Strongwater Farm Therapeutic Equestrian Center, Inc., is a place of tranquil beauty. Nestled among 450 acres of rolling hills and tall pines in Tewksbury, MA, the PATH Intl. Premier Accredited Center has brought healing and inner peace to hundreds of participants since it was founded in 1998. Three years ago, Strongwater Farm began offering the Change of Lead program to bring those same benefits to individuals struggling with substance and alcohol addictions. In partnership with the Glenice Sheehan House, a women’s addiction recovery facility, the center developed a program to introduce residents to the natural calming effect of horses through therapeutic horsemanship in mounted and unmounted sessions. Interacting with the horses requires total attention to the moment, which becomes an integral part of the recovery process. Developing a sense of purpose is equally important, and all Change of Lead participants also volunteer at the center.
Forging a Partnership
For some PATH Intl. Member Centers, it can be a challenge to find recovery programs that are close enough to their facilities for accessibility purposes. Strongwater is fortunate that the farm is situated on the site of Tewksbury Hospital. Although the center is neither part of the hospital nor a state agency and receives no federal or state funding, the Department of Mental Health, Department of Public Health, Transitional Age Youth and the Glenice Sheehan House are at its back door.
Collaboration between the Glenice Sheehan House and Strongwater Farm did not take much effort as both missions are quite similar (see the Glenice Sheehan’s Women’s Program on page 30). After discussing both organizations’ needs, mutual guidelines were developed. First, there is a 30-day wait period before residents are eligible to take part in the Change of Lead program. During that time the women must show commitment and respect and abide by house rules. At this point, the management teams from both organizations, which includes Sheehan House Director Chris Turner and counselor Sharon Roberts, meet and review six potential candidates.
The six participants selected to enter the program begin a seven-week session on horsemanship, in which they learn about equine and herd dynamics and behavior, as well as skills such as haltering, leading, etc. Each participant learns how closely relationships among equines and within the herd resemble interactions among humans and then each experiences this during sessions. Phase 1 is set up strictly for unmounted activities and includes horse and human expressive art, a holistic program that ties hands-on, unmounted activities with specially designed multimedia art projects. Phase 2 incorporates mounted time, if appropriate. Classes are offered as a group or, on rare occasions, individually, which is dependent on a participant’s particular needs.
Often, the women who eventually join Change of Lead have strolled the grounds to the state park that adjoins the farm and stopped by for a visit. Strongwater Farm has also been invited to the Sheehan House to share the work the center does and how it impacts the lives of people in their community. Understanding how Strongwater Farm benefits those who face many varied physical, mental and emotional challenges inspires residents to enter the program, volunteer and work with purpose. This helps them to set aside negative thoughts, stop dwelling on themselves and focus on how they can change and encourage others to change.
Similar to the Glenice Sheehan House, which specializes in treating women over 45 years of age, is Megan’s House for women of 18-26 years. While Megan’s House is not located on the same campus, both programs are similar in the recovery respect. Residents from both houses participate in the same Change of Lead program at different days and times. Although there can be different dynamics between these age groups due to life experiences, careers, families, etc., the common denominator is that all the women are trying to reconnect with life again. Individuals coming to recovery programs often have lost everything— family, friends and jobs—and the Glenice Sheehan House provides a place where they can regroup, recover and begin the reintegration process.
How Horses Help
Therapeutic horsemanship can be an integral part of the participants’ recovery. That is because horses do not judge people on how they look or how they behaved in the past. As prey animals, they are dependent on their keen observation and ability to read a herd’s social cues for survival. Their responses come from their innate sensitivity to any changes in their environment. Thus, they pay close attention to the emotions and intentions a person is projecting. If someone is angry, for instance, the person’s body language will “speak” this anger, and the horse will react to the person’s animosity.
Partnering with the horses in both mounted and unmounted activities develops awareness by increasing the participants’ ability to self-reflect on their emotional state, an important step in their recovery. Participants become more mindful of their body language, energy and internal states. The straightforwardness of the behavioral interactions and communication between horse and participant are quite clear and teach people through honest, direct communication. The power and size of the horse may also increase a participant’s awareness of vulnerability, power or control.
During the Change of Lead sessions and in volunteering, participants work with PATH Intl. Certified Instructors, a PATH Intl. Certified Equine Specialist in Mental Health and Learning and volunteer horse handlers. Staff from the Glenice Sheehan House and Megan’s House are always welcome upon their discretion. There may be times where it may be more comfortable for the women to be independent of house staff to create more open communication with the Strongwater staff.
