lead to more productive and healthier relationships all around,” said Sumner, Founder and Executive Director of Berkshire HorseWorks. Registration for her event, “Horses and Hikers for Healing,” will open on-site at 9 on Saturday morning; the hike begins at 10 with a BBQ and hoedown to follow at 1 p.m. Individual registration fee is $35, and $55 for a family of up to five (children 8 and under are free). For more information or to register, visit or call 310-488-9777.