The power of horse hugs

Bonding with animals can sooth a traumatized soul. Horses, for example, have helped calm those suffering from post-traumatic stress syndrome and centered children with autism through equine therapy, as well as assist an increasing number of teens recovering from being trafficked. “We are seeing more and more and increasingly younger victims of trafficking,” said Kim Bryan, executive director of SAFE San Juans and director of CrossRoads Youth Ranch, a soon-to-be-launched nonprofit located in Skagit County. The organization will work with teenage girls who are survivors of sexual trafficking, helping them heal and thrive, in part by the use of equine therapy. Bryan presented information about CrossRoads at the Soroptimist International area meeting lunch in Sedro-Woolley on March 9. Approximately eight of those attendees were from the Friday Harbor club. Soroptimist raised more than $2,000 for the nonprofit, which hopes to open by the end of the year. “Sex trafficking hides in the dark places of our society, often right under our noses, and threatens the safety of our children,” said a CrossRoads brochure. “Help us expose the dangers and highlight the healing.” There are different types of sex trafficking, Bryan explained, such as commercially sexually exploited children, which includes children who are prostituted and used for porn. There is also sex tourism — mail-order brides and internet-based exploitation — and survival sex, the exchange of sex for shelter, food or even reputation, she continued. The physiological and behavioral effects that result from trafficking run deep, Bryan said. Self-esteem issues, anxiety, fear, eating disorders, hostility and suicidal tendencies can all stem from such a trauma. A survivor may also need to grapple with traumatic events that occurred prior to being trafficked. Bryan told the story of a fictional woman abandoned by her father, raised by an alcoholic mother and abused by both her mother and stepfathers before being trafficked by her high school boyfriend. Through treatment, Bryan explained, a survivor can address feelings of abandonment, as well as the trauma of childhood abuse. No matter what the story, these teenage girls require trained counselors, educators and doctors, Bryan said, and treatment may take over three years. CrossRoads, she added, is licensed to assist survivors up to the age of 18. Should a woman need to continue treatment after the age of 18, CrossRoads is partnering with a similar program for adult women that also uses equine therapy. This therapy works on several levels, according to Bryan. Each teen is assigned a horse of her own to care for — teaching her responsibility. “In the morning, the girls feed their horse and clean the stall before they have breakfast,” she said. This commitment may make the young women think twice about running away as they may wonder who would care for the horse should they leave, Bryan explained. It also provides them with something larger than themselves to live for — the animal and its unconditional love. Touch has also been known to be calming and therapeutic in its own right, Bryan continued, saying that as a nurse working with babies whose mothers were addicts, touch calmed the infants. Horses require frequent touch; including while grooming, picking hooves and riding. There is nothing better than a horse hug, Bryan added with a smile.