The sun inched toward the oak-dotted golden hills as volunteers in blue T-shirts gathered trash and folded up tables. They were wrapping up The Grace Foundation of Northern California’s adoption event and open house on a warm October day. Julie McBride, the animal-rescue organization’s director of programs, says it was a success. And when McBride isn’t organizing events like this one, the licensed marriage and family therapist also practices equine therapy. For three years, McBride has worked with her horse co-therapists at Grace to help people with issues, including at-risk youth and abuse cases in adults and children.
What got you interested in psychotherapy and working with families?
I was always interested in people and why people did things, and why people felt the way they did. … I decided on marriage and family therapy because I always knew that I was going to work with kids.
When I started, I was working with different counseling agencies for domestic violence, low-income families and kids that were at-risk. I always knew that I would eventually incorporate animals in my practice … [but] the horses were a little unexpected for me. I started at Grace as a volunteer with my daughter. … And Beth [DeCaprio], who’s a founder of Grace, approached me when she found out I was a therapist, and said, “You, know, we need some help writing some programs for our special-needs and autistic kids.”
How much prior experience did you have with horses?
I spent a week on a dude ranch when I was a kid, but I never owned a horse. It was just more of a natural attraction toward them.
Describe the role of the horse in therapy.
The horse functions really as a co-therapist in the therapy. … [Horses] are completely nonjudgmental, so the fear of this horse judging is gone. [Clients] can start developing a relationship with the horse that then gets transferred to the therapist.
How are these co-therapists being paid? In carrots?
Yes. The horses get treats, of course. They get a lot of love and they get cared for, absolutely. And that’s really all they need. Horses are very emotional, which is why they work so well with people. They feel fear. They feel happiness. They feel loss. They are herd animals … so they are looking to build relationships, which is another reason why this particular animal is so powerful [in therapeutic programs].
A lot of people have a hard time getting behind therapies with animals, because they don’t think animals are capable of it. But it’s real. And I know some people don’t believe animals have feelings, but I think once they start working with animals, they get it.
What kind of an effect does this occupation have on you?
It’s always tragic to hear people’s stories, the things that people go through. It sometimes can be very difficult to hear. You have to have a certain kind of makeup in order to do this kind of work. You have to be able to hear people’s tragedies and see the hope in them and see the strength in these people.
What kind of activities do clients do with the animals?
Take young boys who are very aggressive, maybe have anger-management issues [and] you have them groom the horses—something that is very nurturing, very gentle and very slow, that in itself is telling this young boy that you can do good things by being compassionate, being gentle. … A family that’s struggling with discord in the household, you put them in a situation with a horse where they have to work together to catch that horse, halter that horse and maybe put a saddle on that horse. It sounds very simple, but if they’ve never had horse experience, they may not know how to approach a horse. They don’t even know how to put a halter on—we’ve had a lot of clients who’ve put halters on upside down. But it’s not about tacking up; it’s about how they are talking to each other.
How do you choose which horses to use?
I look at what the goals are for this client, what we are working on together, and choose a horse. Or I’ll put a few horses in the arena and see who that client goes to. And often the client will see something about a horse that attracts them. They don’t know right away what the attraction is, but oftentimes it’s exactly what that client needs. It’s on an unconscious level. And sometimes a horse will choose a client, which is really profound, especially for people coming in with low self-esteem. For an animal to choose them, that’s a pretty great moment.
Can you tell me what the most common issues are?
We’ve got low self-esteem, trust, anxiety—anxiety is kinda going through the roof right now. When families are stressed out, anxiety goes up. Families are having a hard time right now, economically.
Do you ever wish your job was obsolete?
If we didn’t need therapists, what a great sign that would be! If we could, as a society, be at a point where we were mentally and emotionally satisfied and content, yes, I would be happy to not have a job. I’d find something else to do.