Sara Swanson

Bridgewater Support Services – a mental health resource with horses!

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Amber Burkhardt-Sidebottom, LMSW with Sugar. Photo courtesy of Bridgewater Support Services.

Amber Burkhardt-Sidebottom, LMSW with Sugar. Photo courtesy of Bridgewater Support Services.

A frequent topic, whenever wellness in Manchester is discussed, is the state of mental health in our community and what can be done to improve it. One of the few local practitioners in the field working to make things better is Amber Burkhardt-Sidebottom, a licensed clinical social worker and mental health counselor. At her practice, Bridgewater Support Services located on Ernst Road, she’s using horses to do it.

“Horses are prey animals,” she explained, “and by nature have a highly attuned ability to sense and respond to emotions as a means for survival. Consequently, they become mirrors in the therapeutic process as they reflect our inner most feelings, whether we recognize them or not. This can be a powerful tool in getting to the foundation of emotional distress. It can also be a less threatening way for people to look at difficult issues by talking about them in respect to the horses; and in turn, discovering that this mirrors their own life and practice how to handle it with the horses. It is also super helpful to learn a skill through written or spoken word and then actually practice that in a setting where they horses do not judge you if it doesn’t go as planned or you decide you want to try a different way.”

Gert (right) & Figaro (left). Photo courtesy of Bridgewater Support Services.

Gert (right) & Figaro (left). Photo courtesy of Bridgewater Support Services.

Burkhardt-Sidebottom has always had an interest in helping others and recognized how much she benefited from growing up around horses. She stated, “As a kid, I was super shy, lacking confidence, driven but needed direction … the horses helped me learn about team work, leadership, confidence, assertiveness, being gentle but strong, and empathy. I wanted to share this with others who do not have the ability to have horses in their lives.”

In 2000, she stumbled across people who were doing this exact thing as a profession and discovered there were organizations that supported it and trained individuals to be better at it. She knew at that point that they were blazing a trail in the field of Equine Assisted work and that she wanted to be
a part of it.

Although Bridgewater Support Services has only been running for two years here in Manchester, Burkhardt-Sidebottom has been working as an independent contractor providing similar services through Kaleidoscope Learning Circle, based out of Birch Run, MI for the last 10 years. She holds a masters in social work from the University of Michigan and a certification through an organization called EAGALA (Equine Assisted Growth and Learning Association) and continues to attend workshops and find mentorships to learn as much as she can, and continually adapt her practice to her clients’ needs. She provides mental health and personal growth services for children, adolescents, adults, and groups through Equine Assisted Counseling as well as traditional psychotherapy and learning programming in office for individuals who are not interested in equine assisted work. She employs cognitive behavioral, dialectical behavioral, solution focused, and experiential models of therapy.

Pokey the donkey giving and getting affection. Photo courtesy of Bridgewater Support Services.

Pokey the donkey giving and getting affection. Photo courtesy of Bridgewater Support Services.

Currently, Bridgewater Support Services has four horses and a miniature donkey that actively work with clients, but Burkhardt-Sidebottom is hoping to add a new 4-legged partner or two this fall. She also has another horse who is currently undergoing education and introduction to the world with the hopes that he will be a great therapy partner some day soon.

The horses are diverse in their backgrounds, experience, and personalities and that is what makes them perfect for use in therapy. Burkhardt-Sidebottom explained, “The horses I have partnered with are retired, some have physical ailments that keep them from being ‘useful’ in the show horse world, some have poor coping skills such as anxiety, codependency, and even self harm that keep them from being mentally healthy in a show or competitive situation. They have likes and dislikes, good days and bad days, and they live in herds and have relationships, histories, and bonds with each other.  The characteristics of the horses as well as their different personalities allow humans to make connections to themselves or others in their lives and begin to look at their own lives outside of the horses and begin to think about how to manage things they would like to change.”

Burkhardt-Sidebottom typically works with clients ages 5 to 30 and loves working with children, adolescents, and young adults the most.  She acknowledges that this age range encompasses large span of developmental differences, but she loves the challenge of helping someone “who is stuck” and the age range provides a lot of diversity to work with. “With younger kids, the play and experiential nature of what we do is SO helpful,” she said, “and for adults, I love their ability to make connections with metaphors between what happens with the horses and in their own life. There are so many of the younger kids who also are able to make these connections and it always blows me away and makes my heart so happy.”

Photo courtesy of Bridgewater Support Services.

Photo courtesy of Bridgewater Support Services.

Over and over, Burkhardt-Sidebottom has witnessed the effectiveness of horses in therapy. She has had adolescents who were resistant to any kind of therapy before coming to Bridgewater Support Services, able to open themselves up to the possibility of learning new skills and talking about their lives. She has had kids learn about their own anxiety through the horse’s anxiety by figuring out how to help the horse and in turn, adapting it to help themselves.

She has had kids who have a hard time at school, work on setting a goal for the horses and work with the horses to get through that goal. She has had kids who are angry and come out to work on “being gentle” with the horses and in turn, learn how to manage their anger.

One of the most remarkable experiences was when a client finally connected with a hard-to-connect-with horse who the client had labeled as her mother; when they finally connected the client said, “I feel like the hole in my heart is filling back up.” Burkhardt-Sidebottom explained that her client was then able to understand from that experience what she needed to do in her relationship with her mother in real life. “I work with what shows up and meet my clients where they are at,” Burkhardt-Sidebottom stated. Sometimes that means that means working with the cat that lives in the barn with the horses. “Some of the most surprising are the unexpected things like the cat being a huge part of a session,” she continued.

Burkhardt-Sidebottom knows there is a under-met need for mental health resources in the Manchester area. She cited the concrete example of searches on the website psychologytoday.com; there have been close to 10,000 searches for therapy and other help in our area so far this year, as well as firsthand accounts from living in our community.

“I am pretty connected to the community by my own involvement in community happenings and I hear about bullying, substance abuse, self harm, suicidal ideation,” she stated. “I also hear about people trying to get on wait lists to be seen in other communities. I know that SRSLY Manchester is a huge support as well as the school counselors. I also know that there is greater need for ongoing continued support and a lot of people searching for it.”

She explained the importance of having mental health services available locally so people can seek them out without having to take the time and money to drive the extra distance for help, which can be a huge barrier. She believes there are still mental health stigmas that exist but does see a shift happening. She stated, “I would love to start an initiative with others in the area to support people seeking help. Help to normalize this and let them know that help is literally right.” While she sees bringing more mental health resources to Manchester as important, even more important in her eyes, is that the resources be interconnected, with referrals and mutual support to help our community as a united front.

Burkhardt-Sidebottom is constantly thinking about the next steps for Bridgewater Support Services. She is working toward being able to bill insurance in the next year, and expanding to day time hours for appointments (currently she sees clients in the evening). She is constantly adding new groups, including a fall women’s group she is really excited about.  It will be similar to a retreat with soul searching, empowerment, wellness, skill building, support, and more. She has also just started partnering with other organizations, most recently Hillsdale Hospice, and travels with the horses to their location to host an equine assisted learning activity. She would like to do more of that in the near future and in the longer term, build a larger indoor horse facility.

If you are interested in learning more about Bridgewater Support Services and what they offer, visit their website at www.bridgewatersupportservices.com  or visit them on Facebook at bridgewatersupportservicesequine. Burkhardt-Sidebottom works on a sliding scale fee for services, which means clients tell her what they can afford between a range and they work together to make services accessible, usually from $60 to $100 for a 50 minute session. She also offers groups at a decreased rate for participants starting at $40 per group session, and offers her services at multiple local benefit auctions, which can be another great way to save money on services. To schedule an appointment, send an email to amber@bridgewatersupportservices.com or text or call 734-276-2765. Bridgewater Support Services will be participating in the Manchester Street Festival this year so you can ask questions in person.

Burkhardt-Sidebottom stresses that their services are NOT just for troubled youth or those experiencing acute mental illness. “I can’t tell you how many people I work with or have worked with who are super high functioning and doing well but still struggle,” she stated. “That is normal. It is OK to talk to someone about it before it manifests itself into causing problems in your life.”

Photo courtesy of Bridgewater Support Services.

Photo courtesy of Bridgewater Support Services.

Photo courtesy of Bridgewater Support Services.

Photo courtesy of Bridgewater Support Services.

Photo courtesy of Bridgewater Support Services.

Photo courtesy of Bridgewater Support Services.

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