When Karin Yapalater looks deep into the dark brown eyes of her horse Socrates, she sees so much more than a 1,200-pound animal staring back at her. She sees where she’s been, versus where she is now. She sees answers to all her questions, and she is given the opportunity to reconnect with her family.
“When I’m quietly seeking the truth, I turn to Socs,” the 59-year-old Bridgehampton resident said. “I know that he’ll never let me down and he will always tell the truth about what a person is needing.”
That much has been true not only for Ms. Yapalater but for her clients at the Green School in Sagaponack. In 2015, Socs came to the Green School, which for the past four years has been the home to Ms. Yapalater’s Present Tense Awareness Equine Assisted Learning Program.
Therapy can take many forms. In this case, that form is a horse. Ms. Yapalater’s program offered at the Green School uses horses as therapy for children, adults and families looking to better connect to themselves, as well as others.
Ms. Yapalater explained that each session is private and confidential. Each individual enters the paddock and observes the horses, studying their movements, and chooses a horse, which they get to name. It’s just about spending time with the horses to help people overcome stress, fears and obstacles in a safe and non-judgmental environment, she said, adding, “This is a really magical place.”
Over the years, Socs has helped transform the lives of dozens of East End families, both adults and children, “awakening one person at a time,” Ms. Yapalater said. She stroked her hand along Socs’s neck and kissed his forehead. Leaning against her faithful companion, the wind blew strands of her dirty blonde hair from underneath her hat, as the two of them closed their eyes and sighed together.
The PTA curriculum—developed by Ms. Yapalater and her husband, Greg Yapalater—is the experience of interactions between humans and horses. She said it focuses on the difference between reaction and response.
Ms. Yapalater explained that reaction is immediate, triggered by one’s senses or emotions, whereas response is the action of taking a step back and evaluating the situation.
“We can, as humans, make a choice. Rather than get triggered by our emotions, we can become aware of those emotions and take a step back. We can gain clarity. We can become more responsive, more than reactive,” Ms. Yapalater said. “Twelve hundred-pound animals have a way of forcing you to look at your own triggers, fears, sensitivities and insecurities.”
“I have worked with children for over 20 years, and I have never seen anything like it,” the Green School founder Mari Linnman said. “The children communicated and shared their feelings, worked together and put their friend before themselves within the first hour.”
However, Ms. Yapalater’s work is about more than interacting with horses, and learning the difference between reactions and responses. “It’s being able to tell a horse a secret and knowing that that secret is safe, and then figuring out that it’s safe to tell somebody and that person is going to be responsive, not reactive,” she said. “When you learn to respond and not react, you can learn a lot about yourself.”
That was certainly the case for Alyson Chugerman’s daughter, Aubrey, who at the age of 6 was diagnosed with attention deficit disorder.
Ms. Chugerman explained that she didn’t want to go “the medical route” in addressing Aubrey’s condition, and instead sought other options. Looking back, she said she wouldn’t have traded the experience for the world.
“The things that happened to my daughter were life changing,” she said. “You hear all the time about working with a horse, that they are so close intellectually with us that they give us insight that we don’t get from human doctors.”
Working with the horses allowed Aubrey to focus and slow down, Ms. Chugerman said, noting, “You can’t move fast when you’re with a horse.”
She continued, “To me, this has to do with mindfulness and bringing awareness to so many things in life. The horses are really good at reminding people of that.”
A Sagaponack resident, who asked that her name not be used, had a similar moment of clarity. She has been working with the horses at the Green School alongside her 12-year-old son and 10-year-old daughter, exploring how to work collaboratively and connect as a family.
As an individual, the mother of four said she was looking to strengthen her self-awareness and learn to communicate better not only with her children but also with her husband.
“It forces you to slow down and get in touch with yourself, and as a family get in touch with each other,” she said. “If you can bring that back to your household, it really brings the family together.”
Ms. Yapalater first got in touch with the idea for the “horse whispering” program during a four-hour-long trail ride with her husband. It was her first “aha!” moment, she said.
“It was on these long trail rides together, not speaking but communicating nonverbally, that these horses became a part of us,” Ms. Yapalater said. “Our lives just changed, and we knew that there was something bigger—I was ready to learn what they had to teach me.”
Ms. Yapalater’s awakening came at a hectic time in her life. She was raising her son, Tristan, now 23, and daughter, Sophia, now 27, all while working as a producer for PBS. “I was juggling a lot,” she said.
“I was trying to figure out my life,” she said. The horses “taught me that if I slow down and tune in to myself, chances are I can be of service to others around me in a much more significant way. Once I slowed down and became really present and conscious, that’s all that was necessary. These horses have healed me—you can’t really explain it.”
Moving forward, the couple started integrating the horses into families that were in crisis, such as those suffering from addiction, obsessive compulsive disorder, divorce and sensory dysfunction.
“People tend to come to me when they’ve tried everything else and nothing works,” Ms. Yapalater said.
From there, Ms. Yapalater moved in the direction of preventative therapy, playing off experience as an integrative family health counselor for Park Avenue Integrative Health Practitioners in New York City.
“When I think about preventative, I think, ‘What are the steps that one can take before we’re in crisis?’”
She pointed to a young client of hers, Henry, who until recently struggled with advocating for himself. “With Henry, it’s been all about ‘I’m not ready,’” Ms. Yapalater said.
However, on Tuesday morning, when she went to feed the horses and put the hay on the ground, Henry was quick to point out, “That’s not the right place for the hay. When you’re ready, Karin, you can put the hay in that bucket.”
“That was a huge step for him,” Ms. Yapalater said.
“I always say you’re never too young or too old to be awakened, and I think that the sooner we tune into that, we have meaning in our lives,” she said. “I know that I want to devote the rest of my life to this.”