Gayle Brittain, Pro-Rodeo Inductee turned EAGLA Certified Equine Specialist
Pro-Rodeo Hall of Fame Inductee, Gayle Brittain, discusses her new life as Director of Equine Therapy at Hope Rising, an Anti-Human Sex Trafficking 501c3.
HR: Gayle, you grew up riding, roping, and participating in rodeo. Can you tell our readers a little about your background.
Gayle: That’s right, I grew up riding and roping in South Texas, west of Corpus Christi on my family’s ranch. I didn’t realize it at the time, but looking back I see that growing up in a rural environment surrounded by ranch animals was a very special upbringing. It afforded me the opportunity to “live big and live free” something kids today don’t get to do very often. I loved riding my Shetland pony bareback, even at the age of three.
HR: You earned the reputation of being a fearless and competitive rodeo athlete, earning Pro-Rodeo Rookie of the Year, World All-Around Champion WPRA, and eventually earning the title of World Champion Rodeo Hall of Fame Inductee in 2010. Tell our audience a little about your rodeo background.
Gayle: You know, the Lord works in mysterious ways, and is always directing our paths, even when we are unaware. I went to Texas Tech University in the hopes of studying political science and becoming a Texas State Senator. When I had an invitation to try out for the Texas Tech Masked Rider, I gave it my all and ended up beating out 5 guys and a girl for the position. However, the Rodeo coach saw my performance, and offered me a full scholarship to join the rodeo team. Well, that was a no-brainer for this gal, I took the scholarship and the rest is history!
HR: Gayle, those who know you have described you as being a fearless competitor and athlete. How has that fearlessness affected your decision to now work in the space of human-sex trafficking rescue and rehabilitation?
Gayle: When you grow up on a remote working cattle and horse ranch, you learn a unique kind of independence. You develop a thick skin, become self-sufficient, learn the patterns of nature, and develop a natural instinct towards the animals in your care. There’s a type of true-grit that exists in the toughest breed of cowboys and cowgirls. I think the natural intuition or “horse-sense” I developed at a young age prepared me for my new role in Equine Therapy.
HR: Tell us how you first became aware of Hope Rising and the issue of Human Sex Trafficking? Had you been considering a life-change or had you been researching the issue?
Gayle: Are you kidding me? Human sex trafficking was never on my radar. This issues was literally dropped right in front of me in Austin while attending a Hope Rising charity golf event. I listened as the Executive Director Sherri Clement shared how she became involved in the rescue of sexually trafficked minors in Los Angeles, California before moving to the Houston area – the hub of sexual trafficking activity. When I had the opportunity to sit and talk with Sherri I couldn’t get enough. That was a surprise to me, it was a completely different lifestyle for me. I have worked with youth in the past who wanted to be rodeo stars, but this work is a whole different lifestyle. When Sherri talked about how Equine Therapy was having a significant impact on survivors affected with PTSD and other trauma related issues and I heard the stories of unspeakable crimes committed against precious children and teenagers, I was very upset, and the feeling of injustice swelled within me. It was really an odd thing, I can’t remember anything having such a strong impact on my heart as the work of Hope Rising. I went home and tried to forget the message, but instead, I began searching the internet for everything related to Equine Therapy. Long story short, I became a certified Equine Specialist (EAGALA model) and began working with Sherri’s team in 2018.
HR: So, you weren’t looking for Hope Rising or anti-human sex trafficking work, it came looking for you?
Gayle: That’s right. I was caught off guard by the heavy burden and the ‘calling’ on my heart. I have managed my family’s 1200 acre ranch for 23 years and wasn’t looking to do anything different. But I would say this was most definitely a calling and God wouldn’t let me go until I answered. I don’t do anything halfway. As a competitive athlete and entrepreneur, I saw the need for this therapy program, and I knew that I could contribute to build something just as successful as I had with my rodeo career and ranch. In ranching, there’s a lot involved, but you are in-tune with how to work with nature and the ranch. But working with traumatized kids, the emotional trauma is what you have to deal with. And you don’t see it coming. That’s why equine therapy plays such an important part of the trauma-informed therapy program.
HR: Tell our audience about Equine Therapy. How does it work, why is it effective, and why are horses a good therapy animal?
Gayle: Horses are powerful animals, highly intelligent and aware of their surroundings. As prey animals, they have very few natural defenses and are highly in-tune with their surroundings. They pick up on their handlers emotions and biochemistry. Horses sense when their handlers heart rate elevates, or their muscles tense, or when they are experiencing inner turmoil. Horses have what I term “a highly developed BS monitor” meaning that it’s hard to lie to a horse. The horse responds to a handlers inner emotions, they don’t know the words being said, therefore an observing therapist can pick up on the responses of the horse to understand when a trigger issue has been uncovered. When trauma survivors are placed in relationship with a horse, they must quickly establish a working relationship in order to do simple tasks like groom, feed and lead. Survivors develop a sense of power as they instruct the horse, eventually finding their own voice of authority. Eventually our therapy sessions progress in intensity and we begin to bring traditional therapy practices out into the arena utilizing the horse as our ‘ears.’ to where the therapist asks a series of questions to the survivor, and the survivor is directed to tell their response to their horse. Studies show that healing and restoration can only come when a relationship of trust has been formed with at least one other person or being. Oftentimes, survivors are reluctant to bond with people, because it is at the hands of people – sometimes their own parents or caregivers that they experienced the most trauma, neglect or abuse. The relationship with their horse establishes a safe place for survivors to begin to vocalize their stories, to form their thoughts, and to tell another being about their past.
