DOSWELL, Va. (WRIC) — Marcus Harris steps into the ring with two horses, and each step they take is deliberate. Each bin and ball of the obstacle course represents wounds that sometimes decades later have only begin to heal.
“The way I grew up, no child should ever have to grow up that way,” remembers Harris. “Basically, any bad thing that could ever happen to a child, I experienced it.”
Harris is 41-years-old, a successful business owner and husband. He is also a survivor.
“My first experience with sexual molestation was 6-years-old,” he says quietly.
It lasted for years, and today Harris is in treatment for complex post-traumatic stress disorder. He started traditional counseling three years ago, but he desperately searched for a new way to get past a plateau. Hope came in the form of horses.
“You got to learn to lead your mind like you learn to lead your horse,” he says, stroking one of the horses. “They just want your compassion, they just want your love, they just want you to be there.”
Safe Harbor started offering this new equine therapy last fall when counselors realized many men in the sexual violence recovery program needed something more. The campaign 1in6.org estimates one in six adult males are survivors.
Marcus says feelings of abandonment and doubt can stick with any man who suffered abuse. Through caring for the horses, however, they can build meaningful connections.
“It can really help unhinge people that maybe are in a stuck spot in their journey, in their therapy goals,” explains Kristin Fitzgerald, an Equine Support Specialist with the program.
Adds Mary Margaret Petersen, a Safe Harbor Counselor, “Accept their story, tell their story and work forward from there.”
It is a process for most survivors, including Harris. He says recovery is not always linear. During his equine therapy sessions, he pauses at each station and contemplates whether he will move forward or needs more time.
“Today was a good day. We didn’t get stuck on anything,” Harris reflects. “But every day is not that way.”
Harris knows there is no cure for his past, but he finds empowerment in the ring with the horses. Harris refuses to let his sexual abuse define him.
“This stuff is going to pop up from time to time. I just got to figure out how to deal with it,” he says. “I made the choice that it’s not acceptable in my world and it never will be. Either you can let this build you, or you can let this destroy you.”
Safe Harbor is now accepting names for an upcoming equine therapy group. It is open to men ages 18 and up who have suffered from past abuse. Call (804) 249-9470 for more information.