PITTSFIELD — Hayley Sumner ran a bicoastal public relations agency from Los Angeles that worked with high-powered clients like Howard Stern and Donald Trump. The glitz and glamour were nice, and part of the game, but what Sumner said she really enjoyed about the work was assisting nonprofit agencies. She often would provide her services to them for free.
"You can say that I have a for-profit taste with a very big nonprofit heart," Sumner said. "It's a very difficult thing to reconcile."
The helping part of Sumner's personality eventually won out over the business side. So, the New York City native left behind the California lifestyle, and after short detours to Montana and Kentucky, she eventually came to the Berkshires, where she had spent time growing up.
Sumner is the founder and executive director of Berkshire HorseWorks, a 7-acre ranch in Richmond that provides equine therapy under guidelines provided by the Equine Assisted Growth and Learning Association for those struggling with emotional issues or seeking personal growth.
We spoke with Sumner recently about where the idea for Berkshire HorseWorks came from, how equine therapy works, why she left behind the California lifestyle, and how working with horses compares with her interactions with some of her former clients.
Q: How did you come up with the idea for Berkshire HorseWorks?
A: I think the manifestation of what we're doing at Berkshire HorseWorks right now is a 10-year-old girl's fulfillment of a summer camp dream and the business plan that she had written way back then.
Q: How did that all play out?
A: I grew up in New York City. My parents, instead of sending me to some of the foo-foo camps, sent me to a farm camp on Cape Cod when I was 6 to 11. That was probably the most informative experience I've had in my life. ...
What you had to do there was work on animal duty, and you had to pick whatever it was ... taking care of the horses, or milking the heifers, or getting eggs from the hens. It changed every week. ... Once you got a feeling for these animals, it was a very holistic kind of environment. ...
I think at that point, I was maybe 10 years old; I wrote a business plan where I said I want to have a working ranch and farm for at-risk kids.
I think back on that as I watch what happened through COVID here, what Berkshire HorseWorks was pre-COVID, during COVID and now as we extricate ourselves from the pandemic. It has evolved more into that lake farm camp without it being a camp, sort of a therapeutic wellness camp or a combination of that. ... To that end, we're actually evolving our mission statement right now.
Q: How is it changing?
A: It used to be our mission was to transform lives through the powerful interaction with horses using the EAGALA model of equine-assisted psychotherapy, equine-assisted learning, and team building. [But], we are not doing just EAGALA work, because COVID made that virtually impossible. ...
We had to pivot to what is really working here. The thing that is the nature of all this is the horse and the intuitive nature of horses and the incredible magical impact that they have on people's lives. So, our new mission statement is to transform lives through the powerful interaction of horses, period. In that way, we have been able to add in activities that we were not doing before.
Q: Why did you leave the California lifestyle to come here and do this?
A: I had a public relations firm in New York and LA for 20 years. The scope of the work was everything from crisis communications to work for the entertainment companies to the major awards shows, like the Academy Awards.
The part that I loved most was doing the nonprofit sector. As a firm, we would always offer our expertise, pro bono, to organizations. ...
One particular client really got me thinking a lot. I represented the Division of Pediatric Neurosurgery at New York University Medical Center, and this brilliant surgeon named Fred Epstein, who would selflessly do surgeries on spinal cord tumors and surgeries that no one would ever do. His selfless work really translated out into my work out in LA and really cultivated my work with nonprofits.
[In Los Angeles], you keep up with the Joneses organically. You have the house, you have the car, you have this parking spot. ... I was just done with it, frankly. So, I rented an RV and drove cross-country after a big merger deal I had done with two entertainment companies. I ended up on the Blackfoot Indian reservation with my dog in the middle of Montana. That's where my love for horses really came out.
Q: How did you become involved with equine therapy?
A: I was in the RV, and I was driving through Kentucky, which is not exactly a destination for a New York girl. But, I wound up there. My father had always brought me to auctions here in the Berkshires and let me hold the paddles. I drove to Keeneland, and the thoroughbred auctions were happening. ... I wound up buying a 6-month-old yearling.
I moved to Kentucky to learn as much as I could, as quickly as I could, about the breeding business. While I was there, I got certified in EAGALA.
Q: How does the equine therapy that is overseen by EAGALA work?
A: It's solutions-focused, meaning we believe the client always has the answers if given the space to actually come up with them, and it's always facilitated as a team. ... We work in tandem to achieve [a participant's] treatment or personal goal. ... A curriculum is developed.
Let's say you're working with inmates that are about to be emancipated. Let's say they've all had trouble, and establishing healthy relationships is the goal for that eight-week session. So, the curriculum is identifying their strengths focused on their resources and their triggers.
During the activities, we as a treatment team are looking for shifts in patterns and discrepancies; the reaction of the horse to the clients' discrepancies and the clients' reaction to the horses. ... The participants are really sort of empowered by the lessons that are learned as the horses and the humans work together.
Q: Why did you originally go into public relations?
A: Because Christiane Amanpour took my job. ... I majored in communications, project journalism and art history [at Northwestern University]. I really wanted to be an investigative journalist that would see the world and go to bomb zones and try to report on the injustices of the world.
I got a little derailed after college. After working for different news stations, I was recruited to this ad agency and went to work for this P.R. firm. I interned at Young & Rubicam (a global branding agency now known as VMLY&R).
Q: Who is harder work to work with: horses, or clients like Howard Stern and Donald Trump?
A: Horses are quieter, but they say a lot more that's worth something. I say that not in relation to Howard Stern. He's one of the most brilliant people I've ever met. ... As far as the other person, I worked on opening Mar-a-Lago [Trump's resort, and now residence, in Florida]. ... A lot of my career, I did a lot of the big, bad boys. Harvey Weinstein was my client. A lot of the men were gentlemen, and a lot of them are not.