7 questions with … Stable Spirit’s Katie Durio

6 months ago
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When Stable Spirit equine therapy owner Katie Durio looks in the mirror, she sees a version of herself vastly different from the woman she was decades ago.

The 69-year-old Port Arthur native worked 29 years as a juvenile probation officer, attuned to the black and white world of criminal justice.

But beneath that exterior, defined by the rules and regulations to which she’d saddled up for decades, was the little girl who’d always been drawn to the mystique and relentless freedom of a horse.

“My mom and dad always said if we were ever visiting anyone and there was a horse in a nearby pasture and they couldn’t find me, they always went to the pasture, and that’s where I was,” she said.

Durio never set foot in a stirrup until she was almost 30, though.

“I always loved them, I just never had an opportunity to ride,” she said.

Her first ride was on a horse owned by her brother’s in-laws.

“They had horses over in Winnie,” she recalled. “We went for an outing one day, and they saddled up some horses and a couple of us got to ride.”

That first ride “was amazing,” Durio said. “It gives you a freeing spirit, and then after that I just started finding friends who had horses, and I’d ask, ‘can I go ride? ’”

In the late 90’s Durio met a new friend, a Native American woman who had a horse — one Durio was eager to ride.

“I actually bought a saddle before I ever had a horse,” just so that she could ride whenever her friend went out of town, she recalled. “That’s kind of where I started riding on a more regular basis.”

Durio realized that when she retired, she wanted to find something she could do with horses.

“Back then, interestingly enough, I was like, ‘I love them, but I don’t want to do that thing where I just lead disabled kids around on horses,’” she said.

Like many, Durio had little knowledge of equine therapy, nor the many healing benefits it provided.

She had even less an idea the impact it would have on her future and the person she would become.

Follow the rules, nose-to-the-grindstone Katie Durio would give way to a woman softened and willing to take each day, each person crossing her path as they were in the moment.

Katie Durio learned to look at life like a horse — a gift she’s passing on to others while making their lives better one ride at a time.

Q: How did you get involved in equine therapy?

A: In about 2005, I encountered the organization Stable Spirit through a mutual friend. He’d always tell me, ‘You have to go meet my daughter. She has this organization in Alvin, TX, and she’s with horses and you’d just love it.’

Finally, I called her (Kathy Yates and her partner Kim Mendoza, who founded Stable Spirit) and got my friend to go with me to see what this program was.

They let us be the clients per se and did a demo of what it was like (using) the national program they were training under — Equine Assisted Growth and Learning Association.

We were blown away.

I fell in love with it, and I was like, ‘This is what I want to do.’

I was already a licensed master social worker, but for the program, Kim and Kathy needed a mental health therapist. So, I started working on my clinical social work license so I could be the therapist for Stable Spirit.

I went to a national training (for EGALA) while I was working on my internship to get my license and only needed to take the state exam to get my clinical social work license when Kim and Kathy decided to part ways and said, ‘Here, the organization and five horses are yours.’

In 2007, they handed over the organization to me and gave me the five horses they had along with my two, so I did the mental health part of it (at her home in Fannett). My decision at that time was I can’t be the therapist and run the non-profit organization — I have no clue what I’m doing.

Thanks to the local Non-Profit Development Center of Southeast Texas, I started going to every workshop they had to learn what to do.

Still today, I go to almost all of their workshops, because I can never learn enough.

I had no clue what hippotherapy was at that time, but Rebecca assured me my horses would be perfect.

We partnered at that time with Tyrrell Park Stables and would transport the horses over there to use their arenas, then I’d move the horses back.

We were still doing the EGALA work, too. So, I partnered with Terrabella Stables and used their arena (to) do those sessions one day a week.

Then in October of 2010, one of my volunteers put me in contact with Margot Fischer, the owner of (her current property) in Rose City.

I was like, ‘Where’s Rose City? I don’t even know where that’s at.’

She drove me out here and it was all overgrown, the fences were all down, because they had left after Hurricane Rita.

(Durio met with Fischer several times), and she said she would love for her place to be used for this and leased us the property for a year to see what we could do.

We got the property cleaned up and horses moved out and after about six months I met with her and said, ‘I have a proposition — I want to live on property. Can I get a house and live here? ’ And she said, ‘Absolutely.’

Everything we’ve wanted to do, she’s been so supportive to make it work for us, and here we are now.

2015 is when we added the therapeutic riding –the third program that we do…trained under a company called Spirit Horse International.

The little steps kept adding on and adding on and still do today.

Q: If you could trade places with a horse (for a time) would you and why?

A: Knowing what I know about horses and how amazing they are, I think I would say yes if I could for while just to get that feeling.

