October 17, 2016 – The privilege of experiencing time alone with horses is something that many in this industry may take for granted. For some, it’s so much more. By Chris Lomon
It’s a scene Constable Maureen Andrew has witnessed countless times, but something she never tires of seeing –- the almost immediate bond between horse and human.
As one of the founders of HOPE (Horses Offering People Encouragement), a therapeutic horsemanship program that unites retired racehorses with the community’s most vulnerable citizens, Andrew marvels at the interactions that take place, connections that don’t always involve verbal communication.
And while she admittedly can’t differentiate between a pacer and a trotter, Andrew’s affinity and appreciation for the retired horses utilized by HOPE through the Ontario Standardbred Adoption Society (OSAS) — who assist with the adoption and relocation of retired and non-racing standardbreds within Ontario — continues to grow.
“This program and the horses, they fill a void,” said Andrew, who works with Halton Regional Police Service’s COMMANDE (Community, Mobilization and Engagement) policing initiative. “It’s medicine for the soul. Perhaps they didn’t make the grade on the racetrack, or they’ve had to contend with an injury, but these horses, through OSAS, are given a second opportunity. Sometimes you see that hopelessness, a loneliness in their eyes, but with HOPE, they can make a connection with people. When they look at each other, eyes light up.”
It’s a common occurrence for the program that was originally a five-week pilot project launched in 2014 in partnership with LongRun Thoroughbred Retirement Society, Woodbine Entertainment Group and COMMANDE, ‘which encourages and supports community involvement and social development in order to have a sustainable effect on community safety, security and wellbeing through non-traditional programs.’
HOPE has grown significantly in scope and stature since then. This year, there will be six sessions offered, three for adults and three for elementary-aged children. Each session runs two hours, one day a week, for six weeks.
Participants receive hands-on training in basic horsemanship skills like grooming, herd dynamics and horse anatomy, all from experienced horse caretakers.
After originally teaming with Windrush Farm, the site where program participants would gather, HOPE is now partnered with the 30-acre High Stakes Farm, located in Moffat, run by Standardbred Canada Chair of the Board and COSA (Central Ontario Standardbred Association) Director, Joanne Colville.
“We’re able to offer a great deal of variety to people,” said Colville. “We have horses of all sizes, and we have rabbits as well as other animals. It’s a modern day petting zoo. There’s also a pond if people just want to enjoy the serenity of country life. We want people to feel comfortable and welcome when they are here.”
While plenty has changed for HOPE — whose financial sponsorship comes from Woodbine Entertainment Group and COSA — in a relatively short period of time, moments like Andrew described are still commonplace.
“There was a horse –- we’ve named her Jewel — that Joanne has on her farm,” started Andrew. “She was a little standoffish at first, maybe a little scared or overwhelmed by things. There was one girl – Jewel wouldn’t come to anyone else -– but they just came together. The girl went up to her, not a word was said, and Jewel put her head on her shoulder. It went on for 10-15 minutes. It was incredible.
“When we asked her if she was talking to the horse, she looked up and said, ‘No, we’re just together.’ There were tears in everyone’s eyes. The kids -– they are just incredible.”
Andrew affords the same compliment for the Standardbreds.
“In many instances, there is something missing for these people,” she said. “These horses help change that. Whatever people need the program to be, it is.”
Jan Johnson would certainly know.
Her 26-year-old daughter, Natalie, suffers with Developmental Delays, Attention Deficit-Hyperactivity Disorder, Anxiety Disorder, behavioural issues and cognitive delays.
Physically and verbally able to manage, Natalie has difficulty with transitions, new situations and loud noises. She suffers from a lack of confidence and often won’t try something for fear she won’t be able to do it, holding her back from a variety of opportunities and experiences.
“Natalie has attended two series of HOPE sessions at two different stables, over the course of about 14 months,” noted Jan. “To see her bloom under the guidance of her instructor, Mandy, brings tears to our eyes. It has given Natalie a sense of accomplishment and boosted her self-confidence to no end. To know that she can approach these magnificent animals and actually help them, all by herself, was beyond her comprehension before. She feels in control and empowered and loves every minute of it. Her newfound self-confidence is just amazing to see. We can even relate every day issues to her work with the horses.”
In those moments, Jan reminds her daughter of a certain HOPE horse.
“If Natalie gets impatient waiting in line and complains to me about why it’s not our turn yet, I remind her of one particular horse, Jay, who continually kicks the stall door if he sees other horses being fed treats and we are not paying him attention,” said Jan. “We can discuss how it’s not polite for Jay to kick the stall, just as it’s not polite for Natalie to be impatient.”
HOPE has been an eye-opening experience for both mother and daughter.
“Having never been around horses growing up, it was quite an education for me to see the interaction,” offered Jan. “The owners and the staff at the stable are open and warm and are incredibly good role models for the HOPE program attendees. They have taught Natalie to respect the horse’s space, just as you would with people. Natalie is quite fearless around the horses as she’s accepted this rule and knows which angle to approach them and where not to touch them if they don’t like it. When she is brushing the sides of these big horses, she lays her hands and the side of her face on them and just melts into them.
“She loves to hear their heartbeat and truly feels ‘as one’ with the horse,” continued Jan. “She has learned their personality traits and remembers all of their names, which is quite an accomplishment for her. She is learning new things each week and is being challenged. As a mother, this new self-esteem is an amazing thing to see.”
Natalie has also made visits to High Stakes, outside of HOPE, to spend time with the horses and the other animals.
“She’s come back and gone on tours with my daughter, Emma,” said Colville. “That says something about all of this. The volunteers – myself, Emma, Jean Posthuma, Katie Panko and Shirley McLean – have developed relationships with people through HOPE that are truly magical.”
For Andrew, they’re all ideal examples of HOPE’s lasting impact on the people and families connected with the program, one she would love to see expand in the coming years.
“It would be wonderful to have more sessions,” she said. “We have a growing support system and hopefully, HOPE can continue to grow.”
Johnson has the same wish.
“The more people that can experience this, the better,” she said. “It opens up possibilities that I did not think would be there for my daughter and has made a profound difference in her life. She has found a purpose and a confidence around the horses that is heart-warming and is something that she can move forward with in other areas of her life.
“My daughter is involved in all areas of the horse’s care and it has given her such a sense of accomplishment,” continued Jan. “She is proud to tell her family and friends what she has been doing at the stables and can’t wait to get there the next week. She has been invited to attend Mohawk (Racetrack) and get a ‘backstage’ look at what happens at the races, continuing her education on the horses. It has had a therapeutic effect on her behaviour and has boosted her confidence. She feels safe, welcomed and loved each and every time she attends the stables. Every vulnerable person should have that opportunity. We are so thankful that she has had a chance to feel ‘normal’ here.”