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Family retreat about discovery, fun

Published: 02:38PM September 22nd, 2011

Last weekend near Fall City, Wash., a group of women stood in an arena full of horses and surrounded by props — poles and platforms and giant plastic balls. This wasn’t a horse show or some sort of circus act. In fact, the women were learning to work through military deployment issues, particularly dealing with those that come up when spouses come home.

“The weekend really is about learning, discovery and fun,” said Jim Hutchins, co-founder of the Northwest Natural Horsemanship Center and organizer of the first-ever Warrior Family Retreat.

The three-day retreat brought eight Army and Navy Families together at the center for quality time with a spin. The idea is to help Families reconnect after a servicemember redeploys, using horses to help them bond and open up about issues specific to military Families.

“They start discovering things about themselves, about their relationships,” Hutchins said.

The program uses equine assisted psychotherapy techniques and certified, volunteer therapists to teach techniques and coping mechanisms — and it’s completely free for Families from any branch of the service, whether they are active duty, Reserve, National Guard or even recently discharged.

Everything, including meals and hotel rooms, is provided by donation or through NWNHC Family Fund.

“It’s a community effort,” Hutchins said. “It’s a community thank you to all the Families.”

Hutchins, who got the idea for the retreat after working with the Warrior Transition Battalion on Joint Base Lewis-McChord, puts specific emphasis on every member of the Family. Spouses get time alone to talk with other spouses while servicemembers get one-on-one time with their kids and vice-versa.

For times when spouses work with each other, on-site, certified day care services are provided for the kids. The weekend ends with a session about continuing the lessons after participants have left, and pointing them in the direction of resources they can use in the future.

Hutchins started the Northwest Horsemanship Center in order to teach people to work with horses through strong communication instead of aggression. He’s found the same approaches can apply to human beings — and just as important, he feels that working with horses can be a lot easier than working with a therapist alone. Doing something active can bring up issues or emotions that are hard to put your finger on in a sterile office setting. It can also show you things about yourself you never knew.

“You cannot lie to a horse, and the horses are your mirror,” he said.

If participants standing in the arena let horses push them around, it might carry over in their lives outside of the arena. Similarly, having spouses guide horses through an obstacle course together — but without being allowed to talk — can help teach teamwork and communication skills.

“They learn by doing, instead of us telling them what to do,” volunteer equine assisted therapy specialist Samantha Lange said.

In this case, the particular challenges of military life, including coming back together after long separations, are a primary focus.

Participants also get a chance to talk about their feelings and experiences in a low-pressure environment with people who get it. Though the weekend is for military Families, none of the therapists or volunteers are military personnel, allowing people to talk as freely as they choose.

“The things that are present within you are the things that come up,” Jana Sopher, an individual and relational counselor, said.

In the end, all the lessons have applications in the outside world.

For Jennifer Barnes, a Navy spouse, learning the four different levels of force for moving a horse were instructive in dealing with her kids.

“When (my husband) was gone things were a little stressful, so I didn’t go step one, step two, step three, step four,” she said. “I just went straight to four.” She also appreciated the chance to get a few hours each day when she didn’t have to worry about her kids or make arrangements for someone to take care of them. She could go to sessions with her husband or with other spouses and know they were nearby and in good hands.

“We haven’t had that in a very long time,” Barnes said.

For Staff Sgt. Sandra Prouty-Lemley, an active-duty Soldier with the Warrior Transition Battalion and single mom, the retreat was a chance to see her kids in a new light. Because her two children, Doug Lemley, 15, and Andrea Lemley, 17, were older than most, they got more time to work with the horses and participated in the communication challenges with the other adults. Neither had ever worked with horses, but they took the challenges head-on and ended up doing a fantastic job. “I was very proud,” Prouty-Lemley said.

“I think the biggest thing I’ve learned here is that, as long as we do it together, verbally or nonverbally, without aggression we can do anything,” she said.

To learn more

The Northwest Natural Horsemanship Center Warrior Family Retreat is open to Families in any branch of the service, including active duty, Reserve, National Guard and recently discharged personnel.

Single parents, life partners and any number of kids are all welcome. For more information, and to register for information on future sessions, visit or contact Lisa Crowell at the Soldier and Family Assistance Center.

The retreat is completely free for servicemembers and entirely supported by donations. If you would like to contribute, go to or visit any branch of Columbia Bank.