Opening this spring, Mending Strides is a trauma-focused Equine Assisted Psychotherapy barn located a short distance from downtown Mint Hill.
With less than two months until Mending Strides’ grand opening, things are still under construction. The as-yet-unmarked, eight-acre property located on Blair Road is a work in progress. Flags mark where parking spaces will be located once the ground dries a little; a landscaped bed with a sign will mark the farm’s entrance. Owner and Equine Specialist Maria Hogge, a former landscape designer, has plans to renovate the area behind the barn, installing seating that will face a mural filled with inspirational quotes and signs on the barn’s wall and a gazebo for waiting parents.
Mending Strides is currently home to six rescued horses, half of which are wild mustangs rounded up in the western United States. “There are over 45,000 mustangs in holding pens, and at six dollars a day, that cost Americans about 50 million dollars in 2017,” says Hogge. “They’re fed, their feet are taken care of, they get shots – but it’s not much of a life to go from being free, roaming free to standing around.” Gesturing to a relatively small area in front of the barn, Hogge adds, “There would be about a hundred horses in an area this big.”
A horse owner for close to thirty years now, Hogge worked as a landscape designer for two decades before the economic crisis of 2008 led to a sharp downturn in business. Volunteering with Operation Christmas Child that winter, Hogge kept hearing the same message: God has a plan for your life. She and a group of close friends began a bible study focused on why God gives us the passions he does, and Hogge began to ask a question that would send her down a different path: Should I be doing something more with this horse thing than just enjoyment?
At the same time, Hogge happened to see a television program where Diane Sawyer interviewed a Vietnam veteran who healed from trauma through horses. “I just couldn’t get it out of my head,” says Hogge. “Could I do something like this? So I got the nerve to call him. He actually was pretty negative,” she continues, “saying ‘You’re not a veteran, you can’t help veterans.’”
Hogge was discouraged and deflated, but the idea wouldn’t go away. She decided to pursue the certification she needed to become an equine specialist “My first husband was a navy pilot, and he was a very abusive man,” recalls Hogge. “When I remarried, that’s when I fell apart. When I was safe and everything was fine. I will never totally understand what veterans are going through, but I do understand how when you’re back home and safe, that’s when you kind of let down and then everything can come back to you. So I want to give back in that way.”
Hogge has a passion for helping veterans and first responders, but there are many groups and diagnoses that can be helped by equine therapy. Trauma survivors, those suffering from addictions, depression or anxiety, and individuals on the autism spectrum can all derive benefits from the experiential therapy offered at Mending Strides.
“Trauma survivors, they’re either having problems with themselves, with panic attacks and self regulation, or they’re having problems with their relationships, family, their employers,” says Hogge, who watches clients closely, observing details about how they treat the horses and how the horses treat them. “Mustangs are hypervigilant. They’re prey animals. That’s what a trauma client is going through, looking at the world like, “Is it going to harm me?”
Equine Assisted Psychotherapy is “experiential therapy with a team approach.” A mental health specialist and an equine specialist work together with a client and one or more horses. All work is done on the ground; there is no riding.
“We do a lot of mindfulness activities and grounding activities,” says Hogge. “In the beginning it starts with observation. They’re observing the horses, we’re observing them. Really, it’s about their metaphors. It doesn’t matter if what they say is right or wrong about the horse. They will relate it to something in their life. And they will also treat the horses the way they treat the people in their lives.” The goal of EAP is for participants to learn about themselves through interacting with the horses, to see their own behaviors clearly and how they affect themselves and others. Ultimately, this unique approach helps clients work through unresolved issues and restore balance in their lives.
Hogge is excited to host several “Equine Assisted Learning” camps this summer. Directed at groups like foster children, children dealing with grief, and children whose parents are incarcerated, the camps will offer children a chance to be with peers going through similar situations. Hogge also sees the nature-based camps as a way to reintroduce over-screened kids to the natural world.
Mending Strides will celebrate its ribbon cutting on April 30, and Hogge expects to begin booking therapy sessions in May. Visits to the farm are always by appointment only. In the meantime, the nonprofit organization is looking for volunteers. Hogge would welcome help from a retired farmer who can assist with pasture maintenance and others who can help with daily feeding and cleaning tasks. Though much of the help needed revolves around yard and garden work, Hogge is also on the lookout for fundraisers, artists, and a social media guru. She is also looking for additional mental health providers to work with Mending Strides.
“This year, we want to ease into it,” says Hogge. “My goal is to really be a community barn to the Mint Hill-Matthews area, to have the volunteers and the mental health people from here helping this community. I really just want to reach out to the mental health community and let them know we’re here.”
Keep up with what’s going on at Mending Strides on their web site: http://www.mendingstridesranch.com.