Healing Through Horses

Recovery Unscripted banner image for episode 36

Episode #36 | September 20, 2017

Featured Guest: Dale Phillips and Duke Vinson

For today’s show, I’m excited to discuss the value of using equine therapy to heal trauma and addiction. Dale Phillips serves as equine therapist at Georgia’s Bluff Plantation along with executive director Duke Vinson and they both joined me at the Innovations in Behavioral Healthcare conference in Nashville. Dale shares how he was finally able to face the trauma he experienced as a child and how he discovered the restorative power of horses before he ever heard the term "equine therapy."

Podcast Transcript

David Condos: Hello and welcome to this episode of Recovery Unscripted, a podcast powered by Foundations Recovery Network. I’m David Condos. For today’s show, I’m excited to discuss the value of using equine therapy to heal trauma and addiction.

Dale Phillips serves as equine therapist at Georgia’s Bluff Plantation along with Executive Director Duke Vinson and they both joined me at the Innovations in Behavioral Healthcare conference in Nashville. Dale shares how he was finally able to face the trauma he experienced as a child and how he discovered the restorative power of horses before he ever heard the term “equine therapy.” Now, here’s Duke and Dale.

David: I’m here with Duke Vinson and Dale Phillips. Thanks for being with us today, guys.

Duke Vinson: I’m glad to be here.

Dale Phillips: Yes, thank you.

David: First, let’s have each of you tell us a little bit about your personal story and what led you to what you’re doing today.

Duke: This is Duke. I’m in recovery now and have been since over a decade. To make a long story short, I started doing quite a bit of drinking and it led to me losing my job, my family, everything I had. You’re talking about rock bottom, that was it. I had to completely start over. It’s been a long journey. When you have to tell your little girls, I had two at the time and they were little, but you weren’t going to be picking them up this week or this month. And you don’t know how to tell them that you are in rehab and your daddy is an alcoholic and addict. It’s been a long journey. It’s very rewarding what we do and just to try to help people not make the same mistakes I did for as long as I did, in any way, any avenue to get the word out that there is effective help out there. That’s what we want to do.

David: All right. And Dale?

Dale: I started on this journey about 32 years ago. At age six, I started being sexually abused by my older sister’s boyfriend and went on to the age of 10. By age seven, that was when I was seeing my first horse. I’ve been in horses pretty much my whole life. I was grateful to horses for giving me therapy before I knew it was therapy. I really wasn’t doing all the modalities of different treatment because I wasn’t trained like that. My teachers were old men and farmers and preachers and everything else. I was raised in Mississippi and we just don’t have a whole lot to do down there other than horses.

David: You got your first horse, you said, at age seven and so you just naturally discovered what horses can offer in that way? Wow.

Dale: Yes. We actually, me and wife, have a farm about an hour west of Nashville. We had actually needed extra income, so we put on a Craigslist ad for horse boarding. I had never dealt with my personal stuff ever, but the lady that answered the ad was moving here to become a therapist. She had been in the business for 30 plus years.

That’s who showed up at my farm and that’s where I began my personal journey of healing. About a year later, I was farming at the time and I’ve always farmed, but we had to flew it up here and I ended up getting my first job and recovery treatment, I think.

David: You said this woman who is your first client for horse boarding happened to be a therapist, and so how did that play out?

Dale: One night when I guess where everything came to a head, at that time, we had three children and my wife and I just become completely consumed with myself. We were struggling financially. I was struggling emotionally. Nobody could figure out what was wrong with me. My wife ended up putting my kids on the car, telling me she can’t live like this, she can’t do this. The lady happened to be in my barn and overheard 95% of what went on. When my wife took off, she came out of the barn asking me what was going on. I gave her a few adjectives and told her she can leave too.

Instinctively, we have those impulses where we’re completely angry and can’t think. 20 to 30 minutes later after reality sets in, you go, “Okay. My wife just left. My kids are gone. I’m alone.” I managed to went up back in the hallway of that barn and that’s where she had offered to give me 10 minutes of her time to share a little bit of her personal story. Part of that was being raped.

