Little girls often dream of a knight in shining armor who will ride up on a big, white horse to sweep them off to a fairytale life.
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But sometimes, as the years pass, the silver armor becomes tarnished with unthinkable abuse as the true colors of their once-beloved come through — and all that’s left is the horse.
But that’s OK.
Women who are victims of domestic violence have found an innovative program in El Dorado County that uses beautiful horses — often themselves rescued from abusive situations — to restore their dream of finding happiness.
Tucked into a small ranch in the Greenstone community just outside Placerville, Dr. Larry Beutler, former chair of the Ph.D. programs at Palo Alto University’s Pacific Graduate School of Psychology, has set up a haven of healing where women are welcomed to work with Beutler’s animals.
Beutler has signed on as a consultant with the Center for Violence-free Relationships (formerly the El Dorado Women’s Center) to make the opportunity available to those who have suffered from domestic violence, including physical abuse as well as psychological, sexual and emotional trauma.
Judging from the assured manner in which one woman, Teresa Thayer of Shingle Springs, worked effortlessly to entice a big paint named Jasmine to follow her lead around a dusty arena at the ranch, the therapy is working wonders.
A smile lighting her face as she turned the reins over to Beutler, Thayer said she herself is astonished at the progress she has made working with the horses, a process she began participating in last October, at the program’s inception.
“I come out once a week and with the guidance of these three, it has been wonderful,” said the 48-year-old mother of five.
The members of the trio she praised are Beutler, 72; his wife Jamie, 67; and Samarea Lenore, a 37-year-old doctoral student under Larry Beutler’s tutelage.
“This is where I met my fears,” continued Thayer, laughing as a dark bay horse named Phoenix decided to plop down and roll around in a powdery corral just as the Mountain Democrat prepared to shoot photos of the lovely horse.
“After my abusive situation, I found that I couldn’t trust anyone, that all my tools for life were broken. Working with the horses, I learned that I could face any crisis, in a healthy, responsible way,” Thayer said.
“If you can get a thousand-pound animal to respond to your non-verbal language and do something as simple as to trot — it’s all about learning that if something isn’t working, then stop and take a closer look. Change your behavior to something that works,” she said.
This from a woman who up until a year ago was frightened to walk into a courtroom to face the man with whom she shared her life for a decade.
With Thayer, it didn’t take years for the abuse to surface. The man she had met in her church, the “soft-spoken, sweet, shy guy” she had known for seven years but only dated for a month before he proposed, showed a far different side within days of their marriage, she said.
“I recall thinking he would always love me and be the kind, gentle man I had known in my congregation and surely he would love my precious children, too,” said Thayer, brushing a strand of long, dark hair from her brow. “I was wrong.”
She had come to the marriage with her own three small children, she explained, and within a week of reciting their vows, her husband destroyed a curio cabinet containing precious items made by her kids along with priceless memorabilia given to her by her parents and others.
That was just the beginning of years of unpredictable, painful treatment at the hands of the man she thought she loved.
Thayer said she was determined to make the marriage work since she already had divorced once and still greatly valued the institute of marriage. Despite her efforts to be the perfect wife, with a spotless home and attention to all the Biblical principles involved in marriage, the situation grew ever worse.
“The same scenes would play over and over again — until I became the object he would throw down, spit on, kick. I was told repeatedly that I was worthless, ugly and stupid.”
Thayer, like many women, kept the abuse secret from the world, particularly from the members of her congregation.
“I kept this a secret for the first few years, until one day I couldn’t take it anymore. I approached my congregation elders and shared with them my ‘secret.’ I was told the abuse was not severe enough to end a marriage vow and that it was against Biblical principles to leave him.
“I was encouraged to be a ‘better wife’ and to be thankful he was providing for me and my children,” she said.
She tried … and tried … but after five more years of ever-increasing violence, and despite the birth of their two children together, Thayer had reached a breaking point.
“I actually had three children with my abuser. Both my sons were born two months early because of extreme stress and with much gut-wrenching heartache my last child died,” she said.
“As the days turned into empty years, I became more isolated, confused and helpless,” she said.
Her husband would explain to her in detail how he could kill her, she said, and make the murder appear as an accident. Nearly her entire focus at this point, she added, was in reading his every mood and staying alive.
Thayer said she thought she could hide the abuse and its effects from her now five children, but eventually the day came when she realized the first and foremost reason she needed to end the marriage was for the sake of the kids.
“He had put my 15-year-old daughter in grave danger, and the light in my head switched,” Thayer recalled. “It’s one thing to choose this kind of hell for oneself, but it’s quite another to choose it for your children.
“I knew if I stayed he would kill us all,” she said.
The divorce was extremely painful, Thayer conceded, with the judicial system proving to be a process that left her feeling misunderstood and shabbily treated.
“The treatment that protective mothers often receive at the hands of the family courts is among the most shameful secrets of modern jurisprudence,” she said.
Her frustrations stemmed largely from her attempts to keep her children from contact with her former husband, whom she considers dangerous to their well-being.
That situation came to a head, she said, when in January of 2010 during a custody exchange at the children’s elementary school, her ex struck her in the mouth, dislocating her two front teeth and shoving her to the ground. The violence occurred as the children watched.
That’s when Thayer decided to contact the Center. That’s when she decided to take back her life.
“I have learned some very valuable things from the Center and Equine Therapy under Dr. Beutler and Jamie,” said Thayer. “One of the most important lessons is that fear controls behavior. I also learned that I do not have any responsibility for my abuser’s actions — only my own.”
Teresa Thayer added that the Center’s staff has taught her to take control of her life, and to handle the world one day at a time.
“I have come to know other women like myself who have similar lives and stories, and these are some of the strongest ladies I’ve ever known,” she said.
“I entered Equine Therapy in 2012 and I can honestly say it has changed my life.
“Horses teach us about leadership, patience and consistency. With ‘my’ horse, Jasmine, I have found my best friend. She is strong, powerful and smart. Working with her under the direction of Larry and Jamie has given me confidence in facing my fears and rebuilding broken self-esteem. I have gone from ‘I can’t’ to ‘Yes, I can!’”
The Beutlers are the grateful owners of the 5-acre ranch in Greenstone that they have dubbed “For Horses Ranch,” and they emphasized that many of the animals have been rescued from abusive situations themselves.
A good candidate for the Equine Therapy program, Larry said, would be a woman who is physically capable of working with the horses and who is exhibiting symptoms of domestic abuse.
“If they are suffering from depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder — and they have to want the help,” he said. “They need to commit to a 10-week program and they need to have a little fear of horses that we will help them overcome.”
Larry explained that the Center’s capable staff screens the candidates initially, then once they are accepted, the therapy begins.
“We give them tasks to perform with the horses, with the emphasis on principles they will learn that will translate into how they deal with life,” he said.
Larry said horses do not respond well to a dominating personality, and that participants learn that non-verbal communication, with an emphasis on cooperation, is key.
“A horse doesn’t care how much you know until he knows how much you care,” he said. “Our clients learn how to make the wrong thing (behavior) hard and the right thing easy.”
For more information about the Equine Therapy program call the Center at 530-626-1450 or visit thecenternow.org.