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Grove City therapist uses horses to connect with humans

Echo Pines Equine owner Steve Gilliland demonstrates how the nonprofit organization uses a horse for the therapy sessions at the facility in Grove City. Ed Thompson/Butler Eagle

Even before he started Echo Pines Equine, Steve Gilliland was acutely aware of the power of the bond between a horse and a human.

Before retirement, Gilliland spent 38 years working at the George Junior Republic residential treatment facility in Grove City, most recently serving as the director of the drug and alcohol rehabilitation program.

Gilliland says he consistently got the best reaction out of the children he worked with whenever he brought them out to his ranch to be around his horses.

“I would bring kids out and I just got a good response from the kids when they were around the horses,” Gilliland said.

This sparked Gilliland and his wife, Melissa, to start Echo Pines Equine in 2022 at his ranch in Grove City, upon his retirement.

“Since I'm a licensed social worker, I thought I would continue, once I retire, to do therapy with the horses and people at our facility,” Steve Gilliland said.

The “facility” he is referring to is massive, totaling 13 acres, which includes a barn, an arena and an obstacle course. Echo Pines has a total of six animals at its disposal — two quarter-horses, a miniature horse, a mammoth donkey, a standard donkey and a mule.

Making connections

What Echo Pines does is called “trauma-focused equine-assisted psychotherapy,” and it is not unique to Gilliland’s ranch. Indeed, Echo Pines’ practices are based on the teachings of the Natural Lifemanship Institute, a Texas-based organization what focuses on improving mental health by forging connections between humans and horses.

“We're teaching principles of healthy relationships,” Gilliland said. “We use these principles for them to establish that connection with the horse, with the goal that they will transfer these principles into their interactions within their family and their community.”

Each session of equine therapy is typically at least an hour long, according to Gilliland.

“We start by doing some regulation exercises that target the lower brain,” Gilliland said. “We teach them how to be in touch with their emotions and sensations, because they need to understand themselves before they can have healthy relationships with the horse, and/or other people.”

The Gillilands are not alone in their efforts.

“We have a few volunteers,” Steve Gilliland said. “We have a board of directors that gives us input and other volunteers that help us as needed.”

Some of Echo Pines’ clients came courtesy of a recommendation from Ray Ratzer, a counselor for Oil Region Recovery, an addiction treatment center in Franklin.

“I have a personal belief that we can make a connection with animals a lot easier than we can with people,” Ratzer said. “So we took some of the guys that had a lot of communications and relationship problems, along with addiction, and had them work with some horses into his program.”

Ratzer said that the results were positive and instantaneous.

“By the end, they were able to make a connection with the horse, and they were able to see how to communicate a little more,” Ratzer said. “He made them actually connect and listen and watch the horse and watch for the reactions of what we did. And then they started learning that, ‘Just because I may be saying something doesn't mean it's being received. I have to acknowledge that I have to be able to see if it was received.’”

Improving relationships

Echo Pines offers its therapeutic services at no cost to participants. This means that the ranch is dependent on donations to ensure that the animals are well-cared for.

One board member, Debra Minor, donated the center’s obstacle course, which is known as the Tanner's Trail Equine Obstacle Course — named after her son, Tanner Edwards.

Edwards, a Staff Sergeant in the Army National Guard, suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder after returning from duty in Afghanistan. He died of an overdose in 2015, two days before his 26th birthday.

“When we went there, we just felt that (Steve and Melissa) needed a little something to help the program,” Minor said. “So we felt that the obstacle course would provide a fun, challenging experience for the person that was going to come and get some help at Echo Pines.”

While Gilliland does work with those who can be suffering from forms of addiction, he stresses that he is not officially licensed to perform drug and alcohol treatment or rehabilitation.

“We provide therapy to help people learn and develop skills to regulate their emotions and improve relationships,” Gilliland said. “We help with their recovery by helping them repair damaged relationships by learning these principles so they can reconnect with their loved ones in the community.”

For her part, Minor firmly believes in what the Gillilands are doing at Echo Pines.

“I've seen it work,” Minor said. “Just to see the difference from beginning to end was just amazing and very rewarding to see something like that.”

Xena is one of the horses at Echo Pines Equine, a Grove City nonprofit that provides equine-based therapy. Ed Thompson/Butler Eagle

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