I had never talked to anyone face-to-face that owned there. Impulsively, I said, “Well, I get it.” I will never forget. She seemed kind of cold about it, but she said, “Get what?” I said, “Me too,” and she said, “Me too what?” I said, “I was raped.” I’ll never forget the response I got from that. She said, “Okay.” I thought I’ve just shared a lifetime of hurt and pain with this lady who I’d never shared with anybody before. I was expecting the clouds to part and angels to sing and jump up and hug me and tell me everything is going to be okay. That’s not the response I got. She said, “Look, brother, we know what we’re dealing with, we know how we can be treated.”

She forcefully called my wife and told her to come home and told me that I owed her the truth. To speed things up a little bit, I ended up walking off to my backfield and my wife had followed me down there. She said, “How come you can’t love me like you love those horses?” I said, “Well, they don’t really talk back to me. They don’t get into my business. They don’t push me. They don’t ask much of me.” She said, “Well, get on your horse and you think about what it is that you truly want since that’s your happy place.”

Out of spite, I jumped up on the back of the horse and said, “You’re happy now? This what you want?” She said, “No. It’s about what you need and what you want, and I suggest you figure out if we’re in that equation,” and she left me. I had never grieved. I had never felt anything in a lot of years. Here I am in the backfield sitting on the back of a horse with nothing on me. Every time he would take a step, I felt like somebody was choking me.

Every time I would feel that, he would take a step forward, take a step forward, take a step forward until I completely lost it. All these years of pain and hurt, it was just coming out. I heard a voice and it was my wife saying, “Dale, are you okay?” It kind of brought me to life again. I looked up and that horse had walked from the backfield all the way to the backyard. I got off him and she said, “Let’s go into the house. It’s going to be okay.” That is when I started this journey and I’m still on it.

David: As you mentioned, you spoke here at the conference yesterday, doing a presentation specifically on your equine therapy program. Like I said before we started, I’m really excited to dive into this because this is something that is new for me. I don’t know a lot about something that we haven’t covered on the show before. I guess to start it off, could you guys give us an intro about the equine therapy program that you have going and how it works?

Duke: The number one thing that Dale does with our equine and just in general when he’s on the grounds is being real with people and talking to them like human beings and not patients. I heard Dale say this, I’m going to steal it from him today, “If you want a human being, treat him like one. If you want a patient, treat him like one.” They’re human beings that are having difficulties and we’re there to help them out. If we want to treat them sick and keep them sick, then treat them like a patient. It’s a good way of thinking thing and I am not going to be the one to mess that up. I’m going to let Dale be Dale because that’s what he does best.

Dale: Yes, I’m at Bluff Plantation every other week. Four days with the guys and girls down there. Our groups are pretty simple. It’s not an elaborate setup. We have a round pen, simple little barn, and we have a fire pit and picnic tables. That’s honestly the way I prefer it. I generally do small groups, four or five. A lot of times, gender-specific. Like I said, most of the horses that I use are either unbroken or have broken spirits.

We do a lot of work with rebuilding the horses and taking care of them and getting them to a place where they’re starting their journey. In the process of that, our guys and girls are able to mirror off of what is being done with the horses in a non-threatening way. They’re able to see what they look like, what’s going on in their world, but it was focused on the horses. The horses open up an avenue. They don’t have real conversations with those folks. Simple statement as, “Do you share any of that? Do you share any of that horse’s pain or any of that history with them?” It just opens them up to be able to feel like, “Okay. We’re sitting at a picnic table. I think we’re okay to talk.”

David: I hadn’t thought about that, but the horses are on their own journey too. That’s part of what you’re doing is, you’re saying, “Oh, we’re gonna focus on this horse’s journey and healing them,” and then that opens up conversations about the human’s journeys too.

Dale: That opens up all the conversation. You’ve got somebody who may be struggling with physical abuse or something like that, and then you’ve got an animal that they’re sitting out working with that you can’t raise your hand too fast. Because if you do, he’ll run away or he’ll hurt himself trying to get away from that. You go through a lot of the desensitizing techniques that you would do with horses.

You have to show them the pain in order to work through the pain. They have to get that experience that even a horse will use certain objects to say, like a whip or something like that, something they’ve been traumatized with and we present it to them. Initially, the effect is real big. If you keep working through it, keep their feet moving and keep them moving, keep showing it to them, the less and less and less effect it has on them.

