Debra Madera, LMHC, BA, MEd Mental Health Counseling
Clinical Director, Cultivate Care Farms
Four years ago, I left my previous position without having anything lined up. I was tired of the traditional model of doing the same things and getting poor results, so I began looking around for something different. I had been in the field for 14 years when I came to Cultivate, and it just felt like a really good match.
I heard an advertisement on NPR about Cultivate and I reached out to speak to the founder, Andrew Lapin. The farm had one employee at that time, and they needed clinical oversight. I started to work a couple of hours a week, supervising the employee, and I absolutely fell in love with the model. The idea of doing therapy in nature with the animals was just extremely appealing.
We were rapidly growing with more and more clients being referred to work with us each day. At this point, I had only been working for CCF for six weeks when Andrew approached me about being the Clinical Director. Needless to say, without hesitation, I eagerly accepted the new position.
After four years on the farm, I am still in love with the model. Every day I see people with significant mental and emotional challenges making progress here in a way I have never seen in a therapist’s office. Treatment at CCF can be accomplished in three months where the same goals in a traditional setting can take six months or even a year.
Being with animals is very anxiety reducing. For example, one goat can draw all your attention during the session because she is feeling lonely and isolated. A lot of our clients experience the same things as well. So, it gives clients an opportunity to project their own feelings on an animal. They can say that the animal seems like it is lonely, or sad, or depressed, instead of saying that they feel lonely or need more social connection. This really deescalates the client’s anxiety to a point where they can make progress much more quickly.
Additionally, having animals present reduces the client’s anxiety so that they can talk about things that are difficult to share. Clients can feel safe and more relaxed because it is not just that intense relationship between the client and the clinician, it is triangulated with the animal present which can take some pressure off.
The intuition of animals is remarkable. They seem to understand what clients need and they can help clients to see things through a different perspective and more clearly, which allows them to make choices about their actions that improves their lives. The clinician’s role is to provide a safe space and to support the client in the process, asking questions that can help clients to think more clearly about the situation.
Once I had a client who was going through a breakup with a boyfriend. He knew that he was in an unhealthy relationship, but he was having a very hard time trying to initiate the breakup. Together with the client, we spent time with the horses. We instructed the client to take Bubba, a really big horse, and move him from the shelter where the horse was standing. The client tried to make noises at the horse, pull on his reins, push the horse but he just could not make Bubba move. Finally, the client took the sliding door, and closed Bubba in the shelter, and left him in there for a couple of minutes.
The client expressed his frustration with being unable to get this horse to move so he decided to just close the horse off and see what happens. We responded by saying, “OK, well, do whatever you feel you need to do next”. And he went back, and opened the door, and the horse walked out. To the client it was a metaphor. He was trying a lot of little things with his boyfriend to encourage him to get out, but he just needed to take a stand. He had to make it very clear to his boyfriend that he was out of their relationship. And, within two weeks, he had a plan in place to ask his boyfriend to leave, move out and get his stuff out of the house. He said that the episode with Bubba was a turning point in treatment for him and that the breakup would not have happened without Bubba’s help, the biggest stubborn horse on the farm, who just did not want to move.
Everything that is done on the farm to keep it functioning on a daily basis is done by clients and clinicians working together. It requires our collective efforts to do a variety of different things. We have had clients helping us build fences and new habitats for animals while other clients help us clean up after and feed the animals. All of that can be part of a client session. The actual use of physical labor releases endorphins in people, makes them feel better and then it makes it easier again to talk about some tough stuff. A lot of clients find certain activities on the farm very soothing, because they are very repetitive, allowing them to be more mindful and more present in what is going on in the moment. People are so engaged in what they are doing on the farm that they forget about their phones. Generally, the only time we see phones is if the animals are doing something super cute and people want to take picture of it. Something as simple as forgetting about their phones is very telling of what we do here at Cultivate Care Farms
- Deb Madera