Road to recovery: Horses that help people heal

Posted at 1:45 PM, Sep 28, 2018
and last updated 2018-09-28 14:21:13-04

GREAT FALLS – Jessica Shortridge, a Licensed Addictions Counselor at Rocky Mountain Treatment Center in Great Falls says she’s living the American dream. She gets to do the two things she loves, work with horses and help people.

“Horses don’t care what brought you into treatment,” said Shortridge. “Horses don’t care how many times you’ve come to treatment. They don’t care what you were using, how much you were using, how you were using it. What they care about is you being genuine.”

Jessica grew up on a ranch near Cut Bank, so running the equine therapy program for Rocky Mountain Treatment Center at Eagle Mount makes sense for her, in more ways than one.

“I’m a recovering alcoholic,” said Shortridge. “Meth, opiate, cannabis addict, whatever was available.”

She’s been sober for 11 years. For the last six, she’s been helping turn skeptics into believers.

“A lot of people are really terrified of the horses,” said Shortridge. “Courage is being afraid and doing it anyway.”

Each of Eagle Mount’s 16 horses has their own personality. Like Sriracha, a three-year-old mare, which Jessica says equates to an 18-year-old girl.

“Each horse has their own characteristics and defects, just like we do,” said Shortridge.

During treatment, each client will typically attend three horse therapy sessions a week. Starting with introductions, putting on a halter and lead rope, grooming and eventually leading.

“Leading involves assertive communication, it involves healthy boundaries, some things we’re not accustomed to,” said Shortridge.

Shortridge said an hour and a half session can accomplish as much standard treatment can in a week.

She said because the overwhelming majority of our communication is non-verbal, the animals can pick up on that and make an amazing connection.

“To build that confidence to work with an eleven, twelve hundred pound animal and build that confidence to build healthy boundaries gives them the confidence to go home, to set boundaries with themselves, with craving and triggers with this disease,” said Shortridge.

For those extremely afraid of horses, Shortridge says the program has a miniature horse named lark to help them feel more at ease.

For Eagle Mount’s Jenny Gooldy, working with the equine therapy program hits close to home. Her sister struggled with addiction for more than 30 years.

“It helps me work through so much of the scars that I’ve had living lifelong with an addict and if I can’t help her, if I can help them it means everything to me.,” said Gooldy, Eagle Mount’s Therapeutic Riding Instructor and Horse manage.

“The cool thing with horses is they’re more than a mirror to what’s going on inside us. The thing with recovery is to be rigorously honest,” said Shortridge.

-Tim McGonigal reporting for MTN News