That’s really like the approach with trauma. A lot of folks who experienced this trauma is you’ve got to keep showing it to them. You got to keep pushing them with it, but you cannot put them in a position where they can’t move, which is why I think this experiential therapy is a valuable tool because you’re outside, you’re in an open space. They have permission to take a step back or to walk off. They’re not confined in a 10×12 office space with nowhere to go.

David: Yes, they don’t feel trapped.

Dale: They don’t feel trapped. Like I said, I’ve generally used project horses. Day one, I may have something that has never been touched, so we’ll start the genuine process. We’ll talk about why that colt is scared or why he’s fearful and we’ll be able to show them the behavior versus just tell them what he is. Over the next four days, every group will work on that specific animal.

By Friday afternoon, you can catch him or you can put your hands on him or you can brush him or you can touch him. At the end of the week, I challenge the guys and girls in treatment to put that amount of work into the next week that I’m gone. I generally come home and I put the same amount of work in with that animal and you compare when we get back.

David: I know something else you talked about in your presentation was, why experiential therapy is so important? Could you talk a little bit about that? Why it’s good to have a mix?

Duke: Talk therapy is good in its place. Once you reach the level that you need to go to a residential addiction treatment facility, your brain is damaged to some degree. You haven’t felt anything. You haven’t been able to deal with any issues without some mind- or mood-altering substance. You can sit down and people can tell you the exact recipe for living the life that you have imagined, that you wanted to live. You won’t get it. You can’t retain it. You’re sitting there and your mind is wandering, your thoughts are racing.

The more senses you involve, the more retention that you have. That’s a fact. When they go out to the racecourse [sic] or out to the equine group or what have you, it’s more goal-oriented. Dale will give them something to do while they’re talking. Now, they could be just in the middle of a round pen, trying to get the horse to come to them and Dale’s talking to them. They start opening up. They’re moving, they’re thinking, they’re trying to get something to respond. All of those things are happening. In connection with Dale’s personality and how he conducts himself, they open up very quickly, which is vital because now we have something to work with. We’re not shooting in the dark.

“Well, why did you start smoking pot at 10? Because I felt like it.” They don’t want to tell someone that they’re not comfortable with or it’s just a suit trying to therapize me as I hear all the time. They drop their guard a little bit when people are being real with them and talking to them like humans, and then Dale comes back going, “Hey, guys. Here’s what’s going on with this person. They got raped at 10 and they started smoking pot right then, so try to bear it.” That’s the value in it. They’re retaining more. They’re opening up quicker. That makes your outcomes tenfold better because we have a starting point.

David: Back to the equine therapy itself. You mentioned earlier how that the horses can mirror the emotions. Could you tell us a little bit more about that and how that works? Why that relationship can help patients so much?

Dale: A lot of times, you’ve either got someone who is so beat up and broken that they can’t find their voice and the horse doesn’t respond well to that. Either they just completely disassociate from what you’re trying to do with them or they walk off. Or on the other spectrum if I come in there being loud and angry and obnoxious, then the horse is going to do the same thing.

Your goal is to really find that middle. That’s something that we hit on yesterday, was being able to be assertive without being aggressive. You can see the body language and see how somebody’s face is reacting or they’re not making eye contact. Either their head’s down or right the opposite. They’re cussing and they’re bad and they want to leave. “I don’t want to be here. I don’t wanna do that.”

It’s an important big key to what we’re doing down there, is to keep their feet engaged. I mean, physically keep them engaged. Go to the left for 10 feet, go to the right for 10 feet, left for 10 feet. That works because it keeps people thinking. That’s some of the parallels that I use. Basic horse training methods on people.

David: It seems like they’re not able to fool the horses like you were saying. They could try to cover things up with you guys and say, “Oh, nothing’s going on, nothing’s going on.” The horses seem to know, right? They seem to respond to really what’s going on?

Dale: They’re human lie detectors. A horse is going to respond to the pressure or how I present myself. For me and my personal story was is, how come that horse understood I didn’t feel good? I said I got my first horse when I was seven and I would go to that back fence down there and she would throw her head over the fence and just be there. It’s just something that it’s big, it’s strong. You don’t look at it as weak. All of a sudden, that horse is comforting me.

