Women in Entertainment 2016

How '2 Broke Girls' Star Beth Behrs Is Using Equine Therapy to Help Sexual Assault Victims

Courtesy of Taren Maroun
Beth Behrs

"Horses only respond to you when you're being authentic. You begin to realize that your true self is enough," says the actress, who (along with horse whisperer/equine guided educator Cassandra Ogier) will be launching weekend workshops for survivors through her SheHerdPower Foundation.

Beth Behrs might be best known for her role as the perky Caroline Channing on CBS' 2 Broke Girls, but industry perceptions of her will soon include her boots-on-the-ground activism for victims of sexual assault. In June, the 30-year-old actress formed a partnership with horse whisperer/equine guided educator Cassandra Ogier to bring equine therapy to sexual-assault survivors in the Los Angeles region and beyond.

Behrs went to see Ogier when panic attacks that had started when she was a teenager began to worsen after she nabbed the role of Channing in 2011. With the spotlight came pressure, and she began "spiraling out" with anxiety. In 2015, comedian and 2 Broke Girls co-creator Whitney Cummings told Behrs about Ogier, whose program, The Reflective Horse, pairs horses with people in various forms of emotional crisis. Ogier, who discovered the healing power of horses as a sexually abused child in the 1960s and '70s, and who has worked with the highly sensitive animals ever since, says that "horses mirror humans' emotional terrain." They do so in part, say some equine scientists, because we share the same limbic system. As prey, horses are also "constantly reading the environment," says Ogier. In the presence of humans, they pick up on biofeedback — everything from our feelings to intentions. "So we get to work out how to be clear, direct and confident, to step into our authentic leadership," says Ogier.

In 2011, Ogier began offering her own personalized brand of equine therapy, called Somatic Riding, in which participants — most of them women — learn to ride without the use of a saddle or bit, fostering vulnerability and trust. Behrs would go to the ranch, work with her horse, and leave feeling "empowered and grounded," she says.

Within a few months, her panic attacks subsided. Behrs began talking with Ogier about helping women who had experienced sexual assault, a group that includes one of her close friends. After that woman was date raped on a college campus in 2010, Behrs was the first person she called. Behrs drove her to a rape-crisis center, where she convulsed during a physical exam. In the subsequent months, the friend fell into a depression. She attended therapy and everyday life slowly improved, but she remained wracked with guilt, anxiety and the acute feeling that she had lost her "inner strength." Britt Bardo, 42, was also date raped in college. She says her work with Ogier and the horses has helped her realize she hasn't effectively dealt with her experience. "I was always the tough one, always saying, 'I'm fine, I'm fine,' and I needed to get in touch with that. You have be honest with yourself. Working with Cassandra and the horses, the idea of trust kept coming up. I realized that I needed to trust my need to nurture myself in order to really delve into my history."

Another survivor, who requests anonymity, says: "Unfortunately, I have a lot of history with sexual assault. At 12, I fended off a summer of unwanted advances from my grandfather, and then at 14, I was date raped by a camp counselor. I became very promiscuous after that. I lost myself, and believed the word 'no' didn't mean anything. I found Cassandra and a horse, Mighty Tough Spirit, who has been teaching me about communicating clearly. [With him], I have to know who I am, what I want and to speak it clearly. It's a profound life lesson that's helping me find my voice again."

Reflecting on her friend's — and many survivors' — experiences, Behrs inspired Ogier to create a three-day, moveable workshop expressly for survivors of sexual assault. Ogier and Behrs formed a nonprofit, The Reflective Horse Foundation, and as founding members, made SheHerdPower its focus, with a pilot program set to run in April of 2017.

In many ways, their collaboration couldn't have come at a better time, with stories of sexual assault dominating headlines. In June, a California judge sentenced Stanford swimmer Brock Allen Turner to a mere six months in prison for sexually assaulting an unconscious woman behind a dumpster, prompting protests and outrage. The release of the victim's statement on social media received 11 million shares in four days.

Hollywood also saw its share of high-profile sexual-assault stories. In July, former Fox News anchor Gretchen Carlson sued CEO Roger Ailes for sexual harassment; other women came forward with similar allegations, prompting the network to fire Ailes and settle with Carlson for $20 million. And Nate Parker, the writer, director and star of presumed top awards contender The Birth of a Nation, has been dogged by allegations that he raped a woman years ago when he was a student at Penn State. Of course, this cycle of headlines culminated with the release of the Donald Trump Access Hollywood tapes, in which the president-elect boasted about grabbing women without their consent.

The deluge of these stories in the media has had a debilitating effect on sexual-assault survivors. Calls to the National Sexual Assault Hotline saw a 33 percent increase during the campaign. One women summed up her dread in a tweet on election night: "Every sexual-assault survivor just watched their worst nightmare come true." That group includes the one in five women who have been raped at some point in their lives, according to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center.

In some small way, Behrs hopes to counter this climate.

The first SheHerdPower survivor weekend will unfold at Flag Ranch, a horse sanctuary set on 90 acres of rain-fed grasslands in California's gold country, east of San Francisco. The retreat (and all subsequent ones) will host six to eight women and have support from a licensed mental health professional. Each retreat will include immersion with horses, the majority of which, says Ogier, have experienced trauma. "Domesticated horses have almost always been subjugated, shut down or abused," she says. "So the parallel story is that we're also helping them [and] the power of the experience is even more heightened."

Participants will arrive on a Friday, observe the herd and select a horse to work with. Almost always, says Ogier, participants choose a horse that represents "who that person is underneath." Teens, she says, often choose a horse that is powerful or domineering because they're attracted to that energy, though they may not know how to handle it. Others migrate to a gentle horse, seeking kindness. The end goal is to teach women, through the experience, how to release past trauma in order to access their buried or blighted strength.

The process is inspiring to watch, says Behrs, who has used her celebrity to spread the word, and her own money — plus earnings from upcoming fundraising events organized through the social innovation group Hawkins Mikita — to fund the pilot program.

"You have this big, often terrifying animal that you have to learn to assert yourself with," says Behrs. The work is slow, but effective. For Behrs' friend, it has helped her regain her strength. "It has opened up new things for me — things I'm still holding on to," the friend says. "I didn't realize it until I started working with [her horse] Chief. He created space for what's inside of me to come out. It's weird, but he takes it on. And that then allows me to see it and work on it to make positive change."

Cost for participants is free, says Behrs, and as women are learning about SheHerdPower they are asking to participate. Behrs also plans to contact The Rape Foundation, which she supports monetarily and through appearances, and other sexual assault organizations to let them know about the retreats. "Unfortunately, we won't have any trouble finding survivors," she says. But she hopes that for assault survivors reckoning with a new and more disturbing world, her program can serve as a needed palliative.

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