INTERVIEW BY Martha Thomas PORTRAIT BY Mary C. Gardella


Brenda von Rautenkranz’s business, Fit for Life, offers personal training and motivational therapy-in-ringspeaking. She’s familiar to many in Howard County for her video program “Fit and Fabulous,” about healthy eating and exercise. Recently, von Rautenkranz completed her master’s degree in professional counseling at Loyola University to become a licensed mental health therapist. Last spring, she and her husband, Walter von Rautenkranz, opened vR Growth and Learning Center, an equine therapy facility at their farm in Sykesville.

Q You’ve reinvented yourself in ways that aren’t total 180s, but more evolutionary, adding to or enhancing your existing skills when you decide to try something new.

I was a school teacher and loved helping kids, but that wasn’t enough. I also encouraged the kids to eat well, to exercise. I was always interested in fitness. So I trained as a trainer so I could use it in the schools. But it still wasn’t enough. I started to realize that most of the problems people have are in their minds. If you’re helping them to work out on a weekday, on the weekend they’ll go back to their same bad habits and come to you on Monday and say they’re sorry.

I wanted to know why this was happening, so I went back to school in my 50s to learn all these strategies and techniques to help people. That’s why I went into psychotherapy.

Q Do you use psychotherapy in your fitness training?

I am faster as a personal trainer because I can get into their issues.

Q What inspired your interest in equine therapy?

I realized that sitting in an office to do psychotherapy doesn’t always work. Some people need other things to help them. I’ve always known that horses can be healing. I’ve been riding since I was 13 and training horses for years. So I went and got certified in programs to help people in the arena. We moved the office outdoors.

Q How do horses help?

Horses provide a metaphoric experience. Someone might say, “Look at the way that horse moved away from me, it’s just like my father always did.” Horses mirror us. Whatever we’re feeling, they will feel it.

Another thing, when a client starts touching the horse it brings their blood pressure down. Some people come with anxiety, and man, the first time the horse comes to them, it’s huge.

Animals can make you feel peaceful. People will come out here, and they say, “Gosh I feel so peaceful, I wish I could be this peaceful all the time.” They feel peaceful when they’re touching the horse, peaceful out here in the countryside. So I ask them, “What’s something you can do on your own?” Maybe they can’t get a horse, but they could spend a little more time outdoors, maybe could eat healthy food. It all goes together. If you eat bad food you feel bad. When people start eating better, they feel better. When they feel better, they act better.

Q What kinds of exercises do your clients do with the horses?

We use props like noodles, cones and teddy bears. The client can pick up something that is meaningful to them and then ask the horses to come inside with them.

Q What do you mean by come inside?

They create a space that is what they feel their world should look like. Then we ask them to pick a horse and bring the horse into their world. Usually the horse has no halter, so they have to touch and kind of gather the horse to move with them. When they get that horse inside their area and they’re petting it, it’s like, wow.

Q Does it work with couples counseling?

It’s the best. You put two horses in there, you put two people ready for a divorce; you give them something to do and it all comes up. I say, “I want each of you take one horse.” They have to work as a team. One will say, “You’re bossing me around with this horse, just like you boss me around all the time.” Once these things come up, you can start to fix them.

Q Are people ever afraid of the horse?

It’s better if they do have some fear. Life is about fear. The majority of people are somewhat afraid, and once they conquer that fear, they can conquer other fears.

Q Tell me about a specific experience with a client.

I was working with a little boy on anger management. I took him in to see a horse that’s 17 hands tall (about 5’ 8” at the withers). He looks up and says, “This reminds me of the bully who picks on me every day.” That would never have come up in a therapy room. Now we can have a dialogue. I can ask, “What does this bully do?” He’s stroking this big horse and I say, “It’s scary, isn’t it?” And he says, “Yeah, but I think I can handle it.” A breathing animal brings these things to life.

Q Did you have animals when you were a kid?

I was always into animals, any animal, skunks, geese. I was just an animal nut.

Q Wait, you had a skunk?

They de-scent them. I kept him in the house. I have had a pig in the house here.

Q When did you get your first horse?

My parents divorced when I was 13. I got a horse when I was 14. I’d been asking for it since I was a little tiny girl. I took a horse that nobody wanted, the ugliest palomino. I turned her into the most beautiful horse. That was healing for me; I fixed something. At the beginning, people said that’s an ugly horse. But I saw something beautiful in her. She was my life. I had her for 34 years.

Q Did you talk to her?

I’d sit on a bale of hay in the stall with the horse. I don’t know if they understand, but they get our heart. *

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