Jon Nicholson and his wife, Chris, run a horse ranch near Eagle Point. But the couple don't train horses. Nor do they teach riding.
Their horses are used to help people, particularly adolescents, grow and heal emotionally. Equine-assisted psychotherapy and learning is the decade-long mission of Healing Winds Ranch.
Kathryn Campbell's first session with Nicholson, a retired San Diego police officer, is part of her senior project at Eagle Point High School. Katie, as she is known, has very little experience with horses, doesn't particularly care for them and actually is a little afraid of them.
"Particularly their big feet," she says.
But Katie gamely gets into the ring with Rhoni, a medium-sized, white and gray horse. A fine mist is falling, and the ground is muddy.
Nicholson starts by explaining that a horse is a prey animal, always aware that dangerous animals out there could attack, so riders have to be aware of horses' sight lines and not startle them. He shows Katie that just resting a hand on Rhoni reassures her. Katie, afraid of being bitten, has to be encouraged to put her hand on the horse.
"If you have your hand on her, that tactile sensation lets her know where you are," says Nicholson.
Soon Katie is able to walk in a circle around Rhoni, and both her wariness and the horse's notch down a level. By the end of the hour, Katie is able to put a halter on the horse and lead her around the corral.
When Katie, who has never handled a halter, asks whether she is putting it on wrong, Nicholson explains he didn't tell her to put it on right, just to put it on.
"There is no wrong out here, Katie."
"It's all about establishing trust," says Nicholson. "She (Rhoni) is big, so you can't overpower her. You have to learn how to ask her to comply with what you want her to do. Take the pressure off, and they will try to understand and do what you want.
"Kids are the same way."
In tandem with a licensed and trained psychotherapist, equine-assisted therapy is designed to allow clients to learn nonverbal communication skills, problem solving, leadership and insight into their interactions with others.
"A horse is big and powerful," says Kara Staheli of The Equine Assisted Growth and Learning Association headquarters in Utah. "It gives the client the opportunity to overcome fears and create self-confidence. The program allows them to discover that they have their own solutions. Putting them with a horse brings down a lot of barriers that you would have in an office-therapy situation."
Started 13 years ago, the organization has taught more than 3,500 trainers in 38 countries, offering certification and continuing education. Therapy teams consist of the equine specialist and a mental-health professional. Watching the interactions gives the mental-health professional opportunities to ask questions and point out issues as they come up.
Equine therapy is used for adolescents, abused children, victims of physical or sexual abuse and people suffering from attention-deficit or posttraumatic stress disorders, substance abuse, eating disorders, depression, anxiety and various behavioral problems such as bullying.
Nicholson says he hopes to start a new program soon for Iraq War veterans.
"It's not about riding horses," says social worker Shirley Adams, who has been working with Nicholson for years. "It's about problem solving and relationships. You talk to them about their feelings and the horse's feelings and how the skills they are learning relate to their current life."
Jennifer Campbell (no relationship to Katie) of Jacksonville, a licensed professional counselor and trained equine therapist who has been riding since she could walk, uses equine therapy with some of her patients, mostly children who are burnt out on traditional methods.
"It's incredible," she says. "It's fun and gets kids to connect and to be moving. We can do things as a game, and the horses give immediate feedback."
Asked how she felt about her first session, Katie responds, "It was a little nerve-wracking." But she'll be coming back for more.