Dale Phillips, a sexual abuse survivor, runs the equine therapy program at Bluff Plantation in Augusta, Georgia

By Tiare Dunlap
April 29, 2016 01:25 PM

Emily Davidoff overdosed on heroin 26 times before ending up in rehab in July of 2015.

“I was trying to kill myself,” the 24-year-old, now 10 months sober, tells PEOPLE. “I didn’t care about my life and I didn’t care about anybody else.”

It was during her third stint in rehab that Emily found the desire to keep living from an unlikely source: a horse.

“This horse had a story just like mine – she was abandoned and alone,” Emily recalls. “I never knew I could bond with an animal like that but I cried on that horse before I cried in front of anybody else.”

Emily made this connection through Bluff Plantation‘s a equine therapy program in Augusta, Georgia. Led by therapist Dale Phillips, the program aims to help individuals suffering from drug and alcohol addiction reexamine their past and behaviors through interacting with and caring for horses.

As Phillips explains, equine therapy often restores feelings people in the throes of addiction feel have been lost, like trust and responsibility.

Dale Phillips
Courtesy Bluff Plantation

“First thing’s first, to work with a horse you’ve got to earn its trust,” Philips, 36, says. “Anybody can saddle up a horse and ride him but to really, really have that connection you have to do the work.”

“And that’s how I set it up. I don’t give anybody that privilege until they’ve earned it,” he continues.

Phillips knows how working with horses can transform lives because he’s lived it himself. After being sexually abused beginning at 6 years old, Philips says his horse became “the only friend I had.”

“I don’t know what it was about her but even at times when I felt suicidal she always showed up when no one else did,” he says.

Despite the effect horses had on his young life, he didn’t think about how they could help others until he was 26 and began boarding a horse that belonged to a therapist on his Centerville, Tennessee, farm. Still reeling with anger issues from childhood, Phillips slowly opened up to the therapist during her nightly visits to her horse after learning that she, too, was a survivor of sexual assault and had struggled with alcoholism.

“Up until that point, I had never shared what had happened to me with anyone, but she gave me hope,” he recalls. “She taught me how to use what I already knew – working with horses and plants and growing stuff and having a simple way of life – to help myself heal.”

Dale Phillips rides a horse at Bluff Plantation
Courtesy Bluff Plantation

“I told her, ‘If I ever get all this stuff you’re telling me I’ll spend the rest of my life trying to give it back,’ ” he continues.

Now, Phillips has dedicated his life to paying that woman’s kindness forward. After becoming certified in equine-assisted psychotherapy, Phillips went on to launch four equine therapy programs at treatment centers around the U.S.

“It’s just a simple way of doing things,” he explains. “It’s about getting up in the morning and having something to take care of and a sense of responsibility – a horse will give you that.”

Dale Phillips leads a group in equine therapy
Courtesy Bluff Plantation

A Horse’s Story

In addition to giving back what has been lost, the horses help individuals in treatment better understand their own behaviors. Many of the horses used in Phillips’ program are former racehorses or have been rescued from abusive situations. The trauma the horses once suffered is easily relatable to the people in the programs, who are often able to see their own behaviors reflected back at them.

“For the longest time I was scared of one of the horses because she would try to bite me all the time,” recalls Emily. “Then Dale pulled me aside and said she was trying to push me away the same way I pushed away people in my life.”

“We were on the same level,” she continues. “As crazy as it sounds, that horse and me bonded in a spiritual way.”

Emily Davidoff
Courtesy Bluff Plantation

Phillips says he always tries to keep the horses’ backgrounds to himself until patients have formed bonds.

“I let the people in treatment form that relationship first because I want them to see that horse being successful and loving and gentle and caring,” he says. “Only once the person has fallen in love with that horse do I tell them what exactly they’re loving on.”

The horses aren’t the program’s only source of hope. Phillips inspires his patients by sharing his childhood abuse, the anger he carried for 20 years and how he found a way to use his struggle to help others.

“He was so open about the situation he was in and seeing how he came so far it made me feel like I don’t have to carry so much shame about my own abuse,” says Emily.

“He shared his experience growing up and what he did to fix it and that showed me that there is hope,” adds former patient Richard Spence, 30, who sought treatment for addiction to opiates and has now been sober for 9 months. “No matter what you’ve been through, there’s always hope.”

Richard Spence
Courtesy Bluff Plantation

Phillips plans to keep spreading that hope for as long as he can.

“If one person gets, it then it’s all been worth it,” he says. “I learned years ago that your story could save someone’s life so you can’t keep it inside. I’ve been able to help hundreds of people and I know that given the opportunity, people recover.”