If it were any other day, 10-year old Laurie Roberts would have walked home from school but this afternoon was different.
Mother picked her up and quietly drove Roberts and her little sister home as the two stared out the car window watching walnut trees pass by.
Their father, a U.S. Marine pilot stationed at Fort El Torro in Southern California, crashed into a mountain during a routine test flight, mother said. And he wouldn’t be coming home today or tomorrow or ever.
“Does this mean that we don’t get to go camping,” Roberts remembered asking. Her dad planned all their camping trips and she was looking forward to it.
“I was my daddy’s little girl, and my sister was my mom’s little girl,” she said. “When my dad died, I was nobody’s little girl.”
Roberts remembers a quiet house after that. She said her mother avoided having the tough conversation with the children on how they felt about the empty seat at the end of the family dinner table. Her mother just wasn’t prepared to deal with the sudden loss.
To this day, Roberts says they never received a formal investigation report of what happened during the plane crash.
“The grief just did not get processed,” Roberts said.
The trauma of losing her number one supporter made her feel alone. She searched for attention from her mother, who was often distracted taking care of Robert’s ill sister and baby brother.
Though she was diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) after the fifth grade, she waited years to seriously seek therapy as an adult. It wasn’t until she was in her 40s when Roberts decided she would take a childhood dream of riding horses and pair it with a passion to help kids heal.
“My horse was my very first therapist and that’s how I ended up in this field,” she said.
“I couldn’t really afford therapy and a horse. I decided my horse was my best therapy so I thanked my therapist very much and said, ‘I can’t afford both of you and I’m opting for the horse.’”
Roberts, 56, is the co-founder and therapist at the Nevada Equestrian Assisted Therapy (N.E.A.T.) center in Reno. It use horses as therapy for clients — who are mostly children, some foster kids, — grappling with emotional trauma, abuse, behavior problems or mental disorders.
At the horse therapy ranch, she teaches them to feed, groom and ride horses. Each client gets to choose their riding horse, with guidance from Roberts. The children evaluate their strengths and weakness while balancing those qualities with that of the horse’s.
“It’s really nice to see growth and change,” she said. “[The children] are feeling sad but they can’t put a name on that. Through working with the horse they’re able to find a way to express it.”
A client with anxiety may not be able to stand near a horse because they are worried and anxious but by the end of a couple sessions, Roberts said, children grow comfortable cleaning the horse’s hooves, brushing its mane and eventually riding them.
“They are a different child through their interactions with the horse,” she said. “They step up and become better people, better children, better humans. They want to be that better person for their horse.”