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Healing with horses

Had Braden Bartholomay, a Lehighton Area High School junior, been asked to join a grief-counseling group at his school, he likely would have said no. School district social worker Kerri Miller knew while those traditional sessions may not have been in his comfort zone, or that of many other students, there may be another way to help him cope with the loss of a loved one.

Miller began taking Lehighton students to Apollo Farms in Towamensing Township in 2018. The equine therapy trips were originally meant to be a motivator for students who were chronically absent from school to start attending on a more consistent basis. Over the years, however, it has evolved into a program for students dealing with anxiety, depression, grief and loss.

“I attended for the first time this year,” Bartholomay said, “and if you’re struggling with grief like I was, it’s a good escape to kind of put your emotions out there and be with the horses. “It’s surprisingly nice and relaxing.”

This year, about 10 Lehighton students visited the farm in early May. She credited the school’s administration for recognizing the need for such a unique offering in a rural district.

“I don’t know if this would work as well in a city school district, but here in Carbon County we have a lot of farms and it just kind of fits,” Miller said. “Mental health is accepted more, but we’re still working on breaking down some of those barriers. I don’t know if I could reach the numbers I do if I just said come into my office for a weekly grief loss group. When you put this twist on it, however, and give it a different name, it opens up those doors.”

From the minute students step on the property at Apollo Farms, Miller said, the vibe is instant. Some walk in to the barn and begin crying. Many have never had the opportunity to care for anything in their life, but all of a sudden they find themselves in charge of a several-hundred-pound horse.

“My favorite horse was Believe,” Bartholomay said. “We brushed them and it was very soothing, very calming. I felt happy being with the horse.”

Happy is a familiar feeling for students who visit the farm, and the horses know it. Miller said the animals have an intuition for what someone is feeling.

“If I have a student who goes in there and is nervous, the horse will sense that and the student picks up on how the horse is reacting,” Miller said. “These are showjumping horses that travel the world though and once the students see how gentle they are, despite their size, that gauge goes down. It’s really incredible to watch.”

In the coming years, Miller said, her hope is to expand the program at Lehighton. This year, students with high academic standing, those in the top 10 percent of the high school were invited.

“Unfortunately, they are some of the hardest students to get out of the building, but hopefully we can find a date for them,” she added. “We wanted to include them because they can use that mindfulness aspect of the program as they prepare to head off to college.”

The program may not have gotten off the ground without the help of the Bo Tkach Foundation and the Lehighton Orioles Club. Both were instrumental in providing the funding for the equine therapy.

“When I introduced this I went to them and said, hey, can you help me because I have this idea?” Miller said. “And they both volunteered and donated and it started from there. And then I was able to build up and go to the United Way. I did get a lot of ‘no’ before that because when you say equine therapy and school, people don’t always understand. If it wasn’t for those two organizations, we wouldn’t even be here.”

Lehighton Area High School students Gabrielle Miller, Elyse Holben, Faith Pfleger and Aaliyah Kuntz interact with a horse at Apollo Farms in Towamensing Township during a recent equine therapy session. Lehighton, led by social worker Kerri Miller, has been taking students to the farm since 2018. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO