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Courageous Nate: Donkey takes center stage to help children

Debora Lay and Dr. Irmak Birey on Oct. 30, 2020 say hello to the donkey named Nate that was the inspiration for a book and a new equine-assisted therapy program designed to help children and adults understand, cope and effectively deal with anxiety in Hamilton, Mont. (Perry Backus/Ravalli Republic via AP)

HAMILTON, Mont. — Debora Lay had no idea where her decision to adopt three Bureau of Land Management donkeys a couple of years back was going to lead.

Dr. Irmak Birey certainly didn’t know that one of those donkeys was going to lead her to author a book that could change the lives of children struggling with their pasts.

A donkey that goes by the name of Nate was the catalyst that brought the two together to create a new equine therapy program they believe will help both young and old.

Birey started volunteering in the summer of 2019 at Lay’s nonprofit corporation, Wings Program Inc. — which combines a unique mix of horse rescue, rehabilitation and equine-assisted therapy offerings — after attending a fundraiser where folks were asked to help name the three BLM donkeys.

“I wanted to do something to give back to my community,” Birey told the Ravalli Republic. “This seemed like the perfect opportunity. I’ve loved donkeys since I was a young girl growing up in Turkey in a valley just like this one…While spending time helping out here, the magic started to happen. I began writing this book in my head.”

Birey is a clinical mental health therapist who works with children dealing with difficult pasts.

Birey saw Nate, with his long ears and his gentle demeanor, as the perfect subject for a story that could help young people learn life-changing skills they need to become resilient.

“Courageous Nate: A Donkey’s Tale of Bravery” is a unique combination of a heartwarming story followed by a workbook designed to help children and adults combine creativity, cognitive-behavioral methods and mindfulness practices to better understand, cope and effectively deal with anxiety.

Once the book was finished, Lay and Birey began to talk about the potential of using its lessons to develop an equine therapy program that could help both children and adults. In August, the pair completed the coursework needed to become certified through the Equine Assisted Growth and Learning Association to equine-assisted therapy.

“EAGLA is the real deal,” Lay said. “They are recognized by the Veterans Administration and all psychological associations. They have a very stringent certification process…Their program focuses on developing a team that includes a licensed mental health professional, a certified equine specialist and horses.”

“Horses are like mirrors,” she said. “They are going to reflect back what the client is putting into the session, either verbally, emotionally, or through body language.”

“It’s an experiential process,” Birey said. “Our clients will write their own stories. We’ll give them a venue to do it…Through their interactions with the horses, they are able to self-regulate and gain insights about their own behavior and mental state.'”

They have developed a program based on lessons from Birey’s book.

“With winter coming, we’ve decided to start slow,” Lay said. “We want this to be a professional program…While the book is written for young people, its message applies to adults as well. We plan a six-week program that will work with both kids and adults.”

The two women are currently working with a teenage girl who is helping them pilot their new program.

On one visit, the girl told the pair the horses didn’t seem to want anything to do with her.

To that, Lay explained that one horse was looking at the barn, another was looking at hay and the third was focused on what was happening outside the pen.

“She figured out by the end of the session the horses’ behavior had nothing to do with her,” Birey said. “The fact that they weren’t coming to her had nothing to do with her. They were all distracted by something else…That was a big deal for her. She realized that when her friends don’t respond to her, it’s just because they are busy with something else and distracted.”

Part of the program includes a requirement that the client comes back with a written summary of what they had learned the week before.

“She wrote that all these things that I worry about don’t have anything to do with me,” Birey said. “That’s a big epiphany for a 13-year-old. Through this experience and the book, she was able to understand how her thinking can impact how she feels.”

Birey’s book is available at the Chapter One Bookstore in Hamilton, Valley Drug and Variety Store and The Boutique in Stevensville as well as Amazon. Anyone interested in learning about the different programs and opportunities at Lay’s horse rescue and sanctuary, Wings Program Inc., can visit www.wingsprograms.org.

A portion of book sales is donated to the Wings Program.

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