Horses are very intuitive, and so when they walk up to someone — they just have that feeling about them.

And they respond in the moment.

It doesn’t matter what’s happened in the past or what may happen in the future, it’s like, ‘What can I do right now for me to be safe and for them to be safe? ’

And seeing that with our horses and how they respond to our clients and with people who just need that unconditional love, I think that would be amazing just to able to always give that unconditional love without having to think about anything else.

Every day is a new day for them; every day is a clean slate.

Q: What cases or success stories stand out in your mind since you’ve started this organization?

A: Every program is different, so I think I’d need to give two answers for that — one being for the EAL (formerly called EGALA). In that program, I’ve just seen so many people get that unconditional love from the horse, and their confidence — you just see it in a moment’s notice that their confidence is, ‘I can do this.’ And seeing them, helping them make those decisions (is monumental).

One of the most (memorable) is a young woman that had been sexually abused, and she was very fearful of men and wouldn’t go out with her friends anymore.

We worked with her for several weeks in a row — one of them being what we call ‘circling,’ meaning she had to get the horse out of her space and to circle around her, and she finally did it.

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So we asked her (to apply that) in the future. If she could move that 1,000-pound being out of her space, she could move a 150-pound man out of her space.

Two weeks later, she came back and was all excited because she had gone to a party with a friend where a man approached her, was inappropriate, and she was able to get out of the situation.

‘I thought about the horse, and I knew that I could do it, because if I could move that big horse I could move him, and I could move myself out of the way,’ the woman told her.

It more or less gave that confidence and that ability to do it, and that’s a lot of what EAL does — it gives people that sense, ‘I can do this. If I can do it with horses, I can do it with people.’

For our therapeutic riding and hippotherapy students, I almost have to say I love seeing the students’ progress, but I think I even more so love seeing the parents’ response to those students — them seeing their child make progress in something they’ve been told their child would never do.

Q: What life lessons can horses teach all of us?

A: Every day is new, every moment is new — don’t hold grudges.

(Show) unconditional love and accept things and people where they are.

It comes down to what I call non-judgmental — it is what it is.

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Q: What’s been the most challenging part of this business or working with animals?

A: I think having the continuity of staff (for animal care and instruction) — it’s not a business that’s going to bring in a whole lot of money to live off of. So, it’s got to be something that you have a passion for.

You are going to get paid, but it’s definitely not what you’re going to get out in the corporate world.

The instructors and facilitators that we have here are amazing — they really put their heart into what they do.

They’re here for the clients and that just touches me, knowing that they have that passion as well, because it couldn’t happen without them.

I mean, I’m here writing the grants and doing the leg work and bringing the money in, but they do the hands-on directly out there with the clients, and the clients just love them.

Q: How has his work changed and maybe helped you?

A: Probably I’d have to say a complete 180-degree turn from my previous job.

As a juvenile probation officer, I was very hard core, very almost dictator and determined that, ‘This is what works, this is how we’re going to do (things).’

And I laugh, because I’m still friends with a lot of my co-workers from probation, and they tell me, ‘You’re a totally different person from when you worked here.’

Working with the horses has definitely made me see myself in a different light — made me learn to try that non-judgmental, that unconditional love, accept people where they are (approach).

Before, I was looking at the end result — what we have to do.

Here, you don’t look at the end result, because that end result is different for every client, so it’s just whatever works for them.

I’ve had to learn to just let life be the same way and deal with that.

And I definitely love my life.

I mean, I loved what I did as a probation officer, but if I could go back now, with all the knowledge I have of what horses do, I would probably treat everybody totally differently from what I did back then.

You’re never too old to learn, and it’s absolutely made me a better person than I was.

Q: How are horses especially therapeutic for psychological and physical disabilities?

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A: For physical disabilities, especially with those who have difficulties walking, the horse has the exact same pelvic movement as the individual. So, those who have difficulty walking, it’s forcing their bodies and their muscles to work as they should.

There’s something too about the warmth of the horse when you’re on them that stimulates different neurons within our brain — so speech changes when they’re on the horse; ability and calmness comes over them; and we’ve had parents tell us three days after they don’t have all their emotional moods, because they’re still having the good, relaxing feel from the horse.

As far as the mental part of it, the volunteers constantly tell us, ‘This has been so therapeutic for me — I’m getting more therapy than the clients’ because it’s just so relaxing.

It can release all the stress just brushing a horse.

You can tell a horse anything and they’re not going to tell anyone else; they’re not going to laugh at you.

You can share all your stories and anything you want with them and feel so much better afterwards just having said it.

And sometimes you don’t even have to say it.

Sometimes we just hug horses and giving those hugs, the horses can take our stress away.…Read more by Photojournalist, Kim Brent

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