At Heels Down Healing, Melissa Clary, Wittenberg University class of 1990, practices a type of therapy unknown by many. As a practitioner of Equine Gestalt Therapy, Clary partners with horses to help clients navigate and heal the past trauma that may be impacting their lives.
Clary's interest in psychology has played a role throughout her life and into her professional career.
"I had always loved learning about the whole human condition, everything from looking at therapy and mental illness, but [my interest in the field] really started at Wittenberg," she says.
As an undergraduate, Clary double majored in psychology and education, and many of the connections she made with Wittenberg faculty and her experiences student teaching in the Springfield community set her up for success. After she graduated, Clary went on to get a master’s degree in counseling psychology from Tufts University.
"My psychology advisor, Dr. [John] Wing, was really the one who encouraged me to go to graduate school. Matter of fact, I still have the letter that he wrote for me to get into Tufts, and, you know, Tufts was a real reach for me to get into from a little school in Ohio. But I really had a lot of support in both departments. Just so much encouragement and so many opportunities."
Clary discovered an interest in school psychology while student teaching in the local Springfield schools. "At the time, there was a lot of need for not just educational help in the schools, but social and emotional outlets [too], and Wittenberg allowed me to take that on and work with kids at lunch and have groups and it was fantastic."
With her master’s in counseling psychology, Clary became a school psychologist and continued that work for many years before beginning her work as an Equine Gestalt Therapist.
Clary, herself, had been in traditional talk therapy as a client, and following the birth of her youngest child and struggles with postpartum depression, she wanted to return to therapy. On a whim, she decided to sign up for Equine Gestalt Therapy. Immediately, she fell in love.
Growing up in the Midwest, Clary, a self-proclaimed "horse girl," always had a special connection with horses. In fact, one of her life goals was to have a horse of her own by the time she turned 50. So, it’s no surprise that just six months into her experience as a client of Equine Gestalt Therapy, she began to pursue getting certified and starting her own practice.
The switch to Gestalt therapy was a change for Clary both as a client and a practitioner.
Unlike talk therapy, "the main goal of Gestalt is to take care of any unfinished business with the understanding that grief and trauma and despair [lie] in our body,” Clary says. “It's a very body-centered form of therapy. The beauty of Gestalt is that it's not a diagnosis. The focus is… that each of us are creative, resourceful, whole.
“So, the beauty is that when we sit down with a Gestalt therapist, we're in contact, which is a way of saying we're in relationship. Often our trauma has happened in relationship, and our healing also needs to happen in relationship."
Horses are uniquely suited for many different therapeutic practices and make the perfect partners for Gestalt methodology. According to Clary, they are "naturally highly sensitive beings, and they are prey animals so they are on high alert, hyper vigilant all the time. They read energy; they've had to go from being a prey animal and being susceptible to attack. It's the way they survive. They live in the moment, and they live through all of their senses. And when we're in partnership with horses, they're the same for us. We're now a part of their herd."
In her practice, Clary works with women going through transitional periods in their lives that can cause anxiety, stress, and other struggles. While she works primarily with women going through menopause, she says that her previous experience in schools has made her a bit of a magnet for children going through the difficult transitions of adolescence.
When a client comes in for a session, Clary chooses the horse they will partner with. Then, she will take some time to talk with the client or go through some exercises with them and see how the horse might react.
"Typically, by that point, the horse is standing right next to the person, like right up there. And I might have them put their hand out and kind of get in sync with the horse’s heartbeats to kind of regulate their body with the horse. Horses love to be in complete congruency with us."
If there is something the client is still holding on to and needs to process or release, the horses can tell. "Horses don't necessarily understand language, but they understand feeling and intention,” Clary says. “They're amazing lie detectors. They just won't stand for people not being authentic.
"[Humans have] been partnering with horses, whether it's in battle or on farms or building communities, since the 1800s,” she continued, “and it's like we finally figured out they are some of our greatest healers. That's kind of beautiful."
Through Equine Gestalt Therapy, Clary has joined two of her passions: horses and therapy, both of which have helped her through many challenges throughout her life so she can help others by passing on her light.
Looking back on her experiences at Wittenberg, Clary, who lives and works in Chicago, reflects, "I just felt like the growth that I had in those four years at a small school – I'm not sure I would have had it a larger university. I could be in a sorority [Alpha Delta Pi], and I could be involved in Union Board, and I could double major, and I had so much support from my professors. It was just such a positive growing experience for me."
- Story by Bella Fiorito ’23