Healing Horsepower

Harnessing the power of equine-assisted therapy, three inspiring women open Stable Ground Wellness in Duxbury.

By Jennifer H. McInerney, Photography by Jack Foley

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Though Tupelo Hollow Farm in Duxbury has been in existence for four centuries, the 30-acre property has recently become a haven for people seeking creative solutions to their mental health concerns. Visitors to this peaceful, secluded setting are often welcomed by the bleating of a goat or the neighing of a horse—ambassadors of the newly opened Stable Ground Wellness.

Under the direction of Lisa Doubleday, a licensed drug and alcohol counselor, Colleen Duggan-Cuomo, a certified yoga instructor, and Elizabeth Belcher, a licensed clinical social worker, Stable Ground Wellness harnesses the healing benefits of working with animals in conjunction with traditional therapies. 

“During the pandemic, there was a noticeable uptick in anxiety levels among all of our clients,” says Belcher. “We wanted to do whatever we could to help them and we’re all interested in offering integrated approaches, such as yoga and Equine Facilitated Psychotherapy.” 

As the name suggests, Equine Facilitated Psychotherapy (EFP) incorporates one-on-one interactions with horses into guided therapy sessions (but no riding). Known to lower blood pressure and alleviate mental health issues, EFP involves specific therapeutic activities, processing and discussion of behaviors and patterns, and working toward individual treatment goals. In addition to experiencing a horse’s grounding presence, which can be beneficial in itself, clients form a trusting bond with the horse they’re working with. 

EFP can help people overcome their fears, reduce anxiety and depression, and build confidence and self-esteem. This type of therapy can also address a range of behavioral issues and disorders, including attention deficit disorder, anger management, post-traumatic stress disorder, eating and substance abuse disorders, and many more. 

For Doubleday, Duggan-Cuomo and Belcher, the addition of animal assistants to their counseling and mindfulness practices has infinitely expanded their reach: they’re now able to help even more people across a broad range of ages and ailments. At Stable Ground Wellness, sessions extend from the therapy office out into the barn, where clients are invited to meet the horses and goats in residence, and form a connection with the animals. Their therapy may include experiences and tasks they’ve never before undertaken, such as getting into a stall with a horse or a goat, brushing a horse, feeding a goat, observing and commenting on the animals’ tentative or uneasy behavior, and taking the focus off their own challenges.

For people who are struggling with mental health issues, even seemingly mundane activities can yield significant gains. 

“For kids with sensory processing issues, and ADD and ADHD, patting a horse over and over in the same spot can help them focus,” says Belcher. “Moving their hand in a swoop of the whole horse’s body can help them move out of the feeling of being stuck.”

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Adults who grapple with anxiety are often helped by quiet, mindful exchanges—also known as mirroring—with horses.

“For someone who feels their anxiety in their chest, such as a hammering heart or tension when they try to take a deep breath, they can put one hand on their own heart and reach out to put their other hand on the horse’s chest and feel the breath of the horse, which helps to calm them and center them,” Belcher continues. 

As another example, working with horses can help people who have suffered trauma or been in abusive relationships to develop trust and establish boundaries. “If you can tell a 1,200-pound horse to back off, that’s really helpful in the real world,” says Doubleday. 

When clients come to the farm for their intake appointment, one of the questions they’re asked is which of the animals they would like to work with. Younger people are particularly drawn to the four goats. The animals’ comical behavior and sometimes mischievous antics make the herd approachable and easy to relate to, especially for adolescents who may be unable to clearly express their feelings. Together, therapist and client observe and contemplate the behaviors of the goats and discuss and develop strategies for how the goats might calm themselves down.

“Getting to know the goats and their personalities helps clients open up and verbalize their anxiety in ways they couldn’t otherwise,” says Doubleday. 

For all who come to Stable Ground Wellness, just visiting the farm serves as a salve. A young girl whose parent is terminally ill recently enjoyed the comforting company of the herd and the serenity of her surroundings, an experience she described as “being on Cloud 9.”

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A History of
Healing with Horses

Doubleday has firsthand knowledge of the restorative power of EFP. At the age of 14, she suffered a traumatic fall from a friend’s horse. She’d been riding rapidly through a field and didn’t realize her whereabouts until emerging onto a road and nearly colliding with a car. Although neither she nor the horse were physically injured, Doubleday could not ride a horse again for more than two decades. “I blamed myself for the accident and for not taking better care of the horse I was riding,” she says. “I was afraid to ride again, and that fear took over many aspects of my life.”

