The scene at Long Shadows Farm in Cambridge, N.Y. is like something out of a painting. Valeria Buck's rescue dogs and cats frolic on grassy hills at the foot of the Adirondacks. Thoroughbreds graze overlooking a lake mirroring a nearly cloudless blue sky. It's hard to imagine feeling anything but peace here, and that's exactly what brought the former exercise rider to this place.
Overstress and career burnout are everywhere in today's society—even, Buck says, on the backs of Grade 1 horses. Even though Buck was at the top of her game in the late 1990s and early 2000s, riding horses like Rags to Riches, Fleet Indian, and Super Saver, she was getting so stressed and frustrated that the job she'd done for 28 years wasn't fun anymore. By the time she suffered major injuries from a fall in 2009, she was ready to hang up her tack after more than two decades as a gallop rider for Randy Bradshaw, Bill Mott, Richard Mandella, Todd Pletcher, and D. Wayne Lukas, among others.
Buck had always made it a personal mission to rehome her mounts from the racetrack when she could, taking in one at a time on her own dime, and working with them in her off-hours until she could find a good human match.
“It's kind of been my nature to try and figure out how to make them happy. They don't spend a lot of time out of the stall when they're at the track, so I was always looking for a way to make their time out enjoyable,” she said. “I knew the champions were safe after their career, but I worried about the safety and the future of the horses nobody wanted.”
After her retirement, Buck was struggling with her project gelding, a former claimer with trailering issues, when an assistant starter in New York suggested she should look into Pat Parelli's training methods. A lifelong horsewoman, Buck hadn't done much “natural horsemanship,” but after attending a clinic in Ocala, Fla., she was sold.
“It changed my life,” she said. “What they really drilled into us was ‘emotional fitness,'—when there's an issue you can't deal with, make it a puzzle and don't get frustrated.”
Buck found that this philosophy behind horse-human interaction renewed the way she looked at her animals, and it also helped better prepare them for life off the racetrack. It also boosted her self-confidence and her energy. It occurred to her that she could help other people benefit from non-mounted interaction with horses—and what better task for an off-track Thoroughbred looking for work?
So, she formed Aftercare Continued Thoroughbred Training (ACTT Naturally).
Buck also worked with the early developers of the Saratoga WarHorse program, which offers veterans the chance to participate in a three-day equine therapy program designed to help with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and depression. The program has expanded into a second location in Aiken, S.C., and its clinics are so full there is sometimes a waiting list to get in.
In recent years, the mental health field has become more aware of the old truism that ‘the outside of a horse is good for the inside of a man,' and it seems new equine therapy programs are springing up more regularly than ever. The Equine-Assisted Growth and Learning Association, which serves to educate and certify non-mounted therapy programs, reports on its website that there are 500 non-mounted programs in the United States for this type of therapy, and over 600 worldwide. EAGALA created a designation for its members specific to therapy for military service members in 2013.
Non-mounted therapy requires both an equine professional and a licensed mental health professional to be present as the recipient of the therapy uses the horse as a mirror for their emotions. Horses react strongly to nonverbal cues, and are naturally inclined to view a new person as either a “leader” or a “follower,” which means their willingness to adhere to simple commands like “back up” or “walk sideways” can show the newcomer what kind of first impression they're unknowingly projecting. They can also relax people and help them open up about uncomfortable emotions.
“For a lot of women, it's such a good way to build trust and build healthy boundaries. This is a conversation when you have a lead rope in your hand,” said Buck.
“When someone is in the roundpen and finally starts becoming honest with themselves about their feelings, that's when the horse turns and goes, ‘I want to be with you.' It's so funny how the horse will pick the person they want to be with.”
Buck expanded her work to focus on women dealing with everything from death or domestic violence to career burnout or empty nesting.
The horses need some basic training to ensure they're safe for workshop participants (many of whom may not have handled horses before), but they aren't asked to do much athletically, so non-mounted therapy is a good fit for many of them. After Buck puts some time and under-saddle work on them, they are adopted out and she can bring a new horse in.
Buck still carries a few elements of the track around with her every day. She's still got the incredibly-muscled arms of a good gallop rider, several press clippings, and lots of memories of the horses she rode. She also has good connections with the stables she rode for in her 28 years on the track, which has helped her reach horses in need of a new career before their situations become desperate ones. Having the right facility for them has helped, too. The owners of Long Shadows wanted a view of horses without the headaches of a boarding farm, and Buck needed a place to run her workshops. It was a perfect fit.
Buck believes ACTT Naturally is also the perfect fit for her, and she said her work has her feeling better than ever these days.
“The horses have helped me so much with my life,” she said. “I grew up with a pony and kind of grew up with no direction. My parents split up and I was kind of left on my own through my teenage years. Without the horses, I don't know where I'd be now.
“I feel so incredibly fortunate to share my passion for horses with women who are struggling.”
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