Before she walked into the paddock, J. Gail LoCicero felt lost.
She had just been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress and dissociative identity disorder. She struggled, she said, to let people get close to her, to get to know her. Looking back, she said, she didn’t feel that she knew herself, either.
But on a Malvern farm, Willow, a chocolate-colored mare, nuzzled LoCicero, 34, until she and the horse were almost eye-to-eye.
On the drive home, she broke down crying.
“I was just very vulnerable after being with them," LoCicero said. “With the horses, it was an energy, a bond.”
With the animals, she said, she didn’t feel judged for her mental illness.
“They didn’t hold it against me,” she said.
Kristen de Marco often hears that sentiment from her clients at Gateway Horseworks, an equine-assisted therapy program that uses a globally implemented treatment model for clients from Chester County, Delaware County, and Philadelphia. It reminds her, she said, why she brought this program to the Main Line in the first place — to remind people that their diagnoses, their mistakes, and their darkest moments don’t define them.
Her team of social workers, psychologists, and equine specialists tells anxious new clients, she said, that the horses “haven’t read their file." Humans instinctively “size up” and judge each other, said Amber Klimovitz, a licensed clinical social worker for Gateway, but that doesn’t happen here.
De Marco started Gateway in 2015. The program sees people recovering from addiction, veterans with PTSD, children and adults with mental illnesses, and families grieving the death of a loved one. For most, she said, their conditions are rooted in trauma.
Sometimes they arrive with a security detail, wearing Chester County Prison uniforms, preparing for their release back into society. Other times, they come in groups from such places as Devon’s Recovery Centers of America, an inpatient drug and alcohol treatment center, or the Mary E. Walker House, the Coatesville facility for homeless female veterans where LoCicero lives.
For years, de Marco, 41, rented space at the Thorncroft Equestrian Center. As Gateway gained a following, she said, they outgrew the space and moved to another property on the 100 block of Line Road, a family-owned farm that was for sale, she said. Recently, the land was sold, de Marco said, and she turned to social media to ask for help.
“We have had several promising leads for relocation, and one by one they have fallen away,” de Marco wrote on Facebook earlier this month. “While many people love what we are doing, and will happily accept our horses, no one wants our clients on their farm."
While she understood people’s safety concerns, she said, she was disheartened, too. She’s never had a problem with a client, she said; in fact, the soon-to-be-released inmates are often the kindest and most grateful.
“I understand it from people who are just trying to keep them and their kids safe,” de Marco said. “People come to the farm with a story, but we are not the worst thing we’ve ever done."
After posting on Facebook, she was flooded with tips. As a result, she said, she found a “very temporary” home for her horses on another family-owned farm in Malvern that is also for sale.
She hopes to raise enough money to find a permanent place for Gateway, a nonprofit that relies on donations, county partnerships, and payments from clients, when they can afford it. A one-hour session runs about $75 a person with a group, or $150 for an individual session. Most insurance companies don’t cover equine therapy, de Marco said, but clients can pay on a sliding scale or ask about aid.
Because the therapy is still emerging, research is limited. Page Walker Buck, a professor in the graduate social work department at West Chester University, found that the experiential therapy can help people who have experienced trauma, particularly those who haven’t found talk therapy effective.
“For some people, this is definitely an out-of-the-box therapy,” Buck said. However, it can result in a reduction in trauma symptoms and help survivors “down-shift out of hyper-vigilance," a reaction that people experience after feeling threatened.
“The horses’ state of hyper-vigilance allows people to feel safe,” she said.
This model differs from traditional talk therapy, de Marco said on a recent morning, standing outside the fenced-in paddock, where sessions occur. Before entering, clients can share as little or as much of their story as they’d like. For much of the time, she said, they walk off on their own with the horses, petting them, talking to them, sometimes leading them through hula hoops and around pool noodles, items that can serve as metaphors for the clients’ struggles.
“Out here, you become very embodied,” she said. “You are in the moment.”
A couple years ago, de Marco said, a teenager came to the farm for her first session and hung a stuffed animal from a fence post. The girl had attempted suicide, de Marco said, and talk therapy hadn’t seemed to help. By the end of her Gateway program, the girl told de Marco she didn’t want to die anymore. Moments like that, de Marco said, make the work worthwhile.
“I’ve seen over the years how resilient people can be,” de Marco said. “People have the ability to heal themselves.”
For LoCicero, an eight-week program helped her break down emotional barriers and become less guarded, she said.
At the end of her final session in August, the Army and Coast Guard veteran asked whether she could walk a caramel-colored gelding named Disney back to the barn. Disney followed her closely, she said, and let her take him to his stable.
On this drive home, she didn’t cry. Instead, she said, she felt at peace.