Nikiski resident Geri Litzen has long had a heart for helping kids with special needs, and has long known the power of animals when it comes to helping them. Now, she’ll have a chance to spread that knowledge around.
A central Kenai Peninsula native, Litzen has a master’s degree in special education and worked for the Fairbanks North Star Borough, Anchorage and Southwest Region School Districts before returning to the area with her husband and home schooling for 18 years. In those years she has also engaged in her love for horses — she owns five, two miniature and three full-sized, and heads the North Wind Riders 4-H club.
When her youngest child graduated this year, Litzen said she saw the opportunity to get back to her old passion while still being able to work with the animals she loves. She recently started operating Milestones Equine Therapy out of her home in Nikiski with her personal animals.
“What human-animal connection does is it goes to a deeper level in our hearts.” Litzen said. “My husband says I’m touchy-feely and I think, ‘Yes, I absolutely am,’ because this is documented but it’s not explained, which is beautiful I think because you have something that we can’t write a scientific prescription for.”
Litzen went to the Lower 48 to get extra training in animal-assisted play therapy, and her horses are also well trained, she said. She has already started seeing clients, and envisions helping everyone from children on the autism spectrum to the elderly to at-risk teens.
Litzen’s animal-assisted play therapy training also included canines, and her corgi, Dandelion, is also known to help out with the kids and is never far off.
“Really what I bring to it is my background and my expertise in designing curriculum,” Litzen said.
Some of the therapeutic activities people can participate in include nature walks, care taking and grooming the horses, and training them to do tricks.
Litzen has worked with children with sensory processing issues, like autism and asperger’s syndrome, as well as adults. She is also fluent in American Sign Language and can hold nonverbal sessions, useful for deaf clients or children who are not deaf but are nonverbal for another reason.
Litzen said she wants to start up slowly to make sure her horses don’t get overworked, but is currently offering free consultations for families. It’s important to her that parents make sure her therapy sessions are the right fit for their family, she said.
“There’s almost nobody that couldn’t benefit from it,” she said. “I think of kids that are high risk … between junior high (and) high school and transitioning to adulthood. There’s at-risk teens, there’s transitional things for disabled teens and adults (when) they’re in transitional situations and they need life skills, they need some confidence.”
There’s a confidence course at Litzen’s home for just that purpose. It consists of a teeter-totter, tires, a bridge and various obstacles for the horses to be led through.
“Then they can kind of help the animals work through some of their anxiety,” she said. “As they go over things, the kids forget about themselves, they forget about their anxieties and they’re just … they’re being rock stars because they’re helping, you know?”
Litzen also sees potential for older people who had a connection to horses in their past but have trouble getting out and about to benefit from equine therapy. It can also be helpful in rehabilitating from an illness or simply getting an older person out of the house after the death of a loved one.
Litzen said she takes time at the beginning of each session to match children or clients with the appropriate horse. Each of her three full-sized horses — Chance, Duvall and Silke— as well as her mini horses Pixie Dust and Magic, have unique personalities that can be matched up with clients to make them work together better.
Down the road, Litzen said she would like to grow her business enough to be able to open a small indoor facility for winter months.
“I still do therapy year-round, but … with weather issues and stuff, it would be nicer,” she said.
Litzen said she’s reached out to several organizations and entities and has gotten a positive response about collaborating. She’s gotten interest from Kenai Kid’s Therapy and Frontier Community Services, and will be doing a group session for the Kenai Peninsula Youth Facility, she said, working with the probation department
She also hopes to work with the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District.
“I know from being a classroom teacher that we need all the resources we can get. To get kids and even adults out of the classroom, out of the counseling offices and into nature and with animals, the human-animal connection is extremely powerful. So then what you need are good animals, a good, quiet, peaceful environment, and then someone that knows how to facilitate those things.”