A Stable Journey
● Published by Aimee Cormier
By Shanna Perkins • Photos Provided by A Stable Journey
“Go ahead. Introduce yourself to the herd,” says Bill Langford in his gravely voice as he motions toward three quarter horses at the opposite end of the arena. The three horses slowly stir as you approach, their immense eyes scrupulously monitoring your motions. Their mammoth muscles twitching at the slightest sensation and their ears ever aimed in your direction, no matter where you are. Stepping into the arena, you begin to realize, this isn’t about the horses – it’s about you.
A Stable Journey is an Equine-Assisted Counseling and Learning service that was founded by Bill and Mary Langford. The program, which is a therapeutic approach for children, adolescents and adults to address a variety of mental health and human development needs, takes place on the bucolic 160-acre Cherokee Ridge Horse Farm in Carencro, Louisiana. Bill and Mary’s passion for equine therapy came from a very personal experience.
“Bill is a Vietnam combat veteran,” Mary says of her husband of 44 years. “When he came home, ‘PTSD’ wasn’t even a term. He came home and went right back to work. There was a lot of anger, but he had the ‘I can take care of myself’ mentality. The horses really were his best therapists. I began to see the changes in him – managing his demons and the nightmares stopped. It just really changed him, and it was simply this,” she says gesturing around the modest mock log cabin that serves as their office.
Bill’s experience with horse therapy began shortly after he and Mary purchased Cherokee Ridge Horse Farm in 2005. A neighboring horse farm was conducting equine therapy; when the owner of the farm moved, Roslyn Fouin, mental health professional, asked Bill if he would help her continue the unique form of therapy. His response, “Why not?”
“I experienced first hand what the horses can do by just being among them and watching them,” Bill admits. “I learned so much from seeing how the horses interact and how they depend on and respect each other. All of the nonverbal skills I saw in them, I began to try and apply to my life to see where that would take me.”
Where it took him was to a new career as an Equine Assisted Growth and Learning Association Certified Equine Specialist. Bill walked away from 30 years in the oil and gas industry to pursue was he says he truly believes is his “life’s calling.” Equine therapy was an intriguing, but lateral move for Mary who is a licensed professional counselor with a private practice in Carencro. The couple brings both of their specialties into the arena for each counseling session.
“We’ve really learned that it’s Mary’s, or one of the other mental health professional’s, job to watch and observe the client and it’s my job to watch the horses,” Bill explains. “People know that they’re big animals and that they can hurt you. My job is to know my horses and know what I can and can’t do. I have to read the horses.”
“We let people process what’s happening and determine if they’re scared or if they feel unsafe,” Mary says as she looks out at the arena where the herd of horses is calmly grazing, in spite of the thunder storm that has moved in. “Bill is constantly watching for things that aren’t safe. We try very hard to keep what we call ‘clean language’ in the arena, so that I can make clear observations.”
The array of issues that can be dealt with through equine therapy is as varied as the experiences of the participants. A stable journey accepts children as young as five and has no ceiling on the age limit. The practice is described as an experimental approach that is used as an adjunct resource for clinicians. During the 60-minute sessions, clients get the opportunity to prioritize their lives via a hands-on approach.
“It’s great for trauma survivors, post traumatic stress disorder, sexual abuse, depression, anxiety, eating disorders, really just about anything you would seek counseling for,” Mary explains. “It’s very beneficial for kids and adolescents because they don’t do talk therapy very well. During marriage counseling sessions, you actually get to see what is going on in the relationship, whereas in a setting where the couple is just sitting in front of you, you might not get the full story. Along with veterans, we do families of veterans. So many times, the family members are as wounded as their partners.”
For most clients, as soon as they step into the arena the session has already begun. It is human nature to project characteristics onto others, even horses, as a form of self-preservation from fears. Through Bill and Mary’s observations, clients begin to process the feelings that they allowed the horses to embody. The experience is humbling and then…it’s empowering. During sessions, participants have to change themselves to interact with the horses in a way that ensures cooperation. Once they have altered themselves so that they can better control their surroundings, they realize this level of introspection can lead to a fierce manner of confidence that slowly trickles into other aspects of their lives.
“Sometimes we don’t do anything more than set the stage for somebody to come and experience this,” Bill says shrugging his shoulders. “I look at it like this, if you’ll come here and have a blank palette, you’ll paint your own picture. You will paint whatever you want – we just hold the space for you.”
“People don’t need to know anything prior to coming out here except to be ready to look at yourself,” Mary says reflecting her husband’s sentiments. “When people leave here, things will continue to happen.” Bill interjects, “It happens a lot in dreams. Over the next few days after a session, people begin to process what happened here and they see it in their dreams.”
Horses aren’t the only animals at Cherokee Ridge Horse Farm, though there are nearly 90 of them on the property. There are also chickens whose spacious abode is right outside of Bill and Mary’s office. There is a benevolent black cat roaming property oblivious to the 1,000-pound equines grazing around its territory. The farm has been home to donkeys and ponies. The Langfords acquired the horses used in the therapy sessions gradually. As they like to say, “They aren’t trained to do this. They’re just being horses.”
The variety of animals used in assorted forms of therapy range from rabbits to roosters and nearly everything in between. But Mary, Bill and the other mental health and equine professional at a Stable Journey get to witness firsthand the benefits of horse therapy.
“I think there are a couple of reasons horses are so effective,” Bill examines. “They’re big and that’s how we see life’s problems: big. So when you realize that you can manage the horses, you start to realize you can manage the other big issues. People learn how to address and solve problems through something they can physically manage. It’s a metaphor for life.”
As intense as the process can be, Mary explains how enjoyable the process is. “It’s non-threatening and it’s a really fun way to approach what you’re dealing with,” she says smiling. “ I love to see people learn to believe in themselves and become the person that they are really meant to be – the person they are inside. I love to see them begin to be able to walk freely and lightly though life. We’re very fortunate to be a witness to that process.”