Yes, they are celebrities but what else to they have in common?... They've all taken part in equine-assisted therapy.
The next question is: What is equine-assisted therapy? Well, instead of lying on a couch while a doctor takes notes, you are in a corral with a horse, an equine specialist and a psychotherapist to learn about yourself through non-verbal communication with a horse... of course! (No, it's not Mr Ed).
The HELP program is a confidential, three-day retreat offered to first responders (police, fire, ambulance or dispatch) and active or veteran military service members who face post-traumatic stress and operational injuries. The programming is conducted from the ground, there's no riding of the horses and so experience with horses is not necessary.
“We are not telling them how to change or how to do whatever, it's about figuring things out for themselves,” said Ryan Theriault, founder and proprietor of Tranquil Acres. “It's about holding the space for them to heal. It's nothing to do with 'you should do this or you should be doing that.' It's allowing them to discover their own route.”
Equine therapy is becoming more recognized for its psychological benefits for adults with depression and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). It's especially good for people who aren't inclined to take part in traditional talk therapy. You may be able to forget a session with your counselor a week later, but it's unlikely you will forget break-through moments you have while interacting with a thousand pound animal like a horse.
And no matter who I've talked with about this kind of therapy (including one of my own police service members), they have a hard time explaining exactly how it works, but agree it's a very powerful experience.
One Ottawa Police Services (OPS) member I spoke with about equine therapy said her young children gave her feedback on her parenting and the therapy opened communications she and her two children had not reached before.
The basis of the therapy is that horses are very sensitive to how people are feeling and will respond. They pick up on body language and feelings of stress or anger and mirror it back. And it's somewhere in this type of interaction that a break-through can happen.
“As soon as I went into the pen with the horse I felt uneasy, but as the session went on I relaxed and started to focus on myself and how I felt in a way I'd not been able to for years. A lot was about being outdoors,” wrote Tina Robertson, 43, who lives near Newcastle, England and had three sessions of equine-assisted therapy with an EAGALA-trained team (Equine Assisted Growth and Learning Association).
In her blog entry for the Guardian/Observer, Robertson added, “I swear the horse began to behave like my ex-husband at one point. It's hard to explain how it works: I was focusing on interacting with this huge animal and then I'd stand back and talk to the counselors about how I was feeling and suddenly see these huge parallels in how I was behaving in my life and how low I was letting my self-esteem sink.
“I don't know why it worked, but I feel it saved me from that very dark place,” Robertson concluded in her blog post entitled: Horse therapy saved me from a very dark place.
“The program itself was awesome. I came away from it feeling like I had explored myself and my feelings and emotions around PTSD in a different way that I never really had before,” said Staff-Sergeant Brian Knowler, a 15-year member of the OPP, Chatham-Kent detachment.
Knowler was the first officer on scene of a fatal car accident in 2005 that involved his close friend he'd been to university with. His friend died in his arms as he attempted CPR. Knowler describes pushing his feelings down until going on leave for PTSD in 2012. Once back at work, he went public about his experience in 2014 and is now an anti-stigma advocate.
“Basically, (the HELP retreat) was a chance to be around horses and explore things through interacting with them. I was skeptical at first, but after three days I realized it was very therapeutic and since then I've recommended it to other first responders with PTSD as something unique to try so they can see their PTSD from a different light.”
Theriault started Tranquil Acres three years ago, bringing to fruition his dreams to work with horses and to help people. Housed on ten acres in South Kars, Tranquil Acres offers family and group equine assisted psychotherapy including corporate workshops, personal growth and development sessions as well as beginner horsemanship and riding lessons.
Tranquil Acres also includes a guest house snuggled in the trees on nine acres just five kilometres from the ranch. This is where HELP retreat participants stay and catered meals are served.
The next HELP retreat is scheduled for April 27 to 29, 2015. Theriault said he has several first responders interested to attend the next retreat but would require subsidy to do so. If you would like to donate toward the program (a for-profit organization), please contact Ryan Theriault.
Theriault has seven horses that were re-homed to his ranch along with one miniature horse, a donkey and of course, two barn cats.
Equine-assisted therapy at Tranquil Acres is overseen by a master's level psychotherapist and one-hour sessions may qualify for insurance reimbursement. Please check with your insurance provider.