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Equine-Assisted Psychotherapy

Social work grads help change lives through horsemanship


Those who grew up with horses know the therapeutic benefits the animals can provide. They teach us to communicate without words. They react to our body language and our demeanor in ways that force us into heightened self-awareness.

At Aspen Hollow Young Ranchers near Morrison, Colo., at-risk and troubled youth are leaving the inner city and even juvenile detention centers behind to connect with horses in life-changing ways.

Located just outside of Denver, Aspen Hollow is a sprawling ranch solely dedicated to providing meaningful experiences — through time with horses — that can translate into life skills.

“Most of the groups that come to the ranch are from very urban areas and have had a rough upbringing. For many of them, this is their first experience with horses,” says Carina Kellenberger, founder and co-owner of Rocky Mountain Equine Assisted Psychotherapy, a private practice that operates out of the ranch. 

Kellenberger and her business partner, Dana Schultz, are licensed clinical social workers, certified animal-assisted social workers and lifelong horsewomen. Both grew up riding and both attended the University of Denver’s Graduate School of Social Work. They met while working together at an equine rescue and decided to combine their academic strengths and equine talents.

Many of the people the team serves have experienced significant trauma in their lives — emotional, physical or both — and they often suffer from lasting effects and mental health disorders. Some committed serious crimes as juveniles, and their experiences at Aspen Hollow help them navigate their way out of the juvenile detention system and back into the community as productive members of society.

Kellenberger and Schultz have advanced training in trauma-focused equine-assisted psychotherapy and combine that with their academic background in cognitive behavioral therapy. The women help clients dealing with trauma, grief, PTSD, divorce, loss, abuse, neglect or other adverse life events to develop adaptive coping and self-regulation skills by working with horses.

Aspen Hollow is not a hippotherapy facility that deals with physical and occupational therapy. Rather, it offers psychological and behavioral support. While the focus is mainly on juveniles, the ranch also offers team-building sessions, corporate retreat experiences and family days for adoptive families.

“We use some of the fundamentals of Natural Horsemanship combined with Natural Lifemanship, a method that uses horse physiology to regulate and help to heal human physiology,” Kellenberger says. “Clients do a lot of groundwork with the horses with the goal of creating a partnership with the animals rather than a relationship in which they strive to be the alpha.”

Equine Assisted Psychotherapy

Carina Kellenberger, left, and Dana Schultz are the owners of Rocky Mountain Equine Assisted Psychotherapy in Morrison, Colo. Photo courtesy of Rocky Mountain Equine Assisted Psychotherapy

Copyright 2015, Reprinted with permission. This story previously appeared in the University of Denver Magazine.