A new peer support program in central Newfoundland is connecting people with understanding ears — and 1,200-pound mammals.
The Stable Way introduces its participants to horses, their owners and other horse lovers in Grand Falls-Windsor.
The volunteers behind the program say the relationships they've formed with their animals have become powerful sources of healing and confidence — especially during the COVID-19 pandemic — and they want to help others develop that same sense of trust and love.
"I say it to everybody when we're working with the horses … the fact that this horse wants to be by you, you can see them relaxing around you, it means that they trust you and they feel your confidence.'" said Christina Loder, who owns one of the horses stabled at the barn.
"Horses read people very well and they don't want to be anywhere that's not safe."
Participants are matched with individual horses — volunteers say barn owner Kathie Lane has a great sense of which relationships will work — and they begin to learn the basics of grooming, feeding and caring for the animals.
The group was formed three months ago at the Adventure Stables barn in Grand Falls-Windsor.
Along with riding lessons, the Adventure Stables barn is also home to AHH Wellness, a more intensive therapy program. During the COVID-19 pandemic, Lane said, she and other horse lovers wanted to share the benefits of animal therapy with a wider audience.
"I think everybody right now is suffering. Every person in the world has some problem with everything that's on the go," Lane said. "We found that the horses were helping us and they all said, 'Let's get together, let's put the program in that we want to help everyone.'"
Amanda Rice, who is now a peer supporter with the group, says she instantly connected with Buddy, a 15-year-old horse in the program.
Rice says Buddy has been an invaluable tool in helping her recover from a traumatic vehicle accident.
"As silly as it's going to sound, it's his eyes. When I was front-on to him and he looked at me, it was just like an instant connection," she said. "He just looked at you and he just breathed deep with me. And that was it. That's when the connection started."
The program leaders say each horse has a very specific personality, and that makes some pairings a natural fit.
Sometimes though, the horse seems to pick their client.
"We have seen circumstances where we've brought the client out to meet the horses and then a specific horse will actually walk up to the client and nudge them and nuzzle them," said Angel Osmond. "It's quite obvious that they want to spend time with that person."
Osmond, a trained social worker, can help connect clients with other programs, if needed. She said the peer support group offers something unique: a connection to animals, peer supporters and all the benefits of being outside in the sunshine and fresh air.
She's seen the benefits first-hand. In 2018, she lost her mom to a lengthy illness, and a few months later her 19-year-old brother was killed in a car accident.
"It was a really hard time for me," she said.
"I was coming down here to help out and really spent a lot of time with the horses. And every time I would leave, I would just feel so much better. And it was so powerful."