"The horse is never gonna judge you," the 48-year-old farrier and former construction worker said. "They're looking to you as a leader."
The work that goes on builds confidence and develops a sense of accomplishment for all -- even mucking out the stalls brings the rewards that come from physical labor -- but especially for those in recovery, said Brian Gennett, the counselor and clinician who leads the men's group at Stockhands every Thursday and a women's group every Tuesday.
"Sitting in a classroom group session can get so old and boring," Gennett said. "The horses add another layer. They are so in tune with our feelings and emotions. In recovery, we learn how to connect first with the horse and then with ourselves. And finally, we learn how to reconnect with other people."
It isn't always an easy sell.
At this recent session, Gennett pulled his pickup truck into the middle of the arena and threw open its doors. The men and their chosen horses circled around it, each pair standing somewhat isolated along the edge. Soon, a soothing voice from the truck's speakers filled the air: "Breathe in through the soles of your feet, breathe out through the top of your head. Imagine walking so close to the sea, some of the waves touch your feet. Breathe in, breathe out."
At first, some of the horses were restless. Like Tinkerbell, the 16-year-old paint mare that 48-year-old Brian Graziadei picked. She just couldn't settle in. But neither could Graziadei.
"As an alcoholic, you're emotionally, physically and spiritually a mess already," he said later. "I still have a lot of anxiety. I think she could tell that."
Eventually, about 10 minutes into the session, Tinkerbell had dropped her hip and cocked a hind leg, a sign of relaxation. And Graziadei? Well, he nuzzled his cheek into her when he thought no one was looking.
Later, when it came time for a riding lesson, Graziadei declined. He groomed the horses and handled the lead rope as the other men took spins around the arena, but he opted not to give it a go himself. A Clevelander, he said that was a bit much for a "city boy."
But it really went deeper than that. He'd frozen up during a recent confidence-building exercise and wasn't ready to push the envelope once more. Just being in the barn around the animals has been helpful enough, he said.