HR: Can you Describe A Typical Equine Therapy Session?
Gayle: At first, it is not important that the therapist hear or know the details of the survivor’s story. The therapist will direct the session from a distance, but the intimate details of a survivor’s story are safely told to the horse – because we can all agree that a secret is safe with the horse, right? The cool thing is that the horse is so emotionally in-tune with their caregiver, that the horse will respond to a survivor’s story. They will drop their head and reach out with their noses to show empathy, they may lean into a survivor to create a type of body hug, or they may paw the ground in frustration.Equine Therapists are trained to observe the signs between survivor and horse and watch for signs from the horse which will alert us to emotional triggers within each trauma survivor. Horses have what we call a very sensitive BS barometer, meaning that it’s hard to lie to a horse. They pick up on our physical and emotional state of being, if our words don’t match our emotions, the horse will call our bluff.
PTSD & Equine Therapy: When victims of PTSD arrive in our care, they are in survival mode. If these children didn’t have an incredible will to survive, they’d have been dead already. But, it’s very hard to break the cycle of survival mode, Survivors are in a constant state of fight, flight or freeze. They are thinking out of their brain stem, not their frontal lobe which is where reasoning takes place. When we get new kids in, we can not expect them to answer hard questions, think through difficult situations, or immediately “shape-up or ship-out”. Instead, we need to let the child live in a safe environment, free from abuse, conflict and trauma. Simple things like ranch living and petting, feeding and grooming the horses relaxes the senses and begins to drain the adrenaline. Eventually, the children have relaxed enough to begin the hard work of processing their feelings about their past. Studies have proven that equine therapy helps reach therapy milestones at a faster rate than traditional therapy alone. Traditional talk therapy is critical and we’ve got a world-class therapist our girls currently meet with weekly. But the power of the ranch and the horse gives the girls a setting in which to relax without the pressures of the world and traditional school and a dysfunctional home life overwhelming them. Equine Therapy is also being used with great success for returning military personnel affected by PTSD.
I could go on for days about the power of equine therapy and my love of this field, so I encourage leader’s to schedule a corporate visit to our ranch. Bring your leadership teams and tour our facilities. If you know someone interested in private equine therapy, give us a call at the Hope Rising office. Equine Therapy is a powerful tool in achieving whole health and restoration and I’m honored to have a part in this important work.
HR: Gayle, what would you like the general public to know about human sex trafficking? Most of us aren’t as aware of the issue as you are, and we certainly aren’t working on the front lines. What do you want to share with our audience?
Gayle: I’d first say, that sex trafficking happens in every community. There are red flags, signals so to speak, and if the general public will try to learn about the subject there is good information out there. It’s important that parent’s and grandparent’s educate themselves and then their children about being aware of their surroundings, being knowledgeable about online pornography and social chats, there’s a lot that caregivers need to stay informed about. . . . You can not ignore the fact that this is a BILLION dollar industry. Epstein gave a face to it. The publicity needs to be out there, where people hear about it every day. The fight is never ending, sex sells. It is not God’s plan for young people (or anyone) to be victimized in a sexual way. As a society, we’ve got to address this. Unfortunately, we’ve got school systems implementing sexual discussions at alarming young ages.
I can think of a specific example, one year we got in a beautiful, REALLY young girl. She was scared, she was emotionally traumatized, she was afraid of this big horse, she was afraid of us as caregivers. We methodically and patiently worked through barriers to establish a relationship with the horse. Once that was done, we patiently worked through our system – and her first words to me were, “do you think I am a bad person?” by the end of the day, the end of the session, the girl was riding the horse, with her hands in the air and said, “this is the best day of my life”. Now I have no idea what that girl’s life has been like, how she has been tortured. And yet this simple experience of bonding with a horse and the emotional release triggered by the animal and the power of nature led to an ’emotional release’ which allowed me to form a bond with this child and we began a beautiful relationship working through the trauma and pain. The key is that these kids need a place to relax, to unwind, and to feel safe. I’m blessed to have a role in the continuum of care provided through the work of Hope Rising.
* Hope Rising is a 501c3 nonprofit specializing in the rescue, restoration and long-term rehabilitation of children and youth rescued from human sex trafficking, sexual abuse or exploitation. Please contact us firstname.lastname@example.org for further information about our equine therapy programs.