Lakeview Heights looks much like other secure residential treatment centers in Oregon. Painted in institutional beige, it sits, without signage, on a quiet hill overlooking the Willow Creek Reservoir in Heppner.
But behind the building is something altogether different: a barn housing four horses, a training ring and an arena. They are part of an equine-assisted therapy program that is the first of its kind in the state
For the eight residents of the treatment center, who suffer from severe or persistent mental illness, the presence of horses is a dramatic turn from their sheltered lives at the state hospital.
“I think they’re going to help me. They already have,” said resident Nick York on a sunny morning as he curry-combed an older horse named Kringle. York savors every moment with the four geldings in the program, even when they wander away or fidget while he performs the harder-than-it-looks maneuver of tying on a halter.
“I’m just more relaxed,” he said. “It frees your mind from anything that’s clouding it. It kind of brings you to another level.”
York and the other residents are a long way from riding the horses. But almost everyone is enthusiastically taking the small steps to get there. In group classes that meet nearly every day, they learn to feed, halter, lead and groom.
Just the presence of horses has a calming effect, said program director April Flanagan. But the horses, she is quick to say, are not the point.
“I don’t teach horsemanship — that’s not what I do,” she said. “I teach people to think for themselves and figure out problems.”
A certified equine-assisted therapist, Flanagan used to run the equine program at Pendleton Academies, a residential treatment program for troubled youth, before the state closed it down for unrelated reasons.
Flanagan was working as a life skills therapist for people with mental illness when the executive director of Community Counseling Solutions — Lakeview Heights’ parent organization — asked her to develop and run the Heppner program. Flanagan jumped at the chance.
“I love the job of working with horses and helping people,” she said. “There couldn’t have been a better combination for my career.”
When asked about the differences between treating children and mentally ill adults, she said they are few.
“People are people, whether they’re big or small,” she said. “And when you put them around horses, good things happen.”
Flanagan hand-picked the four geldings in the Lakeview Heights program for personality, soundness and ridability. Like the residents and staff, Kringle, Rocko, Oliver and Drake are progressing slowly; they must learn to handle medical equipment such as ramps and walkers and the range of people who will work with them.
Flanagan said safety is her top priority. When the center’s residents take their first rides, they’ll be helmeted and flanked on both sides by a walker. A leader will gently walk their horse around the ring.
Although they so far perform only small tasks for the horses, Flanagan said residents already benefit from the program.
“Horses are perfect mirrors — horses mirror your attitude,” she said. “(Clients) have to be able to manage their emotions and deal with the horses.”
After spending time with the animals, she said, clients are calmer, their reasoning skills are better and their moods are uplifted.
The equine program is also popular with “respite” clients, who stay at the center for short periods of time, said Matt Bergstrom, the Lakeview Heights administrator. These patients are most often from Eastern Oregon, but may also travel from Portland or elsewhere.
Equine-assisted therapy programs for people with disabilities are widespread, but similar programs for people with mental illness are a relatively new idea.
At Lakeview Heights, the program is thanks to the executive director of Community Counseling Solutions, Kimberly Lindsay.
“Kim has always been dedicated to this and made it happen,” Bergstrom said.
The state pays for Flanagan’s salary and the program’s ongoing costs as part of Lakeview Heights’ range of therapies. But Community Counseling Solutions absorbed the substantial funds needed to start the program. A state-of-the-art arena cost around $35,000, for example.
Some may see equine-assisted therapy as an unnecessary luxury for state-funded patients, but Oregon pays far less — about half — to treat clients at community-based centers such as Lakeview Heights than it pays to house people in the state hospital.
Many Lakeview Heights residents haven’t been around animals in years. Now they have two cats, four horses and Flanagan’s border collie, Sissy.
In many ways, Bergstrom says, the clients’ care of the animals helps them care for themselves. The two rescue horses, Rocko and Kringle, came underweight and neglected, with hooves in horrible condition. Kringle can eat only pellets because his molars are gone.
“It’s like working with clients — we’re providing them a better quality of life,” Bergstrom said. “The clients that really buy into the program see that, ‘Hey — you’re going through what I’m going through.'”