By Kim McMann
05:47PM / Friday, February 02, 2024
RICHMOND, Mass. — Hayley Sumner of Berkshire HorseWorks is one of those people determined to bring their childhood dreams to life.
Her dream wasn't to become a doctor or a teacher or an astronaut.
"My vision was to have a ranch where adults could come and work with kids and impart their knowledge from their own expertise," she says of her 10-year-old self.
Sumner's dad was a school principal in the South Bronx, N.Y., successfully integrating kids labeled on the autism spectrum with kids labeled at risk. As a child, Sumner wrote a business plan to open a ranch and help these kids she saw in her father's school.
At that young age, she had already spent several summers at a farm camp where the chores had to be done each morning before any other activities could occur.
"I had instilled in me at a very young age the impact animals can have. I grew up having a passion for working with animals and helping others," is Sumner's explanation for how she thought up the ranch idea.
And so on a recent wintry day, volunteers and horses could be seen mingling in a paddock as a woman walked by exchanging greetings with each horse. Off in another area, a statue of Buddha sits among the trees.
The mission of the Berkshire HorseWorks is "to transform lives through powerful interaction with horses." Sumner, its executive director, founded the nonprofit organization in 2013. It offers a variety of experiences for people of all ages using the EAGALA, or Equine Assisted Growth and Learning Association
This uses educational, therapeutic, team building and recreational activities around interaction with the herd, which includes two horses, one pony and two miniature donkeys. This is not therapeutic riding but rather an adjunct to or in replacement of talk therapy. The horses are not trained but are using their natural skills and intuition. Their only qualification is that they not be biters or kickers.
Because horses are prey animals, they are constantly assessing their situation. Sumner said they develop relationships similarly to how people do — by reading verbal cues, touching and responding to touch, and communicating with others, for example. Equine specialists are always present to ensure the horses are ethically treated.
Sumner wants everyone to be able to access this model for life-changing outcomes. Individuals can access therapeutic sessions on a sliding scale, based on need. Insurance is not accepted, though some may be able to access reimbursement through their insurance.
Any corporation or small business or group can sponsor a school program from one session to several classes attending multiple sessions. The nonprofit also relies on grants including two recent ones: $500 from the Richmond Educational Enrichment Fund to support a project for third graders at Richmond Consolidated School that complements existing life skills curriculum and $1,500 from Berkshire Bank for Pittsfield students who have scored below average on reading assessment tests.
Children in third grade this year hold a unique place in history in that almost their entire academic career has been impacted by COVID-19. They missed out on a lot of the skill building that comes simply from being in school, in person during their early years. As students participate in the activities they will differentiate between observation and perception, said Sumner, the first step toward building connections, creating bonds and being members of a team.
For the Pittsfield project, Berkshire HorseWorks will meet with school adjustment counselors in March to identify those students whose reading proficiency scores are below average and who will most benefit by participating in EAGALA activities. These activities integrate social-emotional learning with academics.
While many students could experience life-changing outcomes by participating in EAGALA work, there is not funding available for most to attend.
"Rising school expenses precludes many students from accessing off campus services without funding," explains Sumner.
She remembered a young Pittsfield girl who had been in and out of foster care and handled by a variety of agencies. She was struggling with access to treatment for a dual diagnosis that sometimes made her violent, suicidal, and anxious.
"We saw her transform. When she first came she was very selfish, she would step in front of others and push other people out of the way, she was aggressive in her communication on the rare occasion that she would acknowledge others," said Sumner. "After being at the ranch, she's blossomed into this independent young adult who can now read nonverbal communication, work in small groups and large groups, and is very empathetic. Her work at the ranch really jump-started her becoming a strong individual who is not violent and can participate in groups and communicate with others."
This transformation occurred as the young woman and the horse she'd chosen got to know each other, learned to work with each other and ultimately developed a relationship.
As an adult, Sumner worked in Los Angeles providing marketing and public relation services to the entertainment industry, but she always had pro bono work and that was what she enjoyed the most. "I finally got to the point where it was time for change and I was ready for a new journey," she said.
A volunteer bonding with Gunnar, one of the herd. There are two horses, two donkeys and a pony.
Crossing the country in an RV, she stopped in Kentucky to be certified in the EAGALA method. It was more for personal growth than a career move at the time, she said.
Ready to find her place in the Berkshires, Sumner was suddenly facing a serious medical issue. In fact, her brother-in-law, her dog and she were all diagnosed with cancer in a nine-day period during her first month in the Berkshires.
It was during her treatment that Sumner realized her calling. And then, over a martini with Carl Dunham Jr., owner of the Berkshire Equestrian Center, it all came together.
Berkshire HorseWorks soon moved to its own seven-acre property at 101 Patton Road and has grown and thrived over the past decade.
In addition to grants, the organization underwrites the expense of the school and sliding-scale sessions with professional team building programs and recreational opportunities.
"We can do private sessions for individuals, couples, and families and even birthday parties. We do recreational trail riding, too," Sumner said.
Family reunions, staff retreats, and conference sessions can be scheduled. For those looking for overnight accommodations in the Berkshires, there is a small bed-and-breakfast
operated by the organization, with all profits supporting the horses and sliding scale prices
Special events are also scheduled to raise awareness and funds. This Saturday will offer an opportunity to take photos with the horses and donkeys, enjoy cocoa and cookies and enter a raffle for a chance to win a 60-minute EAGALA model couples session billed as "Romance at the Ranch."
The event runs from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m.; admission is free but there is a suggested donation to support medical care and food for the herd.
Additionally, volunteers are welcome and needed. There is no age requirement, but volunteers under the age of 16 must volunteer with a parent or other adult. No mental health or horse experience is necessary. There are opportunities to volunteer on a regular basis as well as for special projects. Feeding the horses, taking them out for exercise or hikes, working in the office and cleaning up storm debris are some of the ways volunteers are currently supporting the nonprofit.