2014-05-30 / People

Horse therapy a passion for local woman

By Alex Acquisto
Staff Writer

Gabriela Rodriguez poses between Fritz, left, and Lexie at her home in West Kennebunk. Rodriguez offers horse therapy sessions at her home stable and paddock, Blixx Horses. 
(Alex Acquisto photo) Gabriela Rodriguez poses between Fritz, left, and Lexie at her home in West Kennebunk. Rodriguez offers horse therapy sessions at her home stable and paddock, Blixx Horses. (Alex Acquisto photo) KENNEBUNK — Gabriela Rodriguez believes that horses deserve the same respect people do. To help spread the word, Rodriguez runs horse therapy sessions from her West Kennebunk home business Blixx Horses. Rodriguez, with the help of George Quinlan, will also co-host a show to air on Biddeford Public Access called "All About Horses and Their Care."

Rodriguez, who runs two other businesses from home and is also a substitute teacher in the Regional School Unit 21 school system. Rodriguez is also a licensed dental hygienist and fitness trainer.

She and her husband own two horses, Fritz, who is 19, and Lexie, 14.

Rodriguez became acquainted with horses late in life and by happenstance. To learn about horses, Rodriguez regularly sat in stables with horses and just observed them for about six years. The field observations, coupled with sifting through book upon book, unearthed a passion that has persisted years later. "Now, I attend lectures, seminars, clinics – everything I can that is given by professionals (vets, farriers, a nutritionist, etc.) at reputable institutions. Tufts (University) is the closest," Rodriguez said. "I then pass that information on to people. That is in addition to day-to-day experience and learning through reading, etc, and having a background in health/science and fitness helps immensely."

During her research, Rodriguez found, via the 2007 census, there were nearly 300 horse farms in York County with 2,238 horses. Today, Rodriguez anticipates that number has doubled to between 4,500 and 5,000 horses.

"Planning Decisions, Inc. did an economic impact study for the Maine Farm Bureau in 2006. That study concluded that there were approximately 35,000 horses in the state of Maine," Rodriguez said. "In another study done by AWP (the Animal Welfare Program ) found that out of that number, 1 percent, or 350 horses in Maine, would die of hunger over the winter, due to neglect in care in being provided the necessary amount of forage and/or addition to the necessary amount of grain." While death from hunger or inclement weather conditions are comparably rare, it is not uncommon at all for horses to be mildly mistreated, Rodriguez said, particularly if they no longer fill their owner's needs due to old age or injury.

This reality incentivized Rodriguez to help diminish maltreatment by vocalizing correct and respectful ways to treat horses and to offer horse therapy, which teaches understanding and calmness when in the presence of horses.

Beginning in 2007, Rodriguez and her husband began visiting local venues to conduct horse therapy presentations. Their first workshop was at the Colony Hotel in Kennebunkport. Since then, other venues – including the Nonantum Resort and Huntington Common – allow Lexie and Fritz to visit and interact with participants. Rodriguez has continued those offerings today, offering presentations to both young and old in addition to the four-hour therapy sessions at her home.

The therapy sessions are for anyone, no matter if one has experience with horses or not. The first two hours are reserved for learning and observing, and the last two hours are interactive. Activities such as feeding and sitting in the stalls with the horses are required so participants become acquainted with the large animals. Since Lexie has never been ridden, participants learn to ride Fritz bareback – Rodriguez doesn't use saddles. If they are too uncomfortable, they have the option of using a bitless bridle. Rodriguez uses positive encouragement to shape the horses’ behavior in areas where others might use physical force. "Instead of bits, we use rewards."

"You should get to a point where you can get the horse to do what you want with only your voice and body language," Rodriguez said.

On Friday, while Lexie was in the ring, Rodriguez demonstrated voice control. "Now I'm going to tell her what to do: Lexie, canter." The horse immediately began to canter.

Rodriguez tries to keep the stables as clean as possible – another tenant of her teachings: one should be able to live comfortably in their stable. To do this, Rodriguez tells Fritz and Lexie to go outside to use the bathroom, like dogs, and they listen.

"There's a lot of misinformation out there," Rodriguez said of horse care. For example, many people believe a person should never walk behind a horse for fear of be- ing kicked. This is a myth, Rodriguez said. While Lexie was eating supper in the stable, Rodriguez walked up to her, touched Lexie's back legs and said, "I should be able to touch my horse anywhere at about any time."

The key is forming a relationship built on trust while also recognizing the body language of the horse. "Being a good leader doesn't mean you have to be mean," Rodri- guez said.

"I try to help people by using all the things I've learned, to give them the right information so they can make the right decisions," Rodriguez said. "It's a very simple concept, what we do. We teach about care."

Rodriguez and Quinlan's public access show will demonstrate these teachings on the air.

"The shows are educational and cover a myriad of topics, including anatomy and physiology, the importance of cleanliness and infection control, managing dust and insects, costs, nutrition, behavior – including understanding reflexes and reactions – communication, evolution, the reality of the homelessness situation and how it can be prevented, getting in shape to ride, the fundamentals of riding, and the physical and emotional therapy that horses provide, without being ridden," Rodriguez said.

While there are many goals with the show, one of the major goals is to "introduce the general public to horses, and the Blixx Horses philosophy of care, which takes into consideration the horses’ best interest," Rodriguez said. "Another goal is to reach the horse community and provide information to help people understand horses better, in order to take good care of them. In addition, the show can be a forum where information can be shared, opinions can be voiced, questions answered and issues discussed."

Filming will start in June. Once a show has been aired, it will be accessible on You- Tube.

At the end of the day, one should "focus on what's in the best interest of the horse," Rodriguez said.

"Every decision you make should be based on that."

"We're all mammals, and we're all the same in a lot of ways."

For more information on horse therapy, visit www.blixxhorses.org.

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