Sunday, September 22, 2002

Alive and Well

A zookeeper's life reaches 'full circle'

        It is a thrilling moment: I have been walking in a circle with Grace, a sweet, black horse who just met me an hour ago. Yet, when I reverse my direction, she turns, too, following me despite the absence of tether or lead. An invisible bond of trust connects us.

        This magic called “Join-Up” has occurred, Laurie Stober tells me, because I have communicated with the horse in a language she understands, a language of respect.

        This language is the basis of Ms. Stober's “Full Circle Therapy,” designed to build self-esteem and confidence for kids who have been abused, neglected or marginalized due to disability.

        “You take a kid who is used to being told by teachers to be quiet, to be still, who feels they are never listened to,” Ms. Stober explains, “and bring them out to a farm where they have choices, and they begin to feel control over their lives.”

        The first choice might be which of the six horses (three full-sized, three miniature) to work with. If horses are too threatening, Ms. Stober has other options — basketball, ping-pong, a fishing pond, or just hanging out in the renovated barn, petting cats or dogs, and inhaling that sweet smell of hay.

        With a philosophy that blends spirituality, psychology and a love of animals, Ms. Stober says she committed herself to helping others when she was the recipient of tremendous kindness 12 years ago. Ms. Stober, a zookeeper, lost her hand and forearm to a polar bear at feeding time and almost lost her life.

        As physicians, physical therapists, teachers at the College of Mount St. Joseph and others reached out to her with warmth and reassurance, she knew she wanted to give support to others someday.

        Initially, she envisioned herself leading retreats for people in crisis. She added her love of sports and animals to create what would become her unique brand of therapy.

        At 25, she had not attended college. Today, she has two master's degrees and experience in teaching and counseling. An athlete before her injury, she determined how to continue doing the things she loved. An avid runner, swimmer and cyclist, (the only adaptation being hand brakes on her bike), she has learned to love the activities more for themselves than for the competitive factor.

        Full Circle gets its name from Ms. Stober's own journey. When she finished taking her board exams for a license to counsel, she rewarded her little boy, Luke, by keeping a promise that they could do anything he wanted. He chose a trip to the zoo, where Ms. Stober had not intended to return.

        Today, rather than shying away from large animals, she cares for horses every day, rides them and uses the effect of relating to these creatures in her therapy.

        As a demonstration, she tells me to yank the lead, force the horse to come toward me.

        Naturally, this is next to impossible to do. Next, she demonstrates how effortlessly horse follows human once trust and respect have resulted in the Join-Up. If cooperation and mutual respect can work with a horse, she tells kids, the same techniques can work to build relationships with a resistant friend or teacher.

        “I don't want to be just a therapist or just an animal person,” Ms. Stober says. “I want to combine everything I have here in my own blend of therapy, to put kids who have never been out of the city in touch with nature, and kids who have never had power over their own lives the experience of bonding with a horse.”

        For more information on Full Circle, Laurie Stober can be reached via e-mail at
       Contact Deborah Kendrick by phone: 673-4474; fax: 321-6430; e-mail:



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