Hope Meadows provides healing through horses

by Laura Straub

For the four founders of Hope Meadows Foundation, horses have the power to heal. And through their unique equine-assisted psychotherapy program, which operates out of Misty Acres in Bath, they are transforming the lives of children, adolescents, adults and families.

Their holistic approach to healing combines horses, life skills and the natural environment to aid those suffering from mental health disorders, trauma and addiction.

“We have witnessed time and time again the healing power of horses,’’ said executive director and co-founder Michelle Togliatti of Independence. “And through this unique approach, combining a professional treatment team and horses, we believe we can truly affect change.” 

Hope Meadows Foundation Executive Director Michelle Togliatti works with Misty, a member of the treatment herd. Photo by C. Wells

A Hope Meadows specialized treatment team is made up of a mental health specialist, an equine specialist and one or more therapy horses. Sessions are available for groups of three to 10 or for single clients, who usually are referred by partnering mental health organizations.

Typical sessions involve the client meeting with the team and horse either in the Misty Acres arena or outside, Togliatti said.

“Horses tend to mirror the client’s current situation and provide a unique opportunity for clients to engage,” she said. “Based on the interaction with the horse, the team may ask questions about what happened and help the client process any insights experienced to help achieve the treatment goals.”

The structure of the session is flexible, based on the client’s situation and needs. What remains consistent is that the session takes place on the ground, so no riding experience is necessary.

The idea for Hope Meadows was born from the founders’ own challenges.

Michelle Togliatti and Karen Priemer lead Fire around Misty Acres, Priemer’s Bath farm. Photo by C. Wells

“My teenage years were plagued by depression, low self-esteem, anorexia and bulimia,” said Togliatti. “My treatment, while traditional, was only partially effective and I became vested in finding my own way. I read a lot and sought out alternative and spiritual methods to healing.”

Togliatti met Hope Meadows co-founder Tiffany Ingersoll through an eating disorder specialist in Akron.

“Together we started and led many support groups for eating disorders and realized the need for an advocacy group to connect people with available resources,” Togliatti said.

In 2009, they founded the 501c3 Eating Disorder Advocates of Ohio. Although the organization was not equine centered, it did provide scholarships for adolescents to include equine therapy in their treatment plans.

Although Togliatti and Ingersoll’s personal and professional lives took different paths, the idea of equine therapy was never far out of mind.

When Togliatti’s close friend and Hope Meadows co-founder and facilities director Anne Kichurchak purchased a horse, the idea was reignited. While growing up in Independence, Hinckley resident Kichurchak also suffered from an eating disorder, and horses played a vital role in her recovery.

“My eating disorder started out as my secret,’’ she said. “I thought no one would ever find out and I had it under control. Little did I know it would end up controlling me and almost costing me everything I loved and cared about. Thankfully, my family had the resources to send me out West to an intense inpatient treatment center to get help and save my life. It was there I fell in love with horses.”

When Kichurchak found herself with her own horse and a beautiful family, just as Togliatti had, she realized it was time to give back.

Hinckley resident Anne Kichurchak, pictured with mini-horse Fire, co-founded Hope Meadows as a way to give back after her own recovery through equine therapy. Photo courtesy A. Kichurchak

“Anne and I would walk around the Brecksville Metroparks and talk about how wonderful it would be to create an equine therapy program in our own backyard,” said Togliatti.

In 2018, that dream became a reality and nonprofit Hope Meadows Foundation was born. Ingersoll, who had started an equine therapy program in Amish country, introduced Togliatti and Kichurchak to equine specialist Kirsten Van Nostran

 “That first meeting with the four of us was a goosebumps moment,” Togliatti said. “We realized that the need was much greater than just eating disorders, as most clients were dually diagnosed, and the efficacy of this type of therapy was much more far reaching.”

Connecting with Misty Acres was another goosebumps moment for the group. Owner Karen Priemer has just finished constructing an indoor arena on 12 1/2 acres of land that connects to the Bath Nature Preserve.

“It was a perfect match,” said Togliatti, wife of Independence Mayor Anthony Togliatti. “Karen was hoping to create a space for healing, and our mission was perfectly in line with what she hoped the property could become.”

Priemer’s three horses, Misty, Daisy and Pocket, are part of the Hope Meadows treatment herd, along with a new mini-horse named Fire.

The horses keep busy, as Hope Meadows offers additional programming outside of EAP.

“We also offer another service called equine assisted learning,” said Togliatti. “While not therapy per se, the learning experience is designed to work with groups on character development skills. Examples include corporate team building, self-esteem programs, professional development and children’s programs.”

The Hope Meadows staff provides training for clinicians who are interested in adding equine therapy to their treatment plans. And this summer, they plan to expand their programming to include open programs for children and parents.

The organization held its first official fundraiser on May 6, a charity wine tasting and auction at Michael Angelo’s Winery that brought out 300 guests. There are also plans for a clambake at Misty Acres on Oct. 8.

For more information, visit hopemeadowsoh.org

Featured image photo caption: Misty Acres owner Karen Priemer (l) and Hope Meadows Foundation Executive Director Michelle Togliatti visit with Fire, a therapy horse. The Independence-based nonprofit and Bath farm have teamed up to offer equine-assisted therapy. Photo by C. Wells