After a friend gave her a copy of “The Horse Whisperer,” a novel inspired by real-life healers of horses, Doubleday decided to spend two weeks at Hargrave Ranch in Montana working with horses to overcome her guilt and fear—an experience that got her back in the saddle and ultimately changed her life. Two years later, at the age of 40, she bought a 3-year-old horse named Premo, whom she credits with helping her recover. 

In 2014, she became certified in Equine-Facilitated Psychotherapy. “It helped me heal, and I knew it would help others.”

 Similarly, her two business partners have also experienced the therapeutic benefits from being around horses throughout their lives. 

For Duggan-Cuomo, a lifelong equestrian and a certified riding instructor, horses have helped her to face personal challenges and losses.

 “My horse and my yoga practice kept me grounded, helped to relieve stress, gave me hope, and returned me to my true nature—happy and healthy in body, mind and spirit,” says Duggan-Cuomo. An advanced certified yoga, meditation and breath work instructor, she works with clients of all ages and specializes in helping women navigate changes and challenges through midlife and beyond. She offers yoga and mindfulness programs with horses and goats at Stable Ground Wellness.

Horses have been a mainstay in Belcher’s life since she was 2 years old. 

“Whether riding them, caring for them, or just being around them, horses have given me such confidence and allowed me to be my truest self,” says Belcher. As a therapist, she continues to appreciate their capacity for healing—including at a pivotal moment in her own life. The day before a critical surgery, when she was feeling overwhelmed by stress, she visited her horse, Magic. As Belcher shed tears, the horse moved closer and curled his neck into hers, resting his face next to hers in a gesture of reassurance. “My horse hugged me that day, in my moment of fear, and I will forever hold that feeling and that picture in my mind.

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Hanging Out with the Herd

With the opening of Stable Ground Wellness, the three women have developed a business model unlike any other on the South Shore. As a natural extension of their love of horses and their shared professional aspirations, they sought to create a partnership that would fulfill their mutual vision of delivering improved mental health and wellness services under one roof—a barn roof. 

Tupelo Hollow Farm is one of the oldest farms in North America that remains under the ownership of the original family. Its initial owner, Phillip Delano, arrived in Plymouth Colony in 1621 aboard The Fortune, and received the farmland as a grant from the King of England. 

Doubleday, who has lived at Tupelo Hollow for 15 years, welcomed the opportunity to expand the farmstead beyond its function as a 400-bush blueberry farm. Her husband, Orie Fontaine, a talented craftsman, built the barn to include a therapy office as well as two horse stalls and a goat stall. 

Duggan-Cuomo moved to the farm two years ago with her 19-year-old horse, Bentley. Her horse joined Doubleday’s horse, Premo, who is now 21, and the two have become best friends. Both horses are now retired from riding and have happily taken on their new roles as therapy horses. 

“Horses want to have a purpose,” says Doubleday. “Our horses are friendly and enjoy working with the clients who come to the farm.” 

Of smaller stature yet plentiful personality is Nugget, a three-year-old miniature horse who stands about eight hands (32 inches) high. A rescue horse from North Carolina, Nugget moved to Tupelo Hollow Farm in the spring and has quickly become a treasured addition to the Stable Ground Wellness community.

“When Nugget first arrived, she was skittish and afraid, seeking comfort,” recalls Belcher. “Clients who were experiencing feelings of insecurity were really drawn to her, and they’ve grown in confidence as she has.”

Rounding out the herd are four curious and gregarious goats: Henrietta, the Duke, Cody, and Jackson. Henrietta and the Duke are both 3 years old. She captivates visitors with her crooked smile, while he plays the clown. Four-year-old Cody and Jackson are twins, distinguishable by Cody’s beard. Both animals are lovable, but Cody tends to be more reserved, while Jackson “will follow you anywhere.”

Over the summer, Duggan-Cuomo hosted a mindfulness camp for nine children between the ages of 6 and 11. “When the kids were in the herd with the goats, that was the highlight of the day,” she says. “For some of our clients, their visit to the farm is the first time they’ve been happy in weeks.” For Doubleday, Duggan-Cuomo and Belcher, the addition of these animal assistants at Tupelo Hollow has truly and considerably enriched their clients’ well-being.

For more information on Stable Ground Wellness, visit stablegroundwellness.com.

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