Christine Ackerman said she often finds it difficult to talk to people about the sexual abuse she endured as a child.
But Ackerman, 31, said she had no trouble talking to Pilot, the horse she came to know in a program called EAST, for Equine Assisted Survivors of Trauma.
The program is a partnership of the Bluegrass Rape Crisis Center and Central Kentucky Riding for Hope at the Kentucky Horse Park. Its creation stems from a desire to expand the riding program's mental health services at the Kentucky Horse Park and the rape crisis center's commitment to offer cutting-edge healing opportunities to survivors of sexual violence.
"All the fears that the trauma brings comes back," Ackerman said. But Pilot "didn't judge me in any way," she said. The horses "still love you no matter what happens."
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In working with the horses, Ackerman said, "you had to think of someone other than yourself."
The Herald-Leader does not normally identify victims of sexual abuse. However, Ackerman said she agreed to be identified in hopes that it would help others.
Last fall, Ackerman and four other survivors of rape and childhood sexual abuse met as part of the eight-week pilot program. The victims met with therapists as a group and individually. Once a week, they gathered at Central Kentucky Riding for Hope for the EAST group, which combined education, skills building, and equine-assisted learning for therapeutic healing.
A new session is scheduled to begin later this month.
In the program, the women did not ride the horses. They walked to the field to catch and halter the horses they cared for. Then, at the barn or an arena, they carried out exercises designed to help them work through common symptoms of trauma, such as trust issues, relationship challenges, hypervigilance and post-traumatic stress.
The participants took surveys before and after the program and ultimately said they had improved their coping skills and reduced their traumatic symptoms by 33 percent.
Participants said they gained confidence in several areas, including handling stress and relationships. Participants also said they benefited from working with the horses.
CKRH program director Denise Spittler said the EAST group is a place where survivors can "continue their unique healing journeys with state-of-the-art services."
"It is a place where survivors can feel free of judgment — where they can open up and feel safe wearing their heart on their sleeve," she said.
Lee Ellis, a licensed clinical social worker at the rape crisis center, said the women developed trust, relationships and boundary-setting skills.
"They faced their issues — and blossomed," Ellis said. "They managed symptoms of trauma. The interactions of BRCC clients with their horses cut through layers of defenses that told in their body language, expressions, and individual therapy work."
The Bluegrass Rape Crisis Center provides free counseling, therapy and advocacy to survivors of sexual assault and abuse. The EAST group is free to participants. However, program officials said they need financial help to continue. The cost to provide a two-hour session for eight people is approximately $660. Both organizations are asking businesses and individuals to support a person or a session, or to sponsor an entire group for $3,300.
Charlotte Easley, an intern at CKRH and graduate student in the Master of Social Work program at Asbury University, first approached the rape crisis center about the partnership. Easley said that on the last day of the program, women used chalk to write "sweet, poignant messages" on the horses.
Among those messages were the words "Beautiful." "Balance." "Strength." "Friend." and ''I trust you."