By Shannon South
Images by Coco
Ernie is one of those horses that people are drawn to; standing 17 hh, he is described as calm, sweet and loveable – a true “gentle giant.” Having spent the early part of his life becoming well-trained in the hunter jumper ring, Ernie immediately draws people in, which is exactly what is needed for his role as a therapy horse.
In 2013, Ernie was donated to the nonprofit Marion Therapeutic Riding Association (MTRA); an organization that helps to develop confidence and independence in people with mental and physical challenges through the use of horses. MTRA is located on 30 beautiful acres in Ocala, the heart of Florida’s horse country. In addition to providing horse-based therapies for clients, MTRA is also one of the country’s leading, accredited facilities for training and mentoring of volunteers and staff for the Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship International (PATH).
Experienced horsewoman, Gail Dufresne, manages the equine therapists at MTRA, as well as training volunteers and other staff. She was very excited to have Ernie join her equine team. He was well trained and his experience and exposure to new environments and people from his time spent in the competition arena, gave him the foundation for a second career as a therapy horse. Instantly, Ernie was well liked by clients, volunteers and staff at MTRA.
But, after six months in his new role as a therapy horse, Ernie was showing signs of stress and flagging confidence during his daily sessions with clients. More and more frequently, Ernie would have instances of bobbing his head or busy feet while at the mounting block or wheelchair ramp. One day, seemingly out of the blue, Ernie refused to be bridled. Being so tall, he would calmly and quietly raise his head out of reach of his human handlers and there was very little that could be done to bridle him!
Being a natural horsemanship student herself, Gail knew that this handsome, kind horse needed some help. As fate would have it, organizers were looking for a demonstration horse for the Parelli Horse & Soul Tour being held in Tampa, Florida in December 2014. Throughout the event, Pat Parelli spent time with Ernie, slowly building his confidence. Pat included Gail in the sessions so she could continue Ernie’s progress after they returned to the Centre. As part of that effort, Pat issued Gail a challenge to bridle Ernie while sitting in a chair. To ensure their success, the Parelli Foundation arranged for licensed Parelli Professional, Emily Thompson, to follow up with Ernie & Gail during several sessions at their home facility.
Since his time spent in the arena with Pat Parelli, Ernie has gained confidence in his role as an equine therapist. With Gail’s development, and the support of Emily Thompson, Ernie has not had any further issues with bridling. In fact, Gail and Emily helped Ernie become a confident puzzle solver and together they gave him a new set of skills for coping with the demands of his daily sessions with children and adults.
But true empowerment comes from Gail developing the skills and support necessary to quickly identify when any of the horses in her care are becoming unconfident during their days spent helping people. In addition to helping Ernie and the other horses stay mentally and emotionally fit for their job, Gail uses natural horsemanship to train and mentor the volunteers and staff within her organization.
Ernie and all the equine therapists at MTRA are making a difference in the lives of the people they help every day. The Parelli Foundation has a mission to help horses like Ernie, as well as the volunteers and staff that make equine-assisted therapies available to people around the world. Providing education for therapy organizations is one way that the Foundation is making the world a better place for horses and humans!