By Christine Mahoney
Photos by Tony Johnson
Kathy King Johnson strides from her office near the barn wearing cowboy boots and a big smile, sporting a shock of bright purple hair. She’s the one constant in the ever-evolving world that is the Medicine Horse Program, an equine-therapy program in east Boulder. Its mission is to enhance the mental health and life skills of youth, adults, families and groups through therapeutic interaction with horses.
Even though it occupies only 10 acres, Medicine Horse may be the largest equine-assisted therapy program in the world, King Johnson believes. With 37 horses, 500 clients per year, eight licensed therapists, interns from as far away as New Zealand, and an additional thousand or so folks filtering through the farm each year for lessons and camps, Medicine Horse has a lot of moving pieces, many on four legs.
King Johnson’s love affair with horses began early. As a child growing up in Cheboygan, Mich., she started riding bareback and Western style, and then taught herself English and dressage techniques. “I’ve been fascinated by dressage since I was kicked out of the Cheboygan library for reading a book in the adult section. It was a book on dressage,” she recalls with a smile.
King Johnson, 56, calls herself the “supreme horse handler,” but she’s much more than that. As executive director of the Medicine Horse Program, she’s been overseeing day-to-day operations since 2007. Her lifetime of experience with horses, coupled with a master’s degree in education, makes her a perfect fit for the organization. But that wasn’t immediately obvious, at least not to her. When the Medicine Horse Program’s board of directors first approached her about running the place, which was struggling with finances, marketing and general direction, she turned them down.
“I said no, because I didn’t know what they did out here. They said, ‘Oh, it’s magic,’ and I said, ‘I’m sure it is,’ but I needed to understand it.” She started volunteering with the program’s Just Say Whoa group in 2006, moved into the role of chief operating officer and transitioned to executive director in 2007.
Horse Magic at Work
King Johnson has some big goals. One is to make Medicine Horse, in her words, less “airy-fairy.” “We use real therapists—horses are adjunct.” But, she jokes, “The therapists don’t have to do that much. Just let the horses do the work!” Of course, she understands the immense value that licensed two-legged therapists bring to the process, but she’s continually astonished by the transformations wrought by the horses.
“We’ve all seen some amazing things,” she says, recalling working with a young autistic client who also suffered from anxiety and mutism. He first worked with the miniature horses, eventually riding a horse called Starlight. “As Starlight started to walk, he started to talk, and he said the most amazing, brilliant things.” King Johnson is silent for a moment, remembering. “It was the most magical thing I’ve ever seen.” The boy’s mother called King Johnson to say Medicine Horse had changed their lives.
Then there was the little girl participating in Medicine Horse’s Healing with Horses group, which helps children cope with loss after the death of a loved one. “They don’t feel as alone,” says King Johnson, recalling the girl’s eventual joy at learning to ride after her father had died of a drug overdose. “She said, ‘This horse loves me for who I am. She doesn’t judge me.’”
Although not a licensed therapist herself, King Johnson is involved in the therapy groups and individual sessions, helping keep clients safe around the horses. “I always stay in one to two groups a week. I need to feel a part of them. I can’t cherish the work as much unless I’m in it,” she says. Sometimes she works with clients on sitting meditation, which, she notes, “has the same posture as riding. We work on breathing. The horses really tune into our breathing.” One client group of veterans with PTSD learned that by controlling their breathing, they could “bring themselves back” from an episode that might otherwise spiral into panic.
“Horses can sense and read body language better than anybody,” King Johnson says. “If you’re agitated, they’ll be extra calm. They want a calm herd,” and their calm can be contagious.
King Johnson rises at 6 most mornings to handle office tasks, then assists with various therapy programs and rides every day—a real privilege for a self-described “horse-crazy girl” who rode everything she could find as a child, until she saved up $125 to buy her first pony. She sometimes works through the night, transporting colicky horses to the vet. One of her sons also works on the farm, and her husband takes photos for the program’s Facebook page and website.
King Johnson receives support as well from outside the farm’s fences. You could say she’s created her own herd of Medicine Horse supporters.
“Boulder is the most fabulous community,” she says. “We couldn’t do it without the community support. I’m hoping that more people will run with the fundraising, giving me more time to work in the programs, which is my greatest challenge and my greatest joy.”
The Horse That Helped
Here’s how one young client said goodbye to Nitro as she graduated from the program.
I guess I’m supposed to write a letter to you telling about my feelings of saying goodbye and what I’ve learned. It’s really hard for me to say goodbye. I’ve done it a lot in my life and it always reminds me of the last time I saw my birth mom. I appreciate all that you’ve taught me. I loved you the minute I laid eyes on you. Some people call you stubborn or bossy or angry! I chose you because I see those things in myself too. We learned to trust each other. I can really be myself around you because I know you won’t judge me. You help me remember that I do deserve to be loved just the way I am.
How to Help
The Medicine Horse Program offers therapy on a sliding scale and never turns anyone away, so financial independence is a major goal. Medicine Horse has one primary benefit each year, and the money raised helps support the therapeutic programming, pay the therapists, feed the horses and pay the mortgage. To donate, volunteer or find out about the benefit, visit www.medicinehorse.org.
Christine Mahoney has written for Boulder Magazine for more than 10 years. A former television journalist and broadcast news instructor, she now runs the internship program at CU Boulder’s new College of Media, Communication and Information. She lives in Boulder with her husband and two children.