For Mark Smith, a Canadian Forces veteran who is currently an RCMP member in Nanaimo, one of the most challenging and rewarding moments during the two-week Equine Assisted Mindfulness (EAM) program at Pen-Y-Bryn Farm in Kersley was the first time he went into the round pen with Hollywood, a horse lent to the program by Dale Dunn.
When Smith entered the round pen with Hollywood, a paint horse who had shown he was the boss of his pen of four horses, he had already worked with two other horses, including Guy, a sensitive horse who was much lower in the herd order than Hollywood.
Through this work, Smith learned what worked best for each individual horse and how best to communicate with them.
“The biggest moments for me would have been calming myself down enough to be able to get to a very timid horse,” he said.
“I knew that horse was timid and was going to be a very aggressive horse the next day, so I was very aggressive right off the bat with him, using high energy which only ended up frustrating him,” he said.
“I didn’t give him a chance to calm down and it didn’t work for him or me. [I learned] no matter what the situation is, zero is a good place to start.”
The EAM program, hosted by the Communities for Veterans Foundation (CVF) run by Paul and Terry Nichols, brought veterans from across Canada to Kersley from May 22 to June 3. Each veteran was paired with a horse and spent two weeks caring for him and learning to communicate and work with him, developing the skills to be a good leader and partner for the horse along the way. When not working with their equine partner, the veterans were immersed in farm life, with the goal of strengthening transition tools and thereby strengthening personal resiliency, relationships and families.
Kevin Quebec, a veteran from Calgary who served 11 years with the Calgary Highlanders, says learning to communicate with the horses had a big impact on him as well.
While working with the horses in the round pen, EAM participants learned from Terry Nichols that they have a range from zero to 10, and they can’t go in and start at 10. Quebec says that is one of the biggest lessons that he will take away from this program.
“If I stay at zero, I definitely get better results,” he said.
“I think this is definitely a tool I can use outside of this atmosphere. If you can connect with a horse mentally and I guess it’s spiritual too, I’m sure you can connect with people outside.”
Smith, who served 11 years in the Army with the Calgary Highlanders, the Royal Canadian Regiment and the Airborne Regiment and then joined the RCMP in 2002 and deployed to Afghanistan with the RCMP in 2011-12, says the EAM program has been beneficial because they’ve learned about horses’ herd mentality and learned communication skills to work effectively with the horses.
“I think what I’ve learned here is to be mindful of the situation and the people around you, to be mindful of yourself at the same time and to continually try to keep myself at an even keel so that I don’t inadvertently ramp up the herd or the group or the people,” he said.
Both Smith and Quebec say that having the community involved in the program – by bringing and cooking meals, for example – means a lot to them.
“Community is important on the veterans’ aspect,” Smith said.
“Canada isn’t a society that vocally honours our veterans and our service. I know when I left the Army in 1997, I was so upset with them, I felt my service was a waste to my country because I didn’t think my country acknowledged or understood my service. So it’s nice to have the community step up and want to serve us just for our service. It’s rewarding. It tells me that my service wasn’t for nothing.”
After spending two weeks at the EAM program, Quebec says he thinks “mindfulness” means “being in control of your thoughts and your mind.”
“We all have our issues and our triggers, but I do see these guys working through it,” he said.
“We know what our triggers are, but we’re using our mindfulness to control those triggers. If you’re going down that downward spiral, then mindfulness is to be able to recognize that and hopefully be able to turn that around.”
Quebec says he would tell any of his fellow veterans to get connected with this program.
“If you can’t afford it, go to the Legion, go to the Poppy Fund or your Regimental Association,” he said.
“Myself, I’m more than saying positive things about this course. Maybe it may not help everybody, but it stuck in my head what Paul has said, he doesn’t struggle with PTSD, he lives with it. That’s the same with me living with my major depression and anxiety. I never thought about it that way. I would say that would be the strongest phrase that I’ve heard.”
– Submitted by Lindsay Chung