Published in The VOICE magazine January issue 1999
Excerpt from “A Walking Horse that Continues to Give After 30 something years”

Sweet Georgia Brown is a Valued Member of Canopy Cove’s Equine Therapy Team

For over thirty years Sweet Georgia has brought smiles to the faces of countless people. His showring career began so long ago that many may not even remember his name. However, those of us who can recognize the tunes of the fifties and sixties will probably be able to date ourselves and admit that we remember him.

Sweet Georgia is a legendary horse with a heart of gold. I can clearly remember the night in Edison, Georgia some twenty years ago when I first saw him. He entered the ring as we all can remember him-sitting deep, head high in the bridle, hitting a big and consistent lick. He captivated my attention as well as that of my family and all the others who saw him that night. One week later he belonged to me and we began a long and loving relationship. It was tricky at first and I would miss a canter lead or two, but under his expert guidance and with the direction of Carl Edwards and Sons Stables I learned to become a partner with Sweet Georgia Brown. He made many wonderful shows and blue was the prominent color ribbon he brought home, but more importantly, his commitment to performing his best was always there.

Being cooperative and dependable were traits that would often get him pulled out of his stall at the Edwards’ barn when an inexperienced rider came to enjoy the thrill of being on a Walking Horse. He has taught so many of us to ride with joy and dignity; three generations in our family alone including myself, our daughters Tam and Donda, and now Donda’s children–Channing and Brogdon. These same traits and my complete trust in Sweet Georgia Brown have provided Channing and Brogdon with the same unforgettable opportunity to learn to ride a walking horse as their mom and me. However, they are among the privileged few (in fact they are the privileged few) who continue to benefit from being on his back. The rest of us appreciate him from the ground.

“I never realized how much horses are like people, they really do have personalities.” “They seem to have a real sense of worth and pride, no matter how old they are or what they look like.” “I wish I could do that too.” Just because Sweet Georgia Brown’s body is not as attractive as the others’ doesn’t mean that he’s not as special. “He helped me to see that I don’t have to look like others to be okay.” “It felt so peaceful just to be out around the horses. I haven’t felt that way in a long time.”

Ground work may seem boring to some of us, but for the patient with Anorexia Nervosa or Bulimia Nervosa, it provides a great opportunity.

For the past 16 years I have been working with patients who have eating disorders. Most often young females are the victims of Anorexia or Bulimia, so most of our patients are females between the ages of 10 and 30.

Yet eating disorders are not always specific to age and some of our patients are as young as 6 while others are in their 40′s, 50′s and 60′s. The most common characteristic is an inability to value themselves. I’m not referring to the “Bad hair day” or “I have nothing to wear day,” but to the endless days of “I’m such a failure, I never do anything right, If I could only lose a few pounds things would be so much better, I hate myself, to I wish I were dead”.

Eating Disorder Affect Millions of Women – and Men

Unfortunately eating disorders exist for approximately 11 million females in our country this very minute. Most of these people keep their eating disorder such a secret that even those closest to them rarely know.

Sadly, these people are all around us and often are those we care most about. They are our daughters, sisters, mothers, friends, teachers, wives, girlfriends, students, horse owners and riders, as well as many athletes including cheerleaders, dancers and often those involved in weight dictated sports.

Males are also becoming prey to eating disorders more frequently than in the past. Wrestlers, boxers and others sometimes use unhealthy ways to control their weight.

Unfortunately, this can sometimes contribute to the development of an eating disorder. No one I’ve ever known started out to have an eating disorder; most just wanted to lose a few pounds. Yet, after a while the weight loss became an obsession and the use of extreme means to control weight became more and more a way of life.

For example, some people will restrict for days and eat little or nothing at all and then afterwards they will often consume large amounts of food. For most, this process is almost always followed by feeling guilty and often purging some or all of the food they ate. This may be done by vomiting, exercising or using laxatives. Others may decide to avoid eating most of the day and allow themselves only limited food at a certain time.

