What you can learn to help yourself

ONALASKA - Gallant, the 22-year-old bay thoroughbred, wasn't budging.

He had "compromised" as much as he wanted to. Now it was her turn to come closer to him.

"Typical male," joked Katie Trzebiatowski of Olympia as she wrapped up a late-morning session at Human-Equine Alliances for Learning (HEAL) ranch, southeast of Chehalis.

The 80-acre nonprofit ranch is run by Leigh Shambo, 49, an experienced horse trainer, clinical psychotherapist and self-described "New Age Horse Whisperer."

She offers numerous equine-assisted therapy programs - from individual and family counseling sessions to one- and three-day personal growth workshops geared toward helping people with emotional fitness, relationship skills and spiritual growth.

During a typical session, most of the interaction takes place between the horse and the client.

Shambo often sits outside of the training ring, and jumps in when she feels she's needed.

"You might think of my role as being a trained witness," she said. "I really try to not be too directive."

In most cases, clients don't ride the horses. Instead they're given brushes, carrot sticks and other equestrian training tools to work and play with the horses. Activities range from quiet reflective sessions with the horses to basic equine handling exercises, such as grooming and leading around a pen.

Shambo said the activities are different from traditional horsemanship classes because they're facilitated in a way that pushes clients to become more aware of their emotions, and to pay attention to horses' reactions.

"We like to say it's as healing for the horses as it is the people," she said.

Based on personal experience

A lifelong equestrienne, Shambo's practice grew out of her personal experience with horse--assisted therapy.

In 1988, after years of working as a professional horse trainer, Shambo struggled to physically and emotionally recover from a serious riding accident. That same year, her mother committed suicide.

It wasn't necessarily intentional, but Shambo turned to the only friends she felt could help: Her horses. "I noticed how incredibly attuned they were to my emotional makeup on any given day," she said.

"I started to notice whatever I was like on the inside that day, the horses were responding to that."

In 1996, to help make ends meet, Shambo took a temporary "peer counseling" job to help Lewis County flood victims. She discovered she had a knack for helping people feel better, even under the most unfortunate circumstances.

"All I was doing was putting into practice the things that I had learned from horses about relationships," Shambo said. "It just worked like magic with people."

She decided to go back to school and begin a second career as a mental health therapist. And eventually, she found a way to combine her two life's passions: working with horses and helping people.

"It's been life changing for me"

Today, Shambo's client base ranges from people seeking personal and spiritual growth to those who are dealing with anxiety, depression, post traumatic stress disorder, as well as relationship issues and other mental health concerns.

She recently began working with children at the HorsePower! therapeutic training program in Olympia.

Experts say equine and other animal-assisted therapy practices are successful because they give clients something other than themselves or their therapist to focus on during a counseling session, and they're more apt to open up.

"There's a lot of it that looks like a traditional therapy session - only we're outdoors," Shambo said. "It's so much more natural than being in an office."

Surrounded by towering Douglas fir and cedar trees, the HEAL ranch has five horses that are "on loan" to work with clients, according to barn manager Khrista Roberts.

Some horses work better with certain personalities. In most cases, the clients go into the barn, and the horses "choose" the clients that they want to work with by walking up to them, Shambo said.

"The horses really like it because traditionally horses have been treated as objects," she said. "Here, the horses are really listened to, and they're respected."

Roberts, 40, of Chehalis, said she's taken several of Shambo's workshops. She said it's harder than it looks.

"It gets pretty intense, emotionally," Roberts said. "It's been life changing for me. I've had just major sobbing episodes in the round pen."

Trzebiatowski, 22, a student at The Evergreen State College who is originally from Wisconsin, looked up HEAL after reading "Tao of Equus: A Woman's Journey of Healing and Transformation Through the Way of the Horse" by Linda Kohanov. (Shambo completed a yearlong apprenticeship with Kohanov, who is founder of Epona Equestrian Services in Tucson, Ariz.)

"I've always thought I was more like a horse than a person," Trzebiatowski said. "When I was a kid, I really liked being around horses because they don't judge you."

For her, the HEAL ranch has allowed her to explore spirituality, and to explore the human-horse connection.

For example, she said one of the lessons she's learned from her interaction with Gallant, the thoroughbred, is how she often she lets others define boundaries in relationships.

"It's kind of like Leigh and the horses are guidance to become who it is I'm truly meant to be," Trzebiatowski said.

Lisa Pemberton writes for The Olympian. She can be reached at 360-704-6871 or learn more

Human-Equine Alliances for Learning offers one-day and three-day personal growth workshops throughout the year. Spots are still available for a workshop on April 14; cost is $175.

For more information on HEAL, call 360-266-0778 or go to