As Paul and Terry Nichols made their way across Canada with Communities for Veterans: the Ride Across Canada, it became evident the relationship between the horses and the veterans made a big difference, even for the short time they interacted. It was Terry’s job to prepare veterans, most who had never ridden before, to learn the basic skills it would take to ensure both rider and horse was safe as they navigated the roads and byways of each province.
“We knew this was right and there was strong grassroots support during the ride for this type of therapy,” Terry said.
Already well-versed in the value and skills necessary to teach the Equine Assisted Mindfulness (EAM) program, Terry discussed with Paul and their volunteers about delivering the program to veterans from Pen-Y-Bryn Farm in Quesnel, Paul and Terry’s home.
They knew they needed to provide EAM programs for veterans and upon returning home in 2015 they immediately began to plan for their first program in May 2016. They formed the Communities for Veterans Foundation with an elected board and concrete goals for the future. They invited veterans to sign up for that first program and seven answered the call.
“It was all and more than we hoped for,” Paul said.
“The feedback from veteran participants has been very positive, life changing.”
Terry added every single participant went home with tools and more skills and fresh insights.
Participants came from as far away as New Brunswick, Quesnel and Ontario as well as here in the west.
The program has national reach and application, Paul said.
Each participant brought his own individual issues stemming from his military service and the indelible mark it left on each and every one of them.
For one participant who served in Bosnia in the 1990s, his first comment on arriving was “don’t expect me to stay, I’m not staying.”
Terry thoughtfully called Lejla Muratspahic, a former Bosnian resident now living in Quesnel. As it turned out the veteran has served in her community during his time in Bosnia.
He revealed one of his tasks in Bosnia was to enter a community and collect all the firearms.
He then learned troops came in the next day and slaughtered those helpless, unarmed Bosnian residents.
He blamed himself for those deaths and had lived with that for more than 20 years.
Lejla spoke with the veteran, validated all the good she and her fellow villagers experienced with Canadian soldiers.
The next day, the veteran was a changed man, he opened up and was hooked on the program, staying until the very end.
Perhaps the most touching moment with this veteran was when he gave Paul his regimental coin. This coin is significant for every soldier, it identifies you and validates who you are and what you’ve done. To give his away to Paul was his way of challenging Paul and Terry to continue with this program. It made such a difference in his life and he wants other veterans to have the same chance.
“It shows we change lives,” Terry said as she wiped away tears.
“The tools are very powerful. They help the veteran transition to a very different civilian world.”
Paul and Terry explained how the military world depended on quick decisions, often made on the fly, adapted quickly and you live and die by your decisions, however in the civilian world, nothing moves quickly and danger isn’t necessarily around every corner. There’s time to stop and be mindful of the beauty and serenity life offers.
“Hopefully we will remain a little voice that says slow down, be in the moment,” Terry said.
Paul added the veterans learned it was okay to acknowledge their stress and pain and work within it. The three steps needed are acknowledgement; discussion; and taking responsibility for your own physical and mental health.
“That includes a support network and a sense of purpose,” Paul said.
“And part of that is seeking the support they need.”
The program was all about steps, taking the steps as you can. For some it took several days before they could sit at the dinner table with their back to the door.
However, at the kitchen table in Terry and Paul’s home, they talked, had moments shared, laughed, cried, were honest and connected and most of all did a lot of breathing.
For Terry the transformations she witnessed in their veteran participants and in the community members that have taken part in the program have been significantly positive.
“We have all learned from each other and we as individuals are now stronger and so is our community,” she said.
For Terry and Paul this first farm EAM program was not only a validation of what they believed was needed, but also a time for them to experience the transformations as they were happening. They also needed to remain in the moment.
The horses, oh the horses! Terry spoke of how horses can provide an awareness of who we are and how we interact in our world. They reflect back to us with incredible accuracy and sometimes what we see can be difficult to accept and even more difficult to change.
Horses are patient.
“They wait while we play in this muddy place of uncertainty, change and discomfort,” she said.
“They keep us waiting while we try some new ways of interacting but aren’t clear. They wait through our frustration and anger and miscommunication. They wait. And then when we are able to give them what they have been waiting for – sensitive and strong leadership, clear communication, living in the moment, true connection – then the reflection in our mirror starts to change and something deep within us starts to change as well.”
For both Terry and Paul it was remarkable to see how invested the veteran participants were in the entire program, from working with the horses, to the farm chores, general duty jobs and cleaning up.
“The veteran participants were preparing the farm for future participants, they wanted to help,” Paul said.
“I see the participants learning new tools and taking a leadership role, mentoring other military veterans.”
When asked for one word to describe the experience Paul and Terry chose very different words.
Another EAM program is planned for September at Pen-Y-Bryn Farm.