Rescuing Horses, Healing People: Charity Offers a Different Kind of Equine Therapy
It’s not often a charity’s founder introduces a 1,100-pound animal as a “co-founder.” But the Project Horse Empowerment Center is unique like that.
The 11-year-old nonprofit equine therapy group, which brings horses and people together for a mutual journey of healing and self-discovery, recently enjoyed a major milestone. It moved into a new, state-of-the-art, leased equine facility on a large family farm along Lincoln Road south of Purcellville. Today the center, formerly located on Berlin Turnpike, serves 250 clients a year, ranging in age from 4 to 84. But the founding of Project Horse had far more humble and unexpected beginnings.
The story of the Purcellville-based charity begins with Darcy Woessner, who grew up in southern Maryland surrounded by horses. She developed an affinity for them at a young age. After earning a graduate degree in business, followed by a thriving career in international commerce, the demands of her professional life became all-consuming. Horses faded into the background.
The dot-com bust of the early part of the millennium opened new doors for her, though. The company her husband worked for went under. Her consulting work for businesses and nonprofits came and went. Woessner said she began to seriously re-think her life. As part of that process, she started riding horses again and by 2006 she longed for one of her own.
She attended a horse auction, hoping to find an equine partner to ride and reconnect with. Instead, she ended up locking eyes with a badly maimed, starving, clearly neglected horse. She could not avert her gaze. Despite all the horse’s afflictions, which meant the mare was likely to be euthanized, Woessner could not overcome her feeling that the horse had connected with her on some mysterious level.
“I got hit by a ton of bricks, is what happened,” Woessner said, laughing. “She was telling me something, I just didn’t know what it was.” To the surprise of friends and family, she brought home a lame mare who could never again be ridden. It didn’t matter, though, as Woessner soon found herself on a mission.
Nearly a year passed before the horse, which Woessner renamed Reeses, got her strength back. Although she had once been competitive on the eventing circuit, a kind of horse triathlon, she’d been badly injured and cast aside. Woessner provided her proper nutrition, medical care, and lots of love and attention. As the horse’s physical being and spirit healed, Woessner discovered Reeses’s inherent sweetness, particularly her fondness for women and children, in addition to an extraordinary ability to connect with people of all walks.
“It finally dawned on me why I’d gotten her. I had the perfect therapy horse,” Woessner said. “Although Reeses is a no-nonsense horse, she’s also gently maternalistic. She loves other animals and is really tuned in to their energy. And her innate abilities with humans are remarkable.”
In late 2007, Woessner decided to donate the fully recovered Reeses to an equine therapy organization. Equine therapy has become a widely respected and sought-after method to treat people battling mental and physical disabilities. There are seven in Loudoun County alone, according to Woessner.
The trouble, at least for Reeses, was there are few, if any, that take horses that can’t be ridden. After nearly a year of trying to place the mare, Woessner finally decided to establish her own horse-based therapy center. In 2008, along with her inspirational muse, Reeses, she started Project Horse.
Today, Project Horse has 11 horses, many of whom were rescued from traumatic situations and neglect. To Woessner and her two dozen volunteers—a mix of licensed therapists, equine specialists, and assistants—the group’s core mission is to provide the horses healing and a renewed sense of purpose by working with people struggling with their own traumas, mental challenges, or addictions. It’s reflected in Project Horse’s tagline: “Empowering People. Rescuing Horses. Healing Both.”
Chet Hall, 81, is a testament to Project Horse’s approach.
A cancer survivor, Hall recently spent a weekend at Project Horse with friends and fellow church members. His cancer treatments were physically trying, at times causing him to feel depressed and hopeless. Even as a self-described “well-grounded” person, interacting with the Project Horse animals left Hall feeling rejuvenated.
“We started out sitting in a circle, not talking. Just meditating quietly. A horse came and stuck her head in the middle of us, letting everyone touch her. She kept going around to everyone. She clearly wanted to be with us,” he said. “It was special. Quiet and very peaceful. Spiritually and mentally, I was uplifted.”
The experience has inspired him to volunteer at an equine therapy group closer to his home in Vienna. “I think it’s great, important work and I want to help support it,” he said.
Stacy Gundrum, 55, a resident of Stevens City, has no problem driving her 14-year-old daughter 45 minutes each way to Purcellville. A therapist recommended Project Horse to build the girl’s self-esteem after she was hospitalized for self-harm. A year later, she’s a Project Horse regular, visiting twice a month for hour-long sessions. She’s bonded with every horse and has been particularly drawn to one, a mare with an abused, troubled past.
“When she comes home, she has a calmness and quiet about her that we’d never seen before. And she’s always eager to share with us her experiences there,” Gundrum said. “It’s been a huge boost for her confidence and ability to self-regulate.”
Her daughter also draws strength knowing the center’s rescue horses are benefitting from her interaction with them. She says the mutually beneficial relationships have given her daughter a strong sense of personal empowerment.
This is no surprise to Woessner, who says the organization’s goals are to help clients “build self-esteem, develop and improve interpersonal relationship skills and promote emotional healing.” The project relies on referrals from mental health professionals, psychiatrists, Loudoun County social services, schools, word of mouth, and other clients’ families.
The group has also helped horses in need. In addition to the 11 rescue horses who reside at Project Horse’s farm, it has rescued, treated and released 29 horses to new and supportive homes.
On a recent evening, Woessner looked out over the organization’s new space and reminisced about how naïve she’d once been about sending Reeses to another equine therapy program. As the mare and the other horses slowly worked their way in from the pastures to the barn for their evening meal, Woessner added, “Not Reeses, though. She knew exactly what she was doing. She brought us right where we need to be.”