Gateway HorseWorks’ founder Kristen de Marco at Thorncroft Equestrian Center//Photos by Tessa Marie Images
A horse nipping at someone’s jacket sleeve isn’t normally a big deal. Kristen de Marco, however, saw it as an opportunity for a therapeutic exercise. “How do you get him to stop?” she asked the patient standing with her in the enclosed arena at Thorncroft Equestrian Center in Malvern.
The patient didn’t know, so de Marco demonstrated. She held up her hand, turning it into a stop sign, then said, “No,” in a firm but calm voice. Hand raised, de Marco slowly but assertively walked toward the horse, who retreated as she approached. Not offended in the least, the horse wandered off and found something else to occupy its attention.
It was a transformative experience for the patient, a 16-year-old survivor of sexual abuse. “She said, ‘Why are you doing that? He’s not going to like you; he’s going to be upset,’” de Marco recalls. “I said, ‘You have to understand that I have a wonderful relationship with the horse because I have strong boundaries with him. He knows what I will accept and what I won’t accept.’ I gave her permission to set those boundaries and practice them with the horse so she can do the same with people.”
This is just one example from the sessions de Marco conducts at Thorncroft through Gateway HorseWorks, a nonprofit organization she formed in 2015 to bring equine-assisted therapy to the Main Line area. It’s an offshoot of WorkHorse, the corporate team-building company de Marco started in 2012. Now that she founded the nonprofit branch, she can participate in evidence-based research and partner with government organizations to bring equine-assisted psychotherapy to underserved populations.
The Villanova University alum recently created an alliance with the Chester County department of juvenile probation, and plans are to launch a program for girls in its system. “There’s a lack of behavioral health programs for girls who are juvenile offenders,” de Marco says. “For them to come to Thorncroft and do therapeutic work with the horses would be a tremendous opportunity.”
De Marco’s efforts are based on the EAGALA model, which combines cognitive behavioral therapy, Gestalt and other disciplines. She’s an EAGALA-certified equine specialist, which required intensive training and 6,000 hours of documented horse experience. All of her sessions take place at Thorncroft, which has been providing therapeutic equestrian programs for 40 years.
But those are all riding sessions. All work for EAGALA—short for the Equine Assisted Growth and Learning Association—is done unmounted. Sessions are conducted by de Marco and a mental-health professional. “EAGALA is meant to complement traditional talk therapy, not replace it,” de Marco says.
De Marco helps kids as young as 5, but the majority of her patients are adolescents suffering from anxiety, depression, sexual abuse, eating disorders, PTSD or some combination of these. Most patients don’t have any experience with horses—and that can produce a good amount of fear, which de Marco turns into a tool. “Overcoming fears is important, even the ones that seem enormous,” she says. “Depression, for example, can feel insurmountable. So I say, ‘Let’s start with the horse.’”
Few things seem as insurmount-able as autism. De Marco works with a 12-year-old autistic boy who, when faced with disorganization, becomes agitated, even violent. When de Marco brought the patient into the arena, the horse had kicked over its water bucket and scattered hay, and there were the requisite piles of poop.
De Marco didn’t allow the patient to clean the space. “Our conversation was about being OK with things not being OK, and dealing with that anxiety,” she says. “It was about not getting frustrated with yourself or the horses.”
De Marco asked a teenager with PTSD to walk up and down the arena alongside a horse. The girl said the horse wasn’t just walking, it was pacing—doing so because it felt anxious. “That’s what I do when I feel that way,” she said. “I pace.”
The girl kept trying to walk with the horse but couldn’t keep up. “She tried five times,” says de Marco. “At the end, I said, ‘You have the ability to control your frustration and anger. You just did it for a whole hour.’ “She said, ‘Wow. I did.’ It was a great moment.”
Like other forms of pet therapy, EAGALA is mostly about patients’ relationships with themselves. “We believe the clients have the answers to the questions they seek,” de Marco says. “They just need the opportunity to find them.”