Paul Nichols says he’s a different person because of his association with horses and he’s taking that conviction on the road, bringing horses as the vehicle for awareness.
As a former Calgary Highlander with service in the 2nd Battalion Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry in the Medak Pocket operation in Croatia in 1993, Paul is well aware of the troubles and loneliness which accompany veterans returning to civilian
“I think we have a responsibility to bring awareness to Canadians and let them know that our veterans are living quietly among us every day. Some of our veterans need help adjusting and I personally know that timely help can change a life.”
This Canadian Veteran is knee-deep in preparations for a cross-Canada tour which, through the use of horses, will bring awareness to Canadian communities of the great need to celebrate returning veterans and to also recognize the physical and mental health challenges of many of these veterans.
Communities for Veterans (CFV) is a non-profit, charitable organization which Nichols started, with The Ride Across Canada (TRAC) as its sole project to date.
“I think this is timely recognition of the Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and other illness and disabilities veterans experience as they return home to their communities,” Paul said.
“It’s not like when people who signed up did so from their home community, now military personnel sign up in large centres and deploy out of large central bases. When they return home they tend to be invisible and must try to fit into the community. Their experiences are difficult for civilians to understand.”
Currently CFV/TRAC are working on the logistics of the project.
Paul’s wife Terry and daughter Kirsten will also be on TRAC.
Terry will be in advance of Paul, bringing a crew with horses, trailers and trucks.
They will set up a base in a community and connect with veterans and provide basic horsemanship training.
Kirsten will act as the groom, looking after the horses and helping her mother who is a fully trained therapeutic riding instructor.
The training is free to veterans.
Paul then arrives and he, along with three riding veterans, trained by Terry, will travel to the next community (average of 30 – 35 km a day), bringing visibility and awareness as they go.
TRAC crew members will also collect stories from participating veterans which will then be organized and shared with people across Canada.
They plan to have eight horses in total to allow for resting the horses and accommodating the training program.
Others are invited to join on their own horses but must be cleared through Terry’s base of operations in each community.
With plans to set off in April 2015, Paul hopes to be in Newfoundland for Remembrance Day 2015.
Although the challenges of organizing such an ambitious tour are huge, Paul isn’t concerned.
“It’s just like a route march in the military,” he said with a smile.
“I’ve done lots of that when I was deployed to Bosnia and other military operations. It doesn’t scare me. It’s all about how you manage it. You find the right people in the right job and then get out of the way let them do their job.”
He added one thing the military does very well is move – people, equipment, artillery, etc.
E-mails and Facebook contacts are flooding in every day with people stepping up and offering to assist in organizing in their area.
He has considerable support in both B.C. and Alberta (where Paul deployed from when on active duty) and across the country people are hearing about TRAC
and asking how they can help.
“The word is out in the military community and spreading to the RCMP mounted divisions and others,” Paul said.
In each community Terry and her crew will require a location where they can work with the veterans and the horses and other support, this is where local assistance will come from those who have offered to help.
In addition to the equine activities, there will be awareness information and veterans will be asked to proudly display their military affiliation.
CFV is also soliciting donations through a sponsorship package allowing community groups and businesses to help.
“As well as donations on the road, anything above our expenses goes to veteran programs such as Wounded Warriors Canada, Soldier On and others,” Paul said.
He was pleased to say Alberta Carriage Supply is contributing a carriage for veterans who are unable to physically ride.
There will never be more than four official horses on the ride and Paul is confident he can manage green riders with good horses.
He will be riding his own horse Zoe who has been with him since he began associating with horses. He credits her for changing his life as have his ever expanding connection to horses. The family farm Pen-Y-Bryn, south of Kersley, is a riding centre and they have partnered with Quesnel’s therapeutic riding centre (CHAAPS) to operate a successful program out of their facility. The farm is certified through both the B.C. Therapeutic Riding Association and the Canadian Therapeutic Riding Association.
While Paul is on a year-long, leave-of-absence from his job at Cariboo Pulp and Paper and Terry and Kirsten are on the road, eldest daughter Jordan will be looking after the farm along with their bed and breakfast operation.
Currently, Paul and Terry are looking for horses for the tour. In addition to young and fit, the horses must have the proper temperament and conditioning to endure the stress of continuous riding.
“We have good people sourcing out the right horses – breed associations in Alberta, regional police departments and military ceremonial mounted groups – we’ll find them,” he said.
The tour begins in Quesnel with Paul and three veterans riding to Pen-Y-Bryn farm. From there they’ll trailer everything to Vancouver and head east from there.
As much as possible they plan to ride on trails and secondary roads.
“We’ll be going all the way to Newfoundland and if we can arrange it, the three territories as well,” he said.
“This ride can change the face of Canadian veterans. Not many people realize the average age of a Canadian vet is 35 years old.”
To contact Communities for Veterans, The Ride Across Canada, go to their Facebook page of the same name.