Run by a Pennington-based psychologist, the non-profit is part of a fast-growing horse therapy movement, and is on the hunt for a preserved farm.
Dr. Susan Edwards has been a licensed psychologist in New Jersey and Pennsylvania for 20 years. During that time she’s practiced throughout the greater Princeton area, and even keeps an office right in Howe Commons in Pennington. But the key component of her latest venture in mental health doesn’t involve her getting up close and personal with a client and getting to the root of the problem. She leaves that to Velvet, her 5-year-old Trakehner horse and the face of Team Velvet, Inc., a children’s charity providing equine-facilitated mental health (EFMH) services to kids ages 3 to 11.
In business for roughly four years but only recognized as an official non-profit in 2009, Team Velvet, Inc. combines Edwards’ passions for horses and helping children. A former elementary school counselor, Edwards says “she’s always worked with kids,” and in addition to writing over 100 articles and five books, she’s also authored children’s books.
Edwards was extremely attached to her first horse. After grad school, she got a teaching job in Maine and brought her horse along. She and her companion traveled back to New Jersey together and remained inseparable until the horse passed away.
“It took me five years to get another horse,” Edwards says. “I had to grieve.”
And then she found Velvet, whom she first met when he was three days old and ill, possibly not going to make it. After initially being licked by the animal – “I was imprinted,” she says – and then later, in a desperate moment, transferring her body heat to help him regain strength, Edwards forged a powerful bond with Velvet and soon bought him at the age of three weeks.
At about that time, Edwards began hearing more and more about EFMH, and started doing research.
“It just seemed like a natural fit,” Edwards says of the therapy model, which can be applied to any age group and, for children, involves non-mounted therapy: kicking a soccer ball, drawing pictures, asking questions and sharing feelings, all with the horse and all in the presence of a therapist, horse handler and the child’s guardian.
Ideal candidates for EMFH are children who may have difficulty interacting with others because of adjustment issues, special needs, or emotional trauma such as death of a loved one, bullying or victimization.
Edwards says the horse can serve as a friend, and, for one reason or another, many youths seem to identify with horses who’ve endured similar troubles. For example, Edwards says she’s seen individuals with eating disorders naturally gravitate toward horses who’ve been starved, while kids who’ve been bullied have connected with horses who’ve been beaten.
“This work is amazing,” says Edwards, who’s received full EMFH training for herself and Velvet. “But, more than that, it’s humbling. The information you get is so powerful. I have worked with children my entire career, and I’ve found they’re willing to ask animals questions that they wouldn’t ask people, and open up in new ways. This work has increased my passion for what I do.”
Edwards says Velvet is very smart, athletic, a fast learner, willing to please and possesses a “good temperament for working with kids.” (One child, Edwards says, observed, “Velvet is a lot like me: independent, smart and loving.”) Though Velvet is the star and namesake of the helpful organization, Edwards is looking to compile a whole herd of horses for Team Velvet, Inc., catering to children in an area ranging from Philadelphia to New York, and becoming a major part of what Edwards calls “the fastest growing mental health movement internationally.”
But, first, Team Velvet needs a home base. Edwards is on the hunt for a landowner looking to donate a preserved farm to serve as her and Velvet’s headquarters, providing ample room for the horse(s) to run and work, an interior working space and a place for Edwards to live on the property. So far, Edwards and Velvet have been moving from farm to farm, causing certain scheduling difficulties, resulting in a long waiting list of people interested in donating animals, and leaving Team Velvet at the mercy of inclement weather.
“Could you imagine a doctor saying, ‘If there’s too much wind, I can’t see you,’ or, ‘If it’s too hot, I can’t see you?’” Edwards says. “There are no limits to how we can help, but we need our own place. It’s that simple.”
Anyone aware of individuals who may be in a position to donate a preserved farm to Team Velvet, Inc. should contact Edwards at 609-924-4330 or 609-215-1910. Those looking to make a donation should send it to: Team Velvet, Inc. P.O. Box 268, Rocky Hill, N.J., 18553-0268.
“The effect this therapy can have on a child – there are just no words for it,” Edwards says. “Velvet performs in the arena of a child’s heart.”