The extreme cases of Anorexia and Bulimia are very scary. I have worked with young women who were taking 50-60 laxatives a day, others who were vomiting 30-40 times a day and numerous patients who often were eating less than 300 calories a day. Probably the most difficult thing that most persons with an eating disorder struggle with is what seems to be a “dual personality”. This is not a strange thing in and of itself. Most of us routinely have conversations with ourselves daily as we decide what to wear, which horse to ride first, who to breed our mare to or perhaps how to spend the evening.

Yet, for most of us the constant conversation going on in our heads is not food and weight oriented. Fortunately, we don’t battle with a message center in our brain that says “Don’t eat,” “You know you will be fat if you eat that,” “Everyone is out to get you,” or “They don’t care about you –they just want you to be fat.” We also don’t see ourselves as two to five times as large as we really are, hide our food from others as we eat, nor locate the nearest bathroom to immediately throw up everything we have just eaten. If all this sounds strange to you that is great. Hopefully, this means that you and those you know and care about do not have an eating disorder.

The number of people who die from the complications of eating disorders is untold. However we do know that at least 500,000 die yearly (ANAD, 1998). This number far surpasses the mortality rate of many other disorders and diseases, including Aids. Until recently little has been known about the cause or causes of eating disorders or their treatment.

However, much progress is being made in both areas as research continues. Personally, I believe one of the most exciting treatment approaches is the use of Equine Assisted Therapy. The rewarding experience of interacting with a live animal, developing a real sense of trust while caring for a horse, learning to communicate and understand equine body language while getting immediate feedback are all very helpful to the client with an eating disorder.

The Walking Horse’s inherent personality and physical traits make it a great candidate for work with our patients. Their even temperament and cooperative spirit provide an emotionally safe environment for our clients to begin to develop the ability to see themselves as separate from their eating disorder.

Sweet Georgia Brown makes a great contribution in this effort. Before all initial equine therapy sessions I introduce each horse to the group members through pictures. I also give a brief description of each horse and tell about their likes and dislikes, including his/her feed preferences. Each person is allowed to choose their level of interaction with the horses. This is a very important step since many of our clients are extremely frightened at first. Sweet Georgia Brown is always the first horse out of a stall. We begin our session by grooming and pampering him and then we focus on the physical condition of his body.

After discussing nutritional needs and looking at the value of his food (“Equine Senior”, steamed rolled oats, supplements, and vitamins) we bring a young horse out. Of course it is immediately apparent that the physical condition of this horse’s body is much different than Sweet Georgia Brown’s. In doing body image work, it is easy for the patients to value Sweet Georgia Brown just as much as they do the three year old. They can clearly believe and state that he is worth no less just because his body is not as youthful or as attractive as the others’.

This is very useful in helping them to begin to develop a similar way of interpreting their own self worth, which is so often dependent on the number on the scale. The less they weigh the better it seems. Yet, I have never met anyone who believed her weight was low enough–even when a client was 5’10″ and weighed 82 pounds or when another was 5’2″ and weighed 68 pounds.

Treatment for eating disorders is extremely complex, expensive, and often difficult to find, yet without it many people may lose their life in the battle. The exorbitant cost of care for treatment at eating disorder centers across the country often makes treatment prohibitive for many people. The unaffordability as well as the scarcity of treatment facilities led us to open Canopy Cove at Health Management Institute. It is our hope that treatment here will be more affordable to many for whom it has been financially impossible. With our committed staff of counselors, dietitians, movement therapists and consulting physicians, and our dedication to providing the most helpful approaches for the treatment of eating disorders, we are helping to help make a difference.

It is so rewarding to watch these starved young women regain a life and to know that Equine Assisted Therapy has been able to make a contribution to their effort. It is especially rewarding to watch Sweet Georgia Brown and other Walking Horses as they help these deserving people help themselves out of a potentially life threatening condition.