Horses as Healers: UCSF's pilot program pairs cancer survivor with horses

MILL VALLEY, Calif. (KGO) -- We know that horses possess a gift that can help certain patients heal. This fall, UCSF began a pilot program pairing cancer survivors with horses. These patients quickly discovered the emotional benefits of interacting with these animals.

The signs on a post in Mill Valley suggest there are several trails to follow, but only one points the way to a dusty road where anyone entering is warned that you are now living on "horse time."

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"Well, now you're Annie Oakley," says a volunteer of the Miwok Stables. She's talking to Jean Jones a cancer survivor who once saw herself as an unlikely candidate to take up riding. Ironically cancer helped her overcome the fear of change.

"I felt like if I can get on a horse at 67-years-old and successfully learn how to ride it, I can do anything at this point," expressed Jones.

"She's clean today, she's not dusty," says Jones as she is brushing her horse Molly.

Bonding with Molly has had a calming effect on Jones which is the intention of the program called 'Horses as Healers.'

"We don't have to be psychotherapists, we don't have to be anything else except to let these women experience a relationship with an animal that if you open your heart will walk right in," tells us Dorine Towle, the program director of the Horses as Healers outreach program.

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UCSF knew it wanted that for their cancer patients and found Miwok Stables on Tennessee Valley Road.

Because Miwok stables are on public land, federal law states that they must somehow serve the public. That's how Horses as Healers began.

"It's like peddling a bicycle. Keep her going with your legs, explains Linda Rubio to one of the women on a horse. Rubio is the head of Miwok Stables and the instructor of the program.

The pilot program brought in four women who had just battled cancer. Each of them had four sessions with their horses.

"So I kinda expected that we could at least find at least four people and as it turns out we have a waitlist of ten participants," explains Mary Destri, program manager of the UCSF Cancer Resource Center.

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For Kristina Fassberg, a cancer survivor, being on her horse meant she no longer saw herself as the victim.

"As a cancer patient, you struggle with the fact that there is somebody else that is in charge, the doctor, the nurses and this is my way of being in charge with what I do during the day," expresses Fassberg.

Here the horses show them the power to heal and to teach.

"I can do it, Molly showed me I can," says a grateful Jean Jones.

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