Featured In Unique Muskoka Magazine
We are excited to be featured in an article by Unique Muskoka Magazine about the healing nature of horses capturing the unique horse human experiences here at Back of Beyond Equine Centre.
HEALING WITH HORSES
ARTICLE BY DALE PEACOCK | PHOTOGRAPHY BY KELLY HOLLINSHEAD | WWW.UNIQUEMUSKOKA.COM
Anyone who has ever spent any time around horses knows there is something special about being in their presence. Tricia and Sheldon Hunter, who have three children with autism, have witnessed firsthand the transformative power of horses. “Our son, Stewart, has friends and gets invited to play dates now,” Trisha says of the change she has seen in her son since he began taking part in a local Equine Assisted Personal Development (EAPD) program. “It really changed his life from one of isolation to inclusion.”
When a friend recommended an EAPD program at Back of Beyond Equine Centre for her then eight-year-old son, Tricia was willing to give it a try. “Before weekly coaching, Stewie would say things that hurt or angered people, and he’d keep on saying them, not understanding the effect he had on others. All of that has changed,” she says. “Stewie’s horse, Annie, and his coach, Kelly, helped him to develop empathy by learning to read non-verbal cues.”
Back of Beyond co-owner Cathy Foyston is not surprised: “We have seen broken hearts and spirits restored many times through interactions with the horses. We have seen the horses ease the pain of losing a loved one, give individuals confidence to overcome mental/physical challenges and restore hope to despairing and shattered hearts,” she says. She adds, “Horses can’t lie, which makes them especially powerful messengers and teachers.”
Located halfway between Huntsville and Port Sydney, Back of Beyond is owned by Foyston and her husband Bill Statten. The 95-acre farm is the realization of a lifetime dream, and is the home of a wide variety of Equine Assisted Learning (EAL) programs for children and adults. Royston is certified to teach EAL and has a background in working with special needs and at-risk youth. Staten is an experienced driver and all-around handyman who loves to take the big Percherons out on the trails.
Sometimes even the helpers come to Back of Beyond carrying a burden. “I’d lost my last horse in a very dramatic event,” recounts Liz Prosser, a certified Equine Assisted Learning specialist from Bracebridge who works mostly with children. “I carried a great deal of guilt and pain around with me and didn’t feel worthy or sure I should ever have another horse.” But with the support and guidance from Foyston and Statten, she was able to forge a very different and beautiful relationship with a mare named Cleo. She reflects, “I take lessons back to my life from the barn and know, without a doubt, that I am a better person for it.” Prosper adds, “For my students, I observe that at every session the horse’s intuitive nature and their stoic and steadfast presence require the children to be calm, consistent, fair-minded and patient.”
The EAL exercises look like play, but they are tools that help the horse and human connect on a level that goes beyond words. EAL involves setting up ground activities involving the horses – no riding will take place – that require the participant or group to learn, develop and apply certain skills. “Non-verbal communication, assertiveness, creative thinking, problem solving and leadership are among the many skills where EAL places the focus,” says Kelly Jacobsen, an Equine Guided Education Specialist and EAPD instructor from Baysville. “It is one of my big-picture goals that people will come to appreciate that horses aren’t just for riding. We hike, play games and just be with them.”
EAL is backed by scientific research where horses are the teachers and humans are facilitators. Equine therapy is experiential in nature, meaning that participants learn about themselves and others by participating in activities with the horses. Later, feelings, behaviours and patterns are processed during a debriefing session.
Huntsville resident Linnea Vanamo had just arrived from Finland when she took the Women & Horses program at Back of Beyond. “We Finns don’t use a lot of words. The horses have helped me to fit in and feel comfortable and grounded in this new country,” says Vanamo, who has been volunteering ever since. “They have given me such a does of self-confidence that I’ve made friends here and in the larger community.”
Elaine Abbott of Huntsville can also vouch for how horses can change lives. “I was in the process of climbing back from being in in a pretty low place when I first came to Back of Beyond,” she recalls. “My confidence – even my spirit – felt broken because in the course of a short time my mom passed away, my marriage ended and my kids grew up and moved on. All the ‘hats’ we wear as women – mother, wife, daughter – were stripped away and it was only then when I realized how much those roles had defined me. I had to think about who I was and what I wanted for a change.” She adds, “The greatest gift for me was in learning about boundaries from the horses. When faced with setting a boundary with a dominant 1,200-pound horse, you have to truly stand in your strength and assert your needs.” She laughs, “I learned that it was okay for me to insist on boundaries. It was really empowering.
Foyston smiles as she looks around the grounds at paddocks holding 25 horses, many of them rescues. “We are a bit like the Island of Misfit Toys here,” she says affectionately, referencing the movie of the same name about a place where misfits gather and spend time. “Some of our horses came from horrendous situations. They were cast offs but what’s amazing about them is that after all they have suffered, they don’t hold grudges and they still have so much to give.”
One pony rules the roost, though, because he is a natural leader. “Apollo is small, but mighty, and kids especially love to see that,” Foyston says, laughing. “Horses value security above all else. They are not going to follow a leader that doesn’t have their back when the lion comes prowling!”
EAL and other equine therapies may be a new concept for some, but it has a long history. The Greeks documented the horse’s therapeutic value in 600 BC, while riding as a form of therapy for children and adults with disabilities gained acceptance in the 1960s. Winston Churchill famously said, “There is something about the outside of a horse that is good for the inside of a man.”
More recently, horses are being used to help first responders and war vets overcome post-traumatic stress disorder. They have also been successfully used to help people overcome alcohol and drug addictions, and to help people of all ages overcome mental, social and physical challenges. “Horses are sensitive, non-judgemental teachers.” Jaconsen says. “They are innately intuitive and because they are prey animals, as well as herd animals, they can pick up on subtle shifts in the emotional environment and mirror it back to the human.” She adds, “The purpose of EAL is to provide participant adults and children the opportunity to connect with, and come to understand, their subconscious and inner self.”
Everyone at Back of Beyond jokes about the farm’s “vortex.” Time doesn’t exist. Abbott laughs, “I always intend to come to spend an hour or two with the horses and these wonderful people but when I finally get back to my car I see that the whole day has just gone! I thank Cathy for this place every time I’m there.” She pauses, “It just fills me up.”