14For individuals suffering from trauma, a mental or behavioral health disorder or stress-related conditions, Heather Wilkerson of Parkton brings help on four legs.
The licensed clinical social worker and passionate horsewoman is the founder and president of Hope-thru-Horses, Inc., a 501(c)3 non-profit with the mission to "Share the Healing Power of Horses and Transformative Coaching with the World."
Wilkerson opened Hope-thru-Horses in 2006 to help military members cope with service-related issues but soon expanded her reach to assist children, adolescents and civilian adults.
The therapy teams at Hope-thru-Horses, Inc. use equine-assisted psychotherapy and play therapy to treat sexual trauma, depression, anger management, PTSD, grief, ADHD, anxiety, behavior disorders and other mental or relationship issues.
"We help people solve problems and relationship difficulties using horses," Wilkerson said.
She is a former military spouse who moved to the Cape Fear region with her husband, Chris. Now retired from the Army after 22 years of service, Wilkerson's spouse was the "Texas cowboy" who bought her first horse. Originally from the Washington, D.C. area, Wilkerson was a Johnny-come-lately to the horse world when she launched Hope-thru-Horses in Lumber Bridge.
When the once city girl, a credentialed public welfare professional with a Master of Social Work and advanced Equine Assisted Growth and Learning Association certification, took hold of the reins, she never looked back. Wilkerson moved Hope-thru-Horses to its current 29-acre location, 1860 Armory Road in Parkton, in 2018.
"We really enjoy having clients come to our farm as a way for them to get away, leave the city, leave their problems behind and focus on their relationship with a horse. Then they can practice the skills they learned at home," she said.
Takeaways are improved self-esteem, respect, confidence, social skills, communication skills and a "toolbox" of ways to build healthy relationships, personal awareness and reasonable boundaries.
The Robeson County woman and her staff integrate animals — a menagerie of horses, llamas, donkeys, a miniature mule, dogs, potbellied pigs and parrots— art, sand and various play methods in therapy sessions to assist clients. While Hope-thru-Horses does not offer riding lessons or therapeutic riding, the staff lead clients through experiential activities with their farm animals to help individuals learn the importance of trust, communication, problem-solving and assertiveness.
According to the facility's website, www.hope-thru-horses.com/, equine-assisted therapy is "a team approach that consists of a mental health professional, a horse professional and a horse or horses. The team helps an individual or group learn about themselves and others by participating in activities with the horses.
"The team processes each individual's experience by relating it to their everyday life and service goals. The methodology encompasses the mind, body, and spirit, linking behavior to the mind."
With a deep understanding of military culture and life, Hope-thru-Horses employs the Eagala program to work with military-affiliated clients. Representing a global network of professionals who collaborate and support each other, Eagala is a pioneer of professional standards in the horses for mental health therapy and treatment model. Providing service to active-duty members or veterans, Hope-thru-Horses, Inc. offers eight free sessions for individuals or couples.
Wilkerson also strives to help children and youth who have experienced sexual trauma and other very difficult circumstances. Her work led her to create an interactive workbook entitled "My Very BRAVE Story," a great resource available through Hope-thru-Horses.
Of this success of such programming, Crystal Bennett of the Cumberland County Guardian ad Litem program wrote, "This specialized approach has been effective for many children when traditional outpatient therapy and other interventions have failed to engage them in the therapeutic process."
Hope-thru-Horses other services include Women's Leadership Retreats, designed for small groups of women in caregiving fields, and Organizational Team Building for businesses and organizations to showcase and develop leadership talents and abilities.
Why horses, you may ask? According to https://hthi.us/our-therapies/counseling-psychotherapy/equine-assisted-psychotherapy, "When you learn to trust a large, powerful animal, you experience emotional security and physical safety. Because you experience it, instead of talking about what it might feel like, you can identify that safety and security in your everyday life outside the arena." Learn more at https://hthi.us/.

(Photo: The horses on Heather Wilkerson's farm in Parkton are part of an equine therapy program to help those with PTSD, ADHD, grief, anxiety, depression and other issues. Photo courtesy of Hope Thru Horses Facebook page)

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