Being unconditionally accepted by the horses, who react to them without preconceived judgment, has done wonders for participants in the Change of Lead program. These women have experienced significant improvement in their social skills, communication, trust, self-confidence, self-efficacy, perspective, assertiveness, and ability to set appropriate boundaries, according to Turner. Decreased anger, anxiety and depression are also evident. In their interactions in the program, the participants began asking for help with clear direction, initiating conversations with their heads held high, sharing and being honest.
These therapeutic horsemanship activities tie into the center’s horse and human expressive art program. Taught by an instructor with a master’s degree in expressive art therapy, this activity improves posture and eye contact, increases vocabulary and speech skills and promotes relaxation. The real benefit for the Change of Lead participants, however, is how this creative expression helps them contact their inner self and identify their emotions and reactions by transmitting the thoughts and feelings evoked by the presence and touch of the horse on to paper or canvas. This may be done by a word, poem, drawing, music or photo. Working in community with one another to create an emotionally meaningful piece of artwork can be powerfully healing for these participants.
In order to keep sober and remain clean, a person needs to have a purpose, so service becomes a major part of the recovery process. Relapsing is largely due to loneliness, isolation and having too much free time on one’s hands. So following the program residents continue to volunteer and connect with staff and other participants and volunteers. The women volunteer to become sidewalkers and leaders and assist with barn chores, events and preparing home-cooked meals for the Bedford VA Veteran groups. An added bonus is that members of both groups, along with center staff, sit around the dinner table to enjoy a meal, talk together and socialize, something many of the women and veterans have been lacking in their lives.
A Resident's Rebirth
In October 2013, Jean, formerly a registered nurse at a local hospital, became a resident of the Glenice Sheehan House due to alcohol addiction. During her first visit to the farm, she recalls how she enjoyed the peaceful surroundings and gentle souls she met. She considers Strongwater, “a sacred place, a place of spiritual healing.”
Facing the challenges of addiction head-on, Jean was determined to overcome them. She began volunteering within 30 days of arriving at Glenice Sheehan. As center staff came to know her personality and were impressed with her loyalty, commitment and desire to learn more about horses, they told her she could work as many mornings as she wanted. To their surprise and great pleasure, she came out every morning!
Working with other staff members, Jean learned about the relationships that can develop with horses given the proper time, trust, commitment, and care. Later she began helping with apportioning grain/feed, supplements, and medications for each horse. She was quite forthcoming in noting that the center needed to be aware that a number of these medications could be addictive for those in recovery. This spoke highly of her integrity, honesty, and commitment to both communities and the safety of others. During this time, her recovery was fully taking shape. She graduated from the Glenice Sheehan House and moved to Saving Grace Sober House.
She continued on her healing path and kept deepening her understanding of horses, their behavior, health and overall care. Each morning as she led the horses out to paddocks, she would eagerly discuss safety, proper handling, etc., with staff. Later this led to her becoming a leader and sidewalker. After going through months of not being depended upon, she was now someone on whom others depended very much. Jean soon began taking riding lessons to increase her knowledge base.
The crossover between Jean’s skills as a nurse caring for people to handling the “nursing” care of the center’s horses was extremely evident. Jean had a natural ability to see signs of distress, injury, and lameness. She was as observant of the herd as she had been with her former patients, and this made her a strong addition to the Strongwater team. Often she would state, “Being physical helps me in mind, body, and soul; the environment is my church.”
In April 2014, it was the center’s privilege and honor to offer her a position at Strongwater Farm as the barn support staff. She is currently working six to seven days per week. Mentoring other Glenice Sheehan House residents who come to the farm for support, she openly shares her story with those seeking recovery here. She advises them that they do not have to worry about being labeled or treated differently at the center. “Similar to seeing through the eyes of a horse, Strongwater staff and volunteers treat you with respect and understanding,” she said. “They are a wonderful support group. In their eyes, you are another volunteer and not a client in rehab. Addiction breaks one’s spirits. Horses give that spirit back.”
Patti Lessard is the director of operations and programming at the Strongwater Farm Therapeutic Equestrian Center in Tewksbury, MA.
Shared with permission from the Summer 2016 issue of PATH Intl. Strides.