EquusLibrium founder Amber Quaranta-Leech, a licensed professional counselor certified by the Equine Assisted Growth and Learning Association, uses equine assisted psychotherapy to help her clients navigate through the traumas in their lives, past and present. She said working with horses helps people to overcome their obstacles and to process that trauma.
On a cold, windy and overcast fall day, she meets with students from Texas A&M University-Central Texas — all members of the National Council Society of Leadership and Success program. An aquamarine sky played hide and seek behind the puffy gray clouds over the corral at EquusLibrium in Salado, but the unpredictable weather didn’t stop the group from participating in the three-hour session where they learned about their own communication style by working with horses.
Before introducing the group to the horses, Quaranta-Leech, her business partner and equine specialist Becky Page, and business manager Nicolé Stalker convene with the students in the living room of the bungalow that serves as the organization’s headquarters.
Each participant receives an evaluation to determine their personality style and are then observed through their interaction with the horses. This session is based on the DISC theory method created by Charles Moulton.
Participants are recognized as people who are dominant, an influencer, steadfast, analytical and detail oriented, or a combination. Once the evaluation is complete, the next step is to meet the horses.
“The horses are free in the pasture and the students/clients choose a horse then stand in place to watch how the horses will respond to them,” Quaranta-Leech explained.
Because horses are prey animals, she said they live ready to move into survival mode, which is similar to how someone with trauma lives. The horses learn how to react according to their environment and level of trust.
In the pasture, App, Koko, Red and Puzzle, a pony-mule, watch as the humans enter their space. Minutes tick by as the two species stand still and look at each other. Curious at first, the horses slowly walk up to the group then turn and walk away to hang out under an oak tree.
“As a group, we go out for a few minutes and learn what horse has what communication style,” Quaranta-Leech said.
The horses are accustomed to strangers walking into their pasture, but the individual person may not be familiar with horses, and that each has its own personality.
For example, Puzzle is a bit of a loner, not sticking too close to the herd.
App, an appaloosa, seemed to be the most curious and would walk close to the people, poking his head over the shoulder of an unsuspecting participant. Koko doesn’t like umbrellas, and Red seemed happy just to be in his element. But one thing they all had in common, they were as busy observing the humans as the humans were observing them.
“They can’t be dishonest,” Quaranta-Leech explained while standing on the sideline watching the group interact with the animals. “They are congruent. They need to know what’s going on around them, and watch for predators.”
If a person is showing his or herself one way on the outside, but is different on the inside, Quaranta-Leech said the horse’s response is going to be toward what is going on inside that person.
“Horses can read non-verbal better because that’s how they communicate,” Stalker said.
The next step is for the group to find a way to get the horses to come to them willingly. Although halters are available, group members chose not to halter their horses.
“From the horses’ perspective, people are potential predators. The horses are not forced into participating. We let the horses come to the humans,” Quaranta-Leech said.
Each participant chose a horse they wanted to draw near himself or herself. As time passed, the horses stayed steadfast under the tree. When the horses didn’t come closer, the humans moved in slowly.
“Now the group is responding, but how will the horses respond?” Quaranta-Leech whispered.
During another exercise, each student created an obstacle to draw their horse nearer. What was interesting is that each student, knowingly or unknowingly, expressed a part of their personality in communicating with the horses. Where one person was patient, another was more outgoing and loud, another tried to attract attention by moving a blue barrel from place to place to entice the horse’s curiosity.
“It’s very interesting, what we are doing,” said Aaron Mandzak, a graduate student in counseling, who chose Koko. During the exercise he said he couldn’t get Koko to come to him at the tree. “He was more into the CrossFit gym,” he said, referring to the obstacles that one participant set up to attract a chosen horse.
“The one thing they sense is that we are more like them,” said LaTreice McClellan.
None of the group chose the small Puzzle. When asked, their collective answer was because “he wanted to be by himself and it made us not want to go by him.”
No stranger to trauma
Quaranta-Leech is one of three siblings. Her father was a minister and her mother was a nurse who home-schooled the children. The family lived in West Virginia and when she was 13 she learned firsthand the healing power of horses.
She grew up in an unstable environment that she describes on her website (equuslibrium.com) as having “extreme levels of stress,” and “abuse by someone close to me.” When a World War II veteran and congregant of her father’s church invited her out to his farm to ride horses, she found a peace she couldn’t find at home.
“Horses were my stabilizing factor during the chaos in my life,” she said. “My escape with everything and it allowed me to fully become who I was meant to be.”
When she was 15, her family moved to Oklahoma. When she was 17, she was able to buy her first horse, but ended up getting two, Koko and Red, who she uses in her practice today.
“When we went to get Koko, he wouldn’t get into the trailer,” she recalled. “When Red walked into the trailer, Koko followed and the owner gave us a deal on the two horses. Koko and Red are related; uncle and nephew by blood, born 20 days apart.”
Home-schooled through high school, as soon as she was able to drive she would go to see her horses. “I spent most of my time with them,” she said. “Many a time I’d be crying in Koko’s mane. They have such unconditional love and support.”
Quaranta-Leech knew what she wanted to be when she grew up — a large animal vet. But before she attended college, she wanted to be on her own. She took a two-year missionary detour in Lubbock where she did mission work and biblical studies. One of those years was spent in Hilo, Hawaii. “It was a lot of just being,” she said. “I did volunteer work, met people, helped and served.”
When she returned home, she entered Abilene Christian University and majored in pre-veterinary medicine, but struggled with the chemistry and biology classes. So she took a psychology class and her destiny was set. “Psychology just made sense to me — it was common sense.”
One day, not long after she graduated from college, Quaranta-Leech read a story in Reader’s Digest about Last Chance Kids and Last Chance Horses. It caught her attention and gave her the idea for an equine therapy class.
“They were putting inner-city kids with large horses — (the kids) learned respect, compassion and empathy — that’s when I realized it. I started researching what was out there for equine therapy work. I knew I made the right choice (psychology) when I graduated,” she said.
Bringing balance to lives
Equus (equine) and Librium (balance) are two words that define Quaranta-Leech’s work using horses to help her clients find a new balance, a new beginning, from the trauma that has gripped their lives. She works with groups and individuals, including soldiers, veterans and their families. “I have so much respect for what they do, to be able to support and help their families,” she said. In addition to her equine assisted psychotherapy groups, she also sees clients in her Killeen office.
Helping clients navigate the maze of trauma is a lesson in learning how to stay in the present, she said. “Our motto is Bringing Balance to Life. If people are staying in the past, they lose balance; if they are stuck in the future, the lose balance. But to be in the here and now, that will take them to a new place where they are supposed to be.”