Equine therapy lets veterans take the reins

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Article / December 23, 2015 / Project number: 15-0216

Ottawa, Ontario  — Horses are often seen as a symbol of wildness and independence, but a herd of horses actually has a hierarchy – just like the military.

That’s just one of the reasons that the husband and wife team of Terry and Paul Nichols believe horses are ideal partners in helping military veterans adjust as they return to civilian life.

It is the mission of the Community for Veterans Foundation, which the couple co-founded two years ago. The organization is based at their family farm in Quesnel, British Columbia but they recently went national and completed an ambitious, eight-month cross-Canada trek during which Paul rode Skip, a golden palomino, through cities and towns from Victoria to St. John’s, where the ride wrapped up November 9, 2015.

“The idea of the Ride Across Canada was to reintroduce the Canadian people to their Veterans and to really raise awareness of the changing face of the Canadian Veteran,” Paul said. “So often in this country when we think of Veterans, the old black and white film reels come to mind and we think of storming the beaches at Normandy. We don’t often think of the other three generations that have served since the Second World War. The Canadian people love their Veterans, it’s just we sometimes forget who they are.”

Building awareness was only the beginning.  At each stop, local Veterans were invited to actually experience the horse-assisted therapy program that Terry Nichols offers. By the ride’s end, more than 350 Veterans had participated.

“Horses have a need for that military style of leadership but they also have a need for civilian sensitivities,” Terry explained. “And that you have an awareness of how they’re doing, what they’re thinking about. That you can feel them, that you’re sensitive in directing them. And when those two pieces come together, the horses have what they need and when the horses have what they need they are relaxed, they are attentive and they are motivated. And when we have horses that are relaxed, attentive and motivated, it’s effortless to ride them. And it feels good.”

Equine Assisted Mindfulness is the formal name for Terry’s work. It is not well understood in Canada as yet, she said, though equine therapy and psychotherapy are practiced fairly widely. A 2011 study published in the Journal of Social Work Practice found “the relationships and experiences the participants had with the horses contributed to them gaining psychosocial benefits” including empathy, self-confidence and self-esteem. In July 2015, Veterans Affairs Canada allocated more than $250,000 for two studies on equine therapy.

Sergeant Graham Ridley of 2 Combat Engineer Regiment in Pembroke, Ontario, participated in the Ottawa stop of the ride. In January 2009, he was riding in an armoured vehicle in Afghanistan’s Kandahar province when it was struck by an IED blast that killed the driver, Sapper Sean Greenfield. He said the equine therapy he has received through the Petawawa-based War Horse Project has helped him deal with panic attacks and other fallout from the experience.

“It helps keep you grounded; it helps keep you calm. For me, one of the biggest things is the confidence. I lost a lot of confidence when I came home, lost the nerve for a lot of things. But here I am working with these great big animals that have minds of their own and it teaches you very quickly that, yeah, you’ve still got it.”

Paul Nichols served with the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry in the former Yugoslavia where, in March 1993, he took part in the Battle of Medak Pocket. While the mission was a UN peacekeeping effort, Canadian and French troops were forced to defend themselves from an attack by Croatian forces. He left the military a few years later and relocated to Terry’s hometown of Quesnel, where the couple started their family.

“He came home and people would say, ‘He was just a peacekeeper. It couldn’t have been that bad,’” Terry recalled. “And he stopped telling the stories and he found it difficult to transition into the community. We didn’t have an understanding between the two of us of how to bridge that gap in that culture and understanding.”

“There’s not a strong connection to the military in the interior of British Columbia,” Paul added. “So I struggled. Fast forward a few years and I had a woman recognize the crest on my jacket. I was just on a shopping trip in Vancouver. She asked me about it and I told her about my military service and she asked because she had lived in Sarajevo. And she shared her story and said ‘Thank you.’ She was crying, I was crying. I realized then there’s power in a shared story. I no longer had to question the value of my service, the sacrifice. Because here I’ve got a complete stranger in a shop in Vancouver telling me it was worthwhile. I needed to give my brothers the same opportunity for that thank you and that connection to community.”

Although she did not own horses of her own until adulthood, Terry has ridden since she was a child and introduced Paul to it. She operates a summer riding program for young girls at the family farm as well as therapeutic riding courses. The couple have also trained Canadian Rangers, who patrol remote areas of Canada’s north, in horsemanship.

Paul is now a Ranger himself and emphasized that, while he was the face of the Ride Across Canada, the focus is on his comrades.

“I hear the same story of disconnect in community going home to the next generation of troops that are serving. It was through discussion with them about that connection I had in Vancouver that led us to this ride and giving the other 360 that joined me the opportunity for that same connection to community. And so it’s not just one person’s voice as we’re riding across the county.”

By Steven Fouchard, Army Public Affairs

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