Snookie, a reddish-brown Shetland pony, pokes her head from a stall at Piping Rock Equestrian Center and looks at me quizzically. After what Tina Peek has told me about the preternatural perceptiveness of her team of eight therapy horses, I silently wonder which of my secret insecurities or emotional faults Snookie has already figured out.

Peek is the founder and equine specialist with Changing Strides, the only equine therapy outfit in Tahoe/Truckee. The therapy and learning company started last September at Piping Rock Equestrian Center under the simple premise that horses’ highly tuned senses can tell us a lot about ourselves.

“Horses are prey animals. They pick up on things because it is essential for their survival. They are always reading people’s intentions,” said Peek.

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Horses have a long and complicated history of evolution and domestication. But at their core, like their cousin the African zebra, they have evolved to detect and flee from predators. Horses have the largest eyes of any land mammal, possess 350-degree vision, and have ears that can register sounds that humans cannot detect.

At Changing Strides the horses are not ridden; they are used to signal the effects of non-verbal behavior, call attention to patterns and habits, or reveal the impact of communication styles.

“The way the horse reacts to a person gives us feedback on what is going on with that person,” said Peek. “They do a body scan in a moment and see body language.”

Changing Strides has two different offerings — equine assisted psychotherapy and equine assisted learning. Psychotherapy sessions can help with marriage problems, family issues, addiction, post- traumatic stress disorder, and mental health issues. Learning sessions are currently being held with an enrichment class from Glenshire Elementary School, but can also be used for leadership courses and team-building workshops.

Christopher Old, a licensed marriage and family therapist, works at Changing Strides as the mental health specialist during many of the sessions. Old said one of the main differences between a therapy session in an office and a therapy session with a large horse in an outdoor setting is how much faster the therapy moves.

“Things tend to come to light more quickly,” he said.

The beautiful grounds of Piping Rock Equestrian Center, set on rolling sagebrush and deep green pines near the agricultural inspection station off of Interstate 80, also holds an allure, especially for children, said Old.

“Kids are excited to come here, where I can tell you before, some kids were not excited to come to therapy,” said Old.

The Changing Strides team relies on their experience, both in therapy and with horses. Peek spent 6,000 hours getting certified by EAGALA (the leading international equine therapy association) as an equine specialist. She has worked with horses nearly all her life. Old has been a therapist for 10 years, and also runs Mountain Mental Health on High Street in Truckee.

After Peek was certified as an equine specialist, she at first wanted to work for someone else, but realized no one else offered the service in the area.

“I realized that if I wanted to do this work, I was going to have to start it myself,” said Peek.

Peek said she deeply enjoys running a company that is enriching the lives of community members.

“I feel like our customers are going to walk away as better people,” said Peek.

Back at the Shetland pony stall, Snookie seems to be acting normal, and I am mildly relieved that I have not yet been identified as neurotic by a four-legged mind-reader.

But then I remember a story that Peek had told me earlier in the day. One day, a girl with severe behavioral issues and an abusive past had come to therapy. Instead of engaging in the therapy sessions, she simply stood close to the horse’s head. She remained like that for the entire session, motionless and silent. The therapists thought the session had failed. But she came back for a second session, and when she walked into therapy, she was holding an intensely detailed picture of the horse’s head, and on each delicately drawn strand of the horse’s mane she had written the name of one of her abusers.

“Even if you don’t see a lot of stuff going on, it doesn’t mean the person is not taking something deep and emotional away from the experience,” said Peek.

Learn more about Changing Strides at changingstrides.com.

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  • David Bunker

    David Bunker almost dropped out of journalism school to hunt non-native rats on an uninhabited Pacific island. Instead, he graduated college and launched into a career of dump truck driving and ditch digging before taking up writing as a profession. He’s written for newspapers and magazines across the West and won numerous first place awards in the California and Nevada press associations.

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