South Bay’s DreamPower horses help humans heal

At first, Nicole Duarte was not the person that Scooter needed her to be. Scarred by a violent incident in the U.S. Marines, she was angry and impatient.

But Scooter was equally disappointing. A 1,400-pound horse with the attitude of a toddler, he was careless and imperious. He bit. He ran away.

Together, at DreamPower Horsemanship in Gilroy, they’ve taught each other how to walk in step, together, with kindness and respect.

“It’s a partnership,” said Duarte. Scooter’s large dark eyes gazed back at her, his ears tipping back and forth at the sound of her voice.

The horses at DreamPower aren’t polished, posed or perfect. The people aren’t there for ribbons, money or applause.

Rather, they come for healing and hope. The organization’s 20 different horse-based psychotherapy and mental health programs serve more than 800 Bay Area residents, such as military veterans, children with autism, teens with anxiety and depression and elders experiencing mental and physical decline. It offers free support groups for children whose siblings have cancer, who lost a parent during COVID or who were affected by wildfire. After the Gilroy Garlic Festival shootings, it hosted support groups for children and adults.

Far from urban stress, clients are taught to lead, groom and ride. They help take care of chickens and goats, sweep a shed or clean a paddock. Sometimes the best therapy is just stroking a velvety nose.

But horses are expensive. While DreamPower’s animals are all donated, it costs money — $6,000 a year, per animal, on average — to provide care. It’s seeking $18,000 to sponsor three horses in the “therapy herd” for one year.

When the organization was founded 20 years ago, a bale of hay cost $6; now, due to fuel prices, the drought and market pressures, it costs $30. Paddock space in the South Bay is no longer cheap and abundant. Veterinary and farrier costs have climbed.

This poses a growing challenge for an organization that strives to stay open to all.

“When therapy horses are sponsored and the costs for their basic care is covered, we can offer more scholarships and ‘sliding scale’ programs,” said Martha McNiel, founder and director of DreamPower. “Our free groups are possible because the basic care for the therapy horses is covered.”

McNiel, trained as a family therapist, conceived of DreamPower while working with foster children in San Francisco.

“I had a little tiny office in the city,” she recalled. “And all I was doing was telling kids not to break the furniture. ‘Don’t jump out the window,’ I’d say. ‘Don’t turn the lamp over.’ ”

“And I just kept thinking how much better it would be if we could be outside, where we could move around,” she said. “And have real live animals, instead of stuffed animals.”

It started with just McNiel and her two horses and became the first and only Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship International Premier Accredited Center in the South Bay area.

Now about 300 volunteers donate their time and energy. Psychotherapy sessions are led by California-licensed or pre-licensed psychotherapists. Registered Therapeutic Riding Instructors teach horsemanship and riding.

A vaulter, who wishes to remain unnamed, demonstrates what she has learned at DreamPower in Gilroy, Calif., on Tuesday, Oct. 18, 2022. (Shae Hammond/Bay Area News Group)
A vaulter, who wishes to remain unnamed, demonstrates what she has learned at DreamPower in Gilroy, Calif., on Tuesday, Oct. 18, 2022. (Shae Hammond/Bay Area News Group) 

The organization’s “therapy herd” has grown to 19 full-sized horses, four miniature horses and one pint-sized donkey.

Three animals, in particular, are in immediate need of sponsors: Mickey, a good-natured Rocky Mountain Horse with a flaxen mane and tail; Loftur, a chesnut Icelandic gelding; and Gigi, the color of a mouse and just as fuzzy.

Scooter, a black-and-white pinto, started off as “a problem child,” recalled Duarte, 53, of Morgan Hill.

He arrived with impressive credentials. A purebred Gypsy Vanner, he was bred to pull caravans of traveling people in the British Isles. But he was undisciplined. And with hooves the size of dinner plates, he could be intimidating.

“When I started working with him, it was rough,” said Duarte. “There were days I would go home crying. He would just be a real jerk. I felt like I was getting nowhere with him.”

Duarte had her own issues.

As a military officer in the Marine Corps Reserves, she suffered Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

Strong and short-tempered, she experienced visual and auditory hallucinations and other debilitating symptoms. “It became very, very real that that war was not anything I wanted to be a part of anymore,” she said, choking up at the memory.

Conventional therapy couldn’t help. But horses did.

Nicole Duarte, a veteran marine who lives in San Martin, walks with Scooter, a gelding she has been working with for three years, at DreamPower in Gilroy, Calif., on Tuesday, Oct. 18, 2022. (Shae Hammond/Bay Area News Group)
Nicole Duarte, a Marine Corps veteran who lives in San Martin, walks with Scooter, a gelding she has been working with for three years, at DreamPower in Gilroy, Calif., on Tuesday, Oct. 18, 2022. (Shae Hammond/Bay Area News Group) 

A horse’s mind belongs to the mood of the moment. Residing in the mysterious land on the other side of the species barrier, it reflects what it senses.

“Scooter is a biofeedback machine,” said Duarte. “If I’m tense, he’s going to be tense. If he starts misbehaving, I know it’s because of me.”

“Horses can see you coming and judge your mood and your energy from just seeing you walk up. They’ll know if it’s going to be a good day or a bad day,” she said.

Scooter taught her to practice three things: patience, observation and humility. Subtlety and trust are more powerful tools than force and fear, Duarte learned. Now, when anger rises, she’s in better control.

“It’s been a long hard road, but I’m much better,” she said.


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