By Diana Pikulski
Jennifer McVoy is a Licensed Master Social Worker and the founder of Out Side In, located in Grand Haven, MI, who grew up riding and showing Arabians. Her first educational degree was in business and she began her work life in the corporate world, but, early on, she decided that it wasn’t for her and went back to school to earn her Master’s Degree in Social Work. For 15 years, she practiced traditional therapy in a public-school setting and was always aware that horses could make a difference for people in need. Just over 10 years ago, she made her first foray into equine-assisted work. The enhancement to her traditional practice was so profound that she expanded and brought in a second horse, an off-track Thoroughbred that she found in a classified ad. McVoy’s practice took off, so she purchased a 25-acre farm, has incorporated an average of 18-22 OTTBs at a time, and has become a Thoroughbred Aftercare Alliance-accredited aftercare organization.
The mission at Out Side In is threefold. The organization focuses on providing psychotherapy, a unique 12-week program for veterans, and Thoroughbred aftercare. The majority of the clients participating in psychotherapy and the veterans’ program are severe trauma victims with post-traumatic stress disorder. Many have attempted suicide or have had suicide ideation. Many clients are referred to Out Side In because they are considered treatment-resistant, meaning these women, men, teens and children have refused treatment, or that other therapies have failed for them.
“We take the hardest cases and we have success where other therapists do not,” said McVoy. “In many situations, I say just get him or her here and if need be, I bring a horse to the car.”
Out Side In employs six therapists and all have a deep background in horses. On the first visit to Out Side In, the therapist and client go into the pasture to meet the herd of Thoroughbreds. To ease the client into the treatment process, they ask questions related to the horses which bring out answers about themselves and the issues they are facing. Inevitably, one horse will be especially interested and pick that person.
“We don’t really know why one horse connects with a certain person,” said McVoy. “All it takes is that one moment when the horse comes over and chooses the client. In that bonding moment, the walls in the person just come down.”
Over its almost 10 years of operation, Out Side In has grown and become established in the community for its unique success rate, serving 150 people per week. Because they practice traditional psychotherapy, enhanced with the participation of horses, client care is often covered by insurance and Medicaid for uninsured or under-insured clients. With the help of local supporters, Out Side In grew from one pasture with a port-a-potty to a state-of-the-art facility with a more-than 20,000-square foot indoor arena, six treatment rooms, a waiting room, and 16 stalls. Thoroughbreds are the only horses helping with therapy.
“After nine years, the Thoroughbreds still amaze me every day,” said McVoy. “I will only do this work with Thoroughbreds. They are intelligent, perceptive and they love to be with people. Especially with the difficult cases we handle, there is so much to work with.”
The veterans program, Heroes for Horses, pairs three veterans at a time each with a horse, recently off the track, for 12 weeks. Together, they work through their many common experiences.
“Just like veterans, foster kids, survivors of abuse and trauma, and all people, racehorses have life experiences that shape their personalities and how they interact with others,” said McVoy. “We can watch the herd and talk about how the horses adapt to their circumstances, like being moved from one home to another and having to become part of a new herd or family.”
Often previously treatment-resistant veterans will ask to stay and volunteer to help other horses when their 12-week program has ended. One such veteran suffered from severe PTSD and had tried therapy at the VA that was not successful. He wife pressed him for three years to visit Out Side In. Finally, when she gave him an ultimatum, he agreed.
“He bonded early on with one mare, Theteflonwarrior (Killenaule), and completed the program,” said McVoy. “He lives close by and he still comes and helps early in the morning before we open. He even had a picture of the mare and our logo tattooed on his neck. He said she saved his life.”
Out Side In retrains and adopts out two to three OTTBs a year to make room for new rescues. Esla Mambo (Black Mambo), the second OTTB to enter Out Side In, came through CANTER. He ended his racing career with 38 starts and close to $50,000 in earnings at Hawthorne Race Course. He is the herd leader and the calm quiet type–often the gateway horse to ease the initial fears of new clients.
“Esla Mambo is our go-to horse when people are nervous about horses,” said McVoy. “It’s funny because he is the biggest horse but he is a gentle herd leader and we can trust him around everyone.”
“We have a wonderful therapy client who my daughter is now teaching to ride on Esla. It was always her dream to learn to ride. She is 82. She started therapy with us when she lost her husband a few years ago.”
Out Side In serves many children and teens who have been abused and are now in the foster care system.
“I just did an intake of two children who witnessed their father shoot their mother in the head,” said McVoy. “She survived and brought them to us. For them and for many others, being with the horses becomes the only good experience in their life.”
“So many kids have done nothing wrong and no good situation exists for them in their home or in being removed from their home. At Out Side In, in spite of everything, they can have an hour of happiness. I always let them sit on a horse and then a kid who has nothing good in his life to talk about can go to school the next day and say `I rode a racehorse.'”
For more information about Out Side In, visit https://www.outsideintherapy.com/