Spending nearly two weeks at Idaho Horse Therapy substantially reduced the intense pain Mike Weems Sr. suffers. He has a condition called Complex Regional Pain Syndrome.
“I’m much, much better than I was,” he said afterward. “The program is phenomenal in so many different ways.”
The Equine Assisted Growth and Learning Association (EAGALA) certifies equine specialists such as Johnny Urrutia, who founded Idaho Horse Therapy a decade ago. Veterans and others dealing with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder are among his clients.
Urrutia about a year ago moved IHT — which has professional staff, and about 40 trained horses at various southern Idaho sites — from Shoshone to Nampa. He said the move positioned the nonprofit corporation closer to Boise Veterans Affairs Medical Center, more military veterans and various therapists and other health professionals who work with IHT and its clients.
“A horse is always reading your energy,” said Urrutia, a lifelong horse enthusiast who previously worked as a high school math teacher, professional rodeo cowboy and recording artist. “You and I are reading each other’s energy, but we are not as good at it.”
Horses excel at “reading” people quickly and thoroughly — and in turn connecting deeply — partly because the spoken word does not get in the way, he said. A horse can help someone quickly calm and brighten his or her state of mind.
Weems, 69, a bowling-center owner, deals mainly with acute, prolonged physical pain.
He caught his left hand in a heavy shipping-and-receiving door on his small farm near Bellevue, Idaho, in late July 2016. Doctors reattached two fingers, but there was nerve damage. The pain that followed was more severe and long-lasting.
A physician in Sun Valley diagnosed CRPS, which the National Institutes of Health says is a chronic condition believed to be caused by damage to, or malfunction of, central and peripheral nervous systems. Prolonged excessive pain characterizes it.
Weems consulted with medical providers and more recently Urrutia, whom he has known since the two were in high school 40-plus years ago. Urrutia connected with Traci Patterson, an Irvine, Calif., physician who treats chronic pain with a multimodal approach that is non-invasive and drug-free.
Patterson, herself a former CRPS sufferer, flew to Idaho in November to work with Weems and Urrutia at IHT.
Traditional treatment of chronic pain often is symptom-focused and ineffective, Patterson said.
“When we are using a multimodal protocol, we are treating the whole person,” she said.
Patterson, through her Advanced Pathways practice, uses various mind and body treatment modes to help chronic-pain patients balance their autonomic nervous system, and break cycles of pain and fight-or-flight responses.
“When we do that and can start working with him (Weems) as a whole, we can essentially help him regain function-able levels of pain,” she said.
Urrutia said horses “have a way of helping us meet that coherence, when you are out of a dominant sympathetic state — our fight-or-flight mechanism.”
Weems said his pain dropped 70 to 80% during his stay at IHT based on Patterson’s treatments, the work of Urrutia and staff, and his experiences with horses.
At home, he plans to use specialized breathing and other exercises Patterson prescribed. He will return to IHT, and a separate Nampa medical office that measures pain levels, as needed. His son, Mike Weems Jr., is a Boise restaurateur.
He was raised on a Gooding, Idaho, farm, where his family had horses. He didn’t realize it then, but “the emotional connection you make with them is remarkable,” he said. “And Johnny is the first person who could illustrate that connection.
“I was amazed with the experience with Johnny’s horses,” Weems said. “Their sensitivity is so acute. They sense the person.”