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Woman taps into passion for horses to help patients

Kelsey Devoille stands in the barn at her Bridle Trails business with one of her therapy horses, Poppy, an 8-year-old Irish Sport horse. Devoille says equine-assisted therapy is useful in helping people struggling with issues such as eating disorders and autism spectrum disorders. -  Carrie Rodriguez, Kirkland Reporter
Kelsey Devoille stands in the barn at her Bridle Trails business with one of her therapy horses, Poppy, an 8-year-old Irish Sport horse. Devoille says equine-assisted therapy is useful in helping people struggling with issues such as eating disorders and autism spectrum disorders.
— image credit: Carrie Rodriguez, Kirkland Reporter

By Carrie Rodriguez

Reporter Newspapers

Horses have surrounded Kelsey Devoille since she was a girl.

She grew up in Duvall, where as a girl she rode horses and competed in a three-day event known as the horse triathlon. By the time she was in middle school, she taught other kids horseback riding.

Devoille opened Next Phase Eventing, her Redmond-based business that specializes in training riders, while attending the University of Washington where she earned an undergraduate degree in Finance and Psychology.

But through her work as a trainer and coach, she realized she wanted to do something more with her passions for horses and people.

“Through that process I recognized the impact that horses have on people, not just riding for competition, but also on their emotional well-being,” said Devoille. “I got to experience situations where my students were going through a very tough life event and I got to see how the horses helped them through that.”

So she went to graduate school at Seattle Pacific, pursued her psychology degree and learned about the art of equine-assisted psychotherapy.

The Kirkland resident opened Unbridled Counseling in the Bridle Trails neighborhood in June. Her practice offers traditional and equine-assisted therapy to youth and adults struggling with eating disorders, autism spectrum disorders, anxiety, depression and family issues.

“Equine therapy can be a really unique and non-threatening way to approach challenges in life,” said Devoille, who still competes and has her A rating in the United States Pony Club – the highest rating a rider can achieve in the sport. “Counseling doesn’t always have to be so serious or intimidating. This can really just be a different way for people to be able to look at their own growth and challenge themselves.”

At Unbridled Counseling, clients can either opt for traditional talk therapy, or equine therapy. If they choose the latter, Devoille will introduce them to the three therapy horses she uses: 8-year-old Poppy, an Irish Sport, Arabian mix; 12-year-old Dublin, an Irish Sport horse; and 26-year-old Ria, a Morgan horse. She said her patients interact with the horses and can choose which horse to stay with during subsequent visits.

So why horses?

Part of it, Devoille says, is because of their size.

“They are huge, 1,000-plus pound animals, so they are naturally intimidating,” she said, noting the horses’ size helps some of her clients with power and control issues.

She said one of her clients had a difficult time standing up for herself with her family. When she interacted with the horse, “she really struggled pushing the horse away from her or sticking up for her space and so the entire first session, the client was unable to back the horse up,” noted Devoille. “I think the horse really recognized her hesitancy and pushed back a little bit.”

However, the client was eventually able to control the horse and weave it through an obstacle course.

“It was amazing how the horse picked up on her need to be assertive that day and really rewarded her for that,” said Devoille. “Then the client was able to imagine how she could do that with other people in her life.”

Horses are also intuitive and can pick up on certain cues that she may miss, she said.

“When a client is anxious, horses act anxious,” she said. “It’s a great way for clients to see how their anxiety or fear is affecting the horse.”

Devoille specializes in working with people with eating disorders and says that equine therapy is also a great way to work on topics like assertiveness or control that sometimes arise in recovering from an eating disorder.

Horses are particularly powerful working with adolescents, she said. Some adolescents are reluctant to walk into her office and talk about their feelings, so the horse acts as a “great mediator” in that situation, she said.

For people with an autism spectrum disorder, “horses can be really powerful working through relational or social skills, which people on the spectrum sometimes struggle with.”

She noted that research shows how horses and people with autism spectrum disorders see the world similarly, in pictures rather than in coherent stories.

“So oftentimes horses and people with autism connect in ways that are almost indescribable,” said Devoille.

Horses have played a big part in her life as well. Horses have helped her to focus in the “present moment and alleviate stress. My relationship with my horse also built self-confidence during a time I was struggling to find my identity,” she said. “They are incredibly intuitive animals, so I feel like they really pick up on people’s emotional state … They’ve always been a huge support to me, not only through my business, but on a personal level.”

So far, Devoille says business is going great. About half of her clients use traditional therapy, while the other half use equine therapy. Some inpatient treatment centers have also brought therapy groups to her business to engage in therapy with the horses.

The most challenging part about getting her business started was the financial risk, including the high cost of insurance for using horses.

But it’s all been worth it, she says.

“I always knew how horses have affected me, but seeing the changes that have happened in my clients’ lives and the realizations and growth that has come from it is really exciting,” she said. “So it gives me hope that I’ll continue to be able to do work that I’m passionate about.”

 

Carrie Rodriguez is Editor of the Kirkland Reporter, Bothell/Kenmore Reporter. She can be contacted at 425-822-9166, Ext 5050 or crodriguez@kirklandreporter.com

 

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