This has profound experiences on people. The biggest thing is when I was taught this is to get out of the way. When somebody needs to walk off or they need to go over there and pet on that horse, don’t follow them. Just let them be. Let them have that personal experience for themselves and don’t try to sell it to them. Don’t try to push it on. It really is a magical thing that goes on between people when they’re in that honest place.

It’s really not my job to treat it. My biggest part of this is to build a bridge. If you can imagine a bridge from where the horses are up to the treatment facility, the actual housing, because they come down there and they’re real put off that I come in. We’ve just been in groups all day. We’ve just been at the therapist’s office all day. We try to show them that that’s a big piece of the puzzle, but they’ve got to become engaged and want to want to get better and this is what we’ve started.

David: We’ll wrap up with this final question. You guys have both devoted a lot of your time in your life to the field of helping other people find recovery. I know you both have powerful personal stories yourselves. I guess could we wrap up by having each of you say a little bit about why helping people find recovery is so important to you?

Duke: I mean, people make mistakes. People don’t always follow the script of what some people think a life should be. For whatever reason, people start drinking or start using drugs. It was really profound when I realized, “Holy smoke. Addiction is not the guy with the brown paper bag living under a bridge, it’s me.” It wasn’t anybody else’s fault that I abused what I did.

When I got clean and sober, I look around and say, “Wow, look at the devastation.” I didn’t mean about money or anything material. When I looked in my mom’s eyes and there was still pain there. That’s what I want to do, is to try to help people not get that far in doing things like this. Somebody that is struggling might take a look at themselves and say, “Am I the problem? It’s not my mom, dad, wife, husband’s fault that I’m drinking a 12-pack of beer a day. It’s my fault.” Let’s do something different. Learn different coping skills.

They don’t teach you that in high school or college or anywhere else to go, “Hey, if you start drinking too much, you might want to take a look at yourself.” Everybody is thinking, “It’s not going to happen to me. I can stop when I want.” Listen to me, you cannot. When that drug takes over, that alcohol takes over, it’s in charge. Not you anymore and people need to understand that.

David: Dale, same question.

Dale: Mine’s pretty simple. The lady that helped me, I didn’t believe the things that she was telling me. I didn’t believe that my entire traumatic parts of my life would be the biggest gifts that I would ever receive. She told me that. She said, “Dale, one day, you’re going to look back at all this and then look at it as a gift and not a curse.” I told her, I said, “Well, if that’s the truth and I’m really going to feel and have the experiences that you’re telling me I can have,” I said, “I promise I’ll spend the rest of my life to give it to somebody else because I didn’t know it was available.”

I’m fortunate enough to be able to do something that completely changed my life, gave me a quality of life. It put my family together. It’s pretty simple. I made a promise not only to her, the lady that helped me, but to myself. My thing is if you want to keep it, you’ve got to give it away. I won’t keep it.

David: All right. Well, thanks so much for being with us today, guys. Appreciate it.

Duke: All right. Thank you.

Dale: Thanks for the opportunity.

David: Thanks again to Duke and Dale for taking the time to share all of that with us. Now, I’m happy to welcome Jordan Young and Chip Henslee from the Foundations Events team. As you may remember, they joined us a couple months ago to preview their summer conference, Innovations in Behavioral Healthcare, which is also where I spoke with Duke and Dale. Well, their fall conference, Moments of Change, is quickly approaching, so I’m excited to have them on the show to give us a quick preview of what to expect next month in Palm Beach.

Welcome, Jordan and Chip.

Jordan Young: Thank you for having us.

Chip Henslee: Thank you for having us, David.

David: Now, Moments of Change is right around the corner and I know that this is not only your biggest conference but also your longest-running conference. About how many years has it been going on now?

Jordan: We’ve been hosting the Moments of Change conference for over a decade now. It originally was called the Moment of Change. It was an intervention conference. That moment of change is actually when change takes place during the intervention process and the IP or intended patient becomes ready to go to treatment.

David: Cool. I know everyone has been watching Florida recently because of the hurricane, so I’m sure you guys are just thankful to say that the conference will still be taking place, right?

Jordan: Yes. We’re very thankful that the conference will be taking place. Luckily, while Irma was devastating in some areas, the impact wasn’t quite as bad as they had expected in a lot of places. First of all, we’re thankful that the many people that we’ve been speaking with have been safe.

