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Walden Magazine // Jul 09, 2014

My Mission Possible: Equine Empathy

Kimberly Portanova-Feibus explains how she helps traumatized children heal through equine-assisted therapy.

Kimberly Portanova-Feibus. Photo credit: Stephen Spartana

Kimberly Portanova-Feibus
Photo credit: Stephen Spartana

“A horse placed her nose on my chest on the very first day of my internship at Marley’s Mission in 2011. I felt her head grow heavy. It was my daughter’s birthday, and I was torn about being away from her. The horse sensed that—and reconnected me with this intense maternal feeling. That’s their power. Horses can get beyond our masks.

“I did my field work at Marley’s Mission and graduated with my M.S. in Mental Health Counseling in June 2012. As a mother of two young children, I chose Walden for its flexibility—and its academic rigor and CACREP-accredited program.

“I now work at Marley’s Mission as a therapist with children ages 5 to 21, all of whom have experienced some form of trauma—sexual abuse, severe medical issues, bullying, or a family member’s death. Every therapy session starts in a small indoor arena with each child saying hello to his or her horse. Some start by waving from a distance, but soon they’re petting and leading these gentle giants through an obstacle course, building trust and self-confidence with each step.

“One 12-year-old girl who had been physically assaulted by a family member relied on total repression as a defense mechanism. One day after she started therapy, I watched as she faced a horse eye to eye and the horse started to cry. She started to cry, too. At the end of the session, she threw her arms around this horse and said, ‘thank you.’

“Those moments, and there are many, are why I love my work. Through equine-assisted therapy, I help these children shift from victims to survivors. I also see how their parents are still stuck—they need help, too. My new mission is to work with the parents in a similar way so they can accompany their child in that profound—and positive—transformation.

“When I started Walden, I was not sure how I would incorporate social change and cultural diversity into my work. But I now see that culture is not defined by religion, skin color, or nationality. A life-changing event places you in a culture. In the blink of an eye, you could become a victim of violence. How do we rebuild trust and self-esteem that is taken in that moment? That is my mission.”

Kimberly Portanova-Feibus ’12, an M.S. in Mental Health Counseling alumna and a 2012 Scholar of Change, is a therapist at Marley’s Mission in Clarks Summit, Pennsylvania, an equine-assisted therapy program for children who have been subjected to trauma.