Healing through horses

Oroville woman rescues the animals, which in turn rescue their human companions

Shannon Paige started her equine therapy business, Soul Healing Horses, in Oroville last spring.

Shannon Paige started her equine therapy business, Soul Healing Horses, in Oroville last spring.

Photo by Rachel Bush

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For more information about Shannon Paige’s business, visit soulhealinghorses.com

Shasta, Voodoo, Tokken, Tucker, Kaia, Paint, Lady and Preston: These are the four-legged therapists you’ll find working at Shannon Paige’s business, Soul Healing Horses. For the last year, Paige has been offering equine therapy services on her Oroville ranch, where people can spend time working with the horses in the hopes of challenging their own fears. But it isn’t just the people who are getting support; Paige rescues her horses, giving them a new home, and purpose.

Paige first found solace in horse companionship as a child.

“I grew up riding horses,” she said. “I was raised by an addict father, and the horses kept me sane. They were my best friends.”

She put her passion on hold when she battled her own alcohol and drug issues as a teenager. It wasn’t until several years later, when her daughter became interested in barrel racing, that her “horse fever” was reignited. “At the time, I was a massage therapist. I switched from massaging people to horses, because performance horses need massages. I started studying it.”

After her divorce, Paige ended up on her mother’s Oroville ranch, where she had five American paint horses. “They’d stick their noses at my door, asking to play. I would sit out and massage them, and it became a healing process for me. I had left an abusive marriage, my dad had just died, and I was in an emotional state. The horses helped me come back to life.”

Deciding to pursue equine therapy as a business, Paige began rescuing horses in March 2013. “I first used Craigslist to find them. Now people are offering them to me. All the horses come to me thin, showing ribs with hooves that are unmanageable. Some come pregnant! But so far, none have been in such a god-awful state that there’s no bringing them back.”

Some of her rescues are local, while others require trips to the Oregon border, with an accompanying trailer, of course. Once she brings the horses to their new home on her 3-acre pasture, her first goal is to “fatten them up,” a much more pleasant alternative to the auctions and meat facilities where Paige says many give-away horses end up.

But it’s not just the horses that have been “recycled” by Paige. Their manure is put to good use as a natural fertilizer for growing grass around the pasture. Any leftover manure is available for free, to “anyone willing to come and pick it up.”

Next, Paige begins to train the horses. “I need to see what they already know. That means putting on the saddles, bridling them, jumping on them; I have to go a little cowgirl on them.”

Much like her own experience, Paige encourages those who have endured traumatic events to consider equine therapy. “I’ve worked with a lot of people who have been battered. But we all have wounds. The horses help open people up. They do most of the work; I just guide.”

Therapy sessions vary by client, but generally they start out with “the basics.”

“We talk a lot about the horses and groom them,” Paige said. “Then, hopefully, we’d work up to haltering and leading the horse, which really builds confidence for a person.”

For those who are ready, Paige offers rides along the Feather River, which spans 50 miles of endurance trails.

Shannon Rotter and her 11-year-old daughter have been volunteering at Paige’s ranch in exchange for therapy for the last two months.

“I wanted to use horses to help my daughter get through some tough times,” she said. “She was actually afraid of horses before, but wants to be a trainer. We go every Saturday, and she looks forward to it. She used to worry a lot and I’ve noticed that’s calmed down. She still has a little anxiety around the horses, but she was able to lead one of the mellow ones around and that was a turning point.

“Shannon is very confident with the horses. Every time we go out there we learn something new,” Rotter added.

In addition to therapy classes, Paige also offers services such as horsemanship lessons, and is working toward becoming a certified instructor through the Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship. Her open-pasture events introduce people, who may be interested in pursuing future lessons, to the horses. Paige also leases horses to those considering working with the animals long-term, which requires a thorough screening process. “Besides a contract, I need them to show me that they can ride, and that they have the land and money to take care of them.”

Between her therapy lessons and open-pasture events, Paige estimates that at this point she’s worked with 100 people. “It’s a new business, and I mainly get referrals so far. My next goal is to find a new property with a proper arena.”

Celebrating 27 years of sobriety, Paige acknowledges her own journey through therapy; both through conventional rehab and Christian-based counseling. She hopes to use that inspiration to continue growing her enterprise.

“Giving horses a purpose and getting them involved in the community is a huge deal, especially for those who might be suffering. Continuing to administer horses to them is what I hope for more than anything.”