Horse Power

A new Equine Assisted Psychotherapy program in Ojai serves the community by helping people get over life’s hurdles.

By Maxine Hurt — Photos by Michael Robinson Chavez


f you visit Reins of H.O.P.E—an Ojai-based nonprofit specializing in Equine Assisted Psychotherapy (EAP)—you’ll find the drive to be therapeutic in its own right. The rural simplicity of the facility is prefaced by a craggy dirt road, a reminder of both the urbane convenience of pavement and the charming appeal of a rustic thoroughfare. A quick glance in the rearview mirror confirms that you are indeed off the beaten path, as trees and mountains soon become your only anchors in this semi-solitary oasis. And just when you question if there is more out there than a cloud dappled cerulean sky, a clearing reveals a rectangular horse arena, a water tank, and an earful of silence. Within this environment, Reins of H.O.P.E. will provide a healing sanctuary for at-risk youth, families, individuals, and groups. Mental health issues such a depression and substance abuse form part of the program, but the organization also plans to focus on human development concerns like learning effective communication skills and team building.

Perhaps it is social serendipity that this one-acre Shangri-la was selflessly donated to Reins of H.O.P.E. by Rob Martin, a local businessman who was captured by its vision—a vision that likely dawned when Julie Giove, the organization’s founder and executive director, first sat perched atop a horse at age four. This vision later blossomed when, as a young adult, she started riding horses every day with her best friend. “We’d ride in the mountains to get away from pre-teen life,” Giove explains. “It was a great way to stay out of trouble.”

Today, Giove is a licensed marriage and family therapist with 15 years of experience. She has been trained and certified by the Equine Assisted Growth and Learning Association, the organization that professionalized equine assisted psychotherapy and provides education and standards for the industry. She is also a therapist at The Thacher School and Ojai Valley School, two prominent boarding schools in Ojai. Giove’s goal is to combine her love of horses and therapy to alter lives for the better. “I want to nurture people on a different level and give them an opportunity for change,” she says.

Giove’s tool for fostering personal transformation is EAP, an experiential form of therapy that is fundamentally similar to rope courses, pet therapy, and expressive art therapies—all of which encourage people to learn by doing, as opposed to traditional therapies that rely on verbal communication. “Talk therapy isn’t helpful for everybody,” she explains. “Not everybody likes to talk, especially people who lack trust. This is another approach that is extremely beneficial and cost effective because it’s shorter term.”

EAP also incorporates metaphorical-type learning to help clients approach issues on a symbolic level, which can yield meaningful results. At Reins of H.O.P.E., these combined approaches will allow people to grow and heal through interaction with horses—without ever having to ride one.

Therapy that incorporates experiential and metaphorical learning makes sense to most people. But why include a horse? “What’s amazing about a horse is that it is around a thousand pounds,” says Giove. “If you are doing an activity and you get this horse to do what you want it to do, that’s an incredible sense of empowerment.” She also explains that horses have the ability to mirror humans, which can reveal a great deal about a person’s emotions, behaviors, and state of mind. Also, there are those who believe horses possess a spiritual presence, which may further strengthen the interrelatedness between man and beast.

Giove has seen firsthand how using horses in therapy sessions creates new avenues for addressing participants’ issues. She described a therapy session during which she worked with six at-risk boys from a group home who were struggling with trust and communication issues. The boys were instructed to build a small jump symbolizing a real-life goal and motivate a horse over the obstacle without talking to one another or touching, bribing, or riding the horse. What followed was a long day of observation, frustration, and enlightenment, as the boys acted out the metaphorical exercise, revealing personal issues and discovering myriad life skills they could utilize outside of the arena.

Once members of the community started hearing about Giove’s desire to help people like the boys from the group home, charitable donations and grants started coming in: The Rotary Club of Ventura, Just People, Team Transit of Oxnard, and some generous Ojai residents have all contributed. Julie’s uncle, Ed Campbell, and his company, USA Architects and Engineers, Inc., have played a supporting role as well, networking behind the scenes to help get crucial donations—such as the land deal. Giove is currently seeking donations to build an office trailer on the premises, and has been speaking with local horse owners about the use and transport of horses for therapy sessions. She plans to eventually develop the facility into a ranch offering weekend retreats and therapy workshops.

As a single mother of two, asking for help has not always been easy for Giove, but now that her dream is within reach, that is precisely what she is doing. “I know in my heart that [EAP] works,” she says. “It’s powerful, it’s innovative—it’s beautiful. I know Ojai will support it, and hopefully the rest of Ventura County will too.”


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