David: Like Jordan said, this conference started out as an intervention conference. Chip, can you tell us a bit about how this event has evolved from strictly education-focused to providing other opportunities for attendees?

Chip: I think more and more in this day and age and in this industry, specifically, it’s important to be face-to-face with people to really interact with everyone and know personally the people you’re doing business with. Instead of just being a line item on a Google search, somebody can be a face and a story. We do a lot to try to expand on that. One example is our speed networking round. On Tuesday night from 5:00 to 7:00 PM, we’ve got an opportunity for everyone to sit down and like a speed-dating format get-together and learn about several different contacts in rapid succession but still having that opportunity to lock eyes with somebody, shake someone’s hand in person, and see what they’re all about.

David: Jordan, what are some of the educational opportunities that you’re most excited about offering attendees this year?

Jordan: This year’s Moments of Change Conference is eligible for up to 24 continuing education hours for clinicians, social workers, psychiatrists, people that need continuing education to keep their licensure up-to-date. Beginning this conference, we have two great keynote presentations. The first one will be Steve Ford. He’s the son of Gerald and Betty Ford. He actually was in on Betty Ford’s intervention. It’s going to be a really fascinating presentation.

The closer is the intervention keynote panel. It’s going to be on interventions in the face of the opiate epidemic and emerging mental health disorders. We’ll have experts John Southworth, Caroline Smith, Jay Schneider, and Jeff Jay, who wrote what is essentially the handbook for family interventions called Love First. We’re really, really excited about that.

Chip: Yes. I am so excited about some of our other speakers we’ve got over the course of the week. One really exciting one, Ari Drosman, sponsored by South Shores, is going to be talking about surf therapy. How we as humans are so in tune with the aquatic environment and just really getting scientific about surf Therapy and it just is fascinating to me. I’m also really pretty pumped to hear Rob Waggener, our CEO, match up with Jay Crosson and talk about ethics for one of our lunch panels.

David: Moments of Change also marks the 50th national conference being put on by Foundations Events. I know you guys are excited about doing something special this year to celebrate that. Chip, could you tell us a bit about it?

Chip: You’re absolutely right, David. We were so excited and so honored to be putting on our 50th national conference. We thought, what can we possibly do to give back? What we came up with around the office is the 50 acts of kindness. Now, this can be something as small as holding a door open for someone or giving directions or something as large as donating to Harvey or Irma hurricane relief, but we wanted to make sure that we were using this opportunity to give back with our conference.

Upon arriving at the conference, you will be receiving a listing of all the different suggested acts of kindness. Don’t feel limited to just those. We want to make sure that these conferences have always been about helping people and saving lives, so we’re using this opportunity of our 50th national conference to do just that with the 50 acts of kindness.

David: All right. Any last tips for someone who might be attending Moments of Change this year?

Jordan: Some words of advice for people that have not attended before. This is a huge event, so there are lots of people to see. There are lots of things to do. Make sure that before you go, you have an agenda. Make sure that you have people that you want to meet with, things that you want to do. Because with so many people and so many things going on, it’s so easy to get sidetracked. Try to make time to do the things that you feel are going to be important and schedule that stuff out.

Chip: We just want to make sure that everyone is taking time to take care of themselves. Proper self-care helps you be your best self and put your best foot forward to everybody. Whether that’s just taking a few minutes by yourself at the start of the day to meditate or making sure you keep up with your exercise routine or eating right over the course of the conference. We want to encourage everybody to look after themselves first so they can be their best self presented to others.

Jordan: Again, we’re very excited about this year’s Moments of Change, which will be taking place as planned. We can’t wait to see you there. If you have not registered, you can still sign up and get involved. To do that, visit our website at discontinued events.

David: All right. Thanks for being with us today, guys.

Jordan: Thanks so much for having us, David.

Chip: Thank you so much for having us. It’s always a pleasure.

David: This has been the Recovery Unscripted podcast. Today, we’ve heard from Dale Phillips and Duke Vinson of Bluff Plantation. For more, visit bluffplantation.com. Thank you for listening today. If you’ve enjoyed this episode, please take a second to share it and also be sure to check out our previous episodes for more great conversations about recovery. See you next time.

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