Come With A Goal. Come With Curiosity. Come To Be. — Willow Equine

Last Updated 3/8/2024In Inspring Iredell

Feature photo by Toni Lovejoy

By Kristie Darling

Healing from the heart. It’s a powerful idea, but how many of us truly experience this? The issues and challenges faced throughout our lives are brushed off, medicated, or offered up to talk therapy. Unfortunately, many find these methods miss the mark. “Here, our time with each client literally starts with the heart of the matter,” said Katie Stankiewicz, founder of Willow Equine, “by having a conversation about what is on their heart…today. It’s hard to put into words the magic that happens here, but we see transformation, growth, and peace of mind unfold every day. The ground-based therapy we offer involves a licensed mental health professional, a certified equine specialist…and always, the horses.”

Katie's Story

“I moved to Mooresville 19 years-ago to work in auto racing. I was a shock and spring specialist,” Katie shared. “My life was thrilling and hectic, with lots of travel, lots of stress. In 2011, my uncle was killed in a hunting accident, and life changed. It would turn out to be the pivotal moment when I started living life by following my passion and having a larger purpose. I’ve loved horses since I was a little girl, and during that difficult time, being with the horses calmed me, put me at ease. I knew I needed to bring this powerful healing to other people.”

“The horses had always helped me during hard times, and I trusted them. In 2009, I was introduced to mental health with horses. I was astonished to learn that someone had put guidelines, best practices, and an ethical model to working with horses, on the ground, in therapy for trauma, depression, autism, behavioral challenges…pretty much for any personal issue you might try to resolve in a counselor’s office. When I started, I wasn’t totally sure what my equine assisted therapy program would look like, but I knew this was the work I was meant to do.”

With her heart and mind set to create an equine assisted therapy program in Mooresville, Katie knew her years with horses qualified her as an equine specialist, all she needed were passionate mental health professionals. Finding the “right” partner is no small task! “I can work with any North Carolina licensed therapist, and yet there must be chemistry, respect, and common goals. Today, Willow Equine has five professional counselors, with varying specialties, who help our clients through trauma, grief, relationship problems, transitions, self-harm, and other issues keeping them from living their best life,” Katie explained. “We are here Monday through Friday, no matter the weather, working with individuals, families, groups, veterans…and of course, the horses. This isn’t another pill, traditional talk session, or an easy answer. Clients must commit to doing the hard work. The power that comes through these horses and being in nature is mind-blowing.”

Mental Health With Horses

When you enter an Equine Assisted Psychotherapy (EAP) program, you’ll work with a counselor, an equine specialist, and…horses. With your individual goals as the focus, your sessions depend on you, where you are at…what do you need today? “The horses know what you need even if you may not. You don’t have to know how to ride a horse or have any horse experience,” Katie explained. “You don’t even have to like horses. We give our participants time and choices so they can work independently or collaboratively with the horses. At any point, you can reflect on your experience with our team to gain even more perspective.”

Building Teams…Building Leaders

Specially designed programs with horses can help facilitate building teams and leaders. In both instances, people want to work at their optimum capacity. This unique equine work is effective for people who are stuck, not working up to their potential, or who want to develop impactful leadership skills in themselves or their team. “When people are here on the farm, facilitated experiences help them see patterns, metaphors, and themes in their lives. Clients begin to realize their potential and the impact they have in their world. They develop confidence,” Katie said.

Soul To Soles Connection provides opportunities for service members and their families to discover their resources and strengths. “As participants overcome what they perceive as obstacles to change and growth in their unit, communities, and homes, they challenge themselves through activities that remove any stigma they may associate with traditional talk therapy,” Katie explained. “We call is Stomping the Stigma, and it works.”

Any active-duty military personnel, veteran, military family member, and caregiver is welcome to join Soul to Soles Connection, the nonprofit organization Katie founded in 2020. Their mission is to help service members and extended families heal from the impact of trauma. “In our work with the military, we’re dedicated to their mental health. We strive to never turn away anyone who has the courage to ask for help. All sessions are at no cost at Soul to Soles. We rely on the support of donors, partners, and grants.” she shared. “These programs are aligned with the mental health needs of our military community. We bring that unique understanding as we partner with our horses, in a peaceful, natural environment. On the farm, healing can transpire—solutions are created. People do this work on their own terms, at their own comfort level. The symptoms of PTSD, displaced anger, traumatic brain injury, trauma from military sexual abuse diminish. Compassion, trust, and peace are renewed.”

A Worldwide Standard of Care

The experiential framework, the relationships with horses, and being on the farm, create a safe place for people to discover, learn, and grow. It is proven to be the most powerful approach to helping clients achieve and sustain personal and professional growth. “Our facilitators are highly experienced and certified professionals, with a deep passion for this work. Our horses are their authentic selves, allowed to be present in the moment. I couldn’t do this without them and our barn owners…they are very special people.”

Individuals, families, teams of any size—from high school students to senior citizens—have an opportunity to experience the tranquility of the farm and the 16 amazing horses (plus a few llamas!) in a non-judgmental, natural way. “We’ve had participants tell us that just one equine session was so powerful that they were helped more than after years of traditional talk therapy,” Katie shared. “We always give our clients choice and support, so they can decide where they need to be. ‘Where do you want to be today?’ I asked one little girl. ‘Who do you want to be with?’ She looked at me funny and said, ‘No one has ever asked me that before.’ We gave her options and wanted to hear her ideas. She found her voice that she didn’t have at home. The horses know that we each have the answers…in the gentlest way, they help people rediscover the healthiest versions of themselves.”



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