By Francisca Benitez
Jaci Weishaar owns Victory Acres in La Grande, where people can board their own horses or take horsemanship classes. As the head instructor, Weishaar works with people who ride horses frequently for sport and competitions, but also teaches children and adult novices.
Weishaar also works with people who have PTSD, including veterans, and with children who have problems to work through, whether their challenges stem from disabilities like autism and ADHD or from a lack of self-confidence due to bullying or shyness.
She said working with horses can help anyone build up self-confidence, whether they have a tangible problem to work through or not.
“I really enjoy working with people and watching them achieve their goals and get confidence in themselves,” Weishaar said. “I love watching people grow.”
She said part of the reason working with horses is so helpful to personal growth is the simple aspect of achieving goals. People who come to her classes set horsemanship goals for themselves, and she helps them achieve them. She said her personal teaching style includes pushing people a little bit out of their comfort zone.
Weishaar said she tells them, “Now we’re going to do this. Yes it’s hard, yes it’s scary, but you’re going to do it and you’re going to be fine. I’m not going to ask you to do something you’re not capable of.” She said when her students accomplish something they were originally nervous to do, they realize they are more capable than they thought.
Just being around horses is therapeutic, according to Weishaar.
“Grooming a horse is calming for them,” she said. Many scientific sources including the Mayo Clinic recognize time with animals as well as animal-assisted therapy to be effective ways to manage pain and anxiety.
Humans can learn a lot from how horses deal with stress and trauma, added Weishaar, who often rescues horses that might have trauma in their pasts. She said that the 18-year-old horse she currently uses for training children younger than 5 was rescued from a slaughter pen.
Weishaar said the horse was extremely timid at first and it took a lot of careful training to get her used to her new life.
“Now I put 3-year-old children on her,” she said. “She’s super quiet — just sassy enough to teach them something, but very safe.”
The instructor said her experience has taught her that horses don’t dwell on the past. “They live for the comfort and security they feel in this moment,” she said.
According to Weishaar, seeing a horse overcome a problem can teach people how to tackle their own problems and move past them.
“If the horse can do it, then they can do it,” she said.
Weishaar said horses helped her during her youth quite a bit because she experienced bullying that she described as “severe.”
“Horses were my outlet growing up. They were my sport. They were my therapy. They were my healing,” she said.
She stressed that working with horses is good for everyone, whatever their challenges are or their past experiences have been. She makes an effort to treat her students the same, even if they are coming specifically to help deal with a problem related to something like PTSD or ADHD.
“I still treat it like they’re coming to ride a horse. I don’t treat them any different,” she said.
Weishaar offers several classes at her facility, including a weekly “Ladies Night.” It is a drop-in style class for women only. Weishaar said the reason a class for only women exists is to empower the attendees.
“Women tend to be a lot more confident and comfortable around other women,” she said.
She added that Ladies Night tends to be a fun time for women to chat and talk about their lives while working with their horses. “It’s their time to just relax, and honestly, it’s almost more of a therapy session than anything else,” she said.
Weishaar is from Union County. She graduated from high school in Imbler and attended Eastern Oregon University before transferring to Oregon State University. Horses have always been an important part of her life.
“I started riding before I was even born,” she said. She started showing horses when she was 8 and began teaching horsemanship when she was a teenager.
See complete story in Monday's Observer