With news reports continually sounding the alarm of the nation’s spiraling mental health, it is fair to assess our society’s overall health as feverish. Mental health challenges (even before the pandemic) were responsible for interrupting lives, especially those of young people. The Department of Health and Human Services states that 1 in 5 children aged 3 to 17 are diagnosed each year with an emotional, developmental, or behavioral disorder. Thankfully, organizations like Strongwater Farm Equestrian Center are ponying up to help reverse the trend.
Located in Tewksbury, Strongwater Farm facilitates therapeutic programs for children, youth, and adults with disabilities or emotional/behavioral challenges. Their mission is “to enhance and enrich lives through education, social opportunities, and emotional support through equine assisted activities.” In addition to personalized programs structured to improve clients’ physical, cognitive, and emotional health, staff also lead transition programs that help participants build workplace readiness skills such as cooperation, taking direction, and engaging in effective communication. While fees from families and various agencies help cover some of the program costs, the Catholic Health Foundation’s grant substantially underwrites the main therapies and programming.
Strongwater also works with seniors who are facing Alzheimer’s or dementia as well as veterans who suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. While riding horses is the most suitable therapy for some clients, other beneficial interactions include caring for the horses, grooming them, or simply observing them.
“Our currency is relationships,” says Joni “Jo” Bryan, Executive Director. “Trauma causes people to build armor around themselves. Horses break through that armor and help people open up in a different way.”
Reversing the effects of trauma and bringing healing into the lives of hurting children and adults is very personal to Jo as she herself is a victim of trauma. “I have been through trauma and horses have healed me. They have an amazing healing power; I am here because I believe in spreading that healing power to others.”
Participants experience a sense of real calm at Strongwater. The horses’ unconditionally accepting nature reduces anxiety, aggression, and can even alleviate depression. For participants working on physical functioning skills (such as eye contact, taking direction, improving communication skills), the horses become a friendly mirror in which they learn to see themselves.
“Horses reflect back to a person their own emotions,” Jo continues. “They convey messages through their every move – whether it is tail swishing, how they position their ears, etc. We can connect and draw strength from the messages they send us.”
Horses’ keen sense of observation and sensitivity to emotions help build clients’ self-awareness. Communicating calmly with a horse helps a client regulate their emotions and impulses and this can be very helpful to people who have had trouble engaging with traditional therapies.
“We once had a 30-year-old client in a wheelchair,” shares Martha Gaffney, Strongwater’s Board President. “She had been beaten severely, abandoned by her husband, and spent 6 months in a coma. Her goal was to stand again, just to stand. It took several sessions with one of our horses, but eventually she achieved her goal and was able to stand for a significant amount of time. The horses energized her and she, in turn, energized us with her incredible spirit.”
Everyone who comes to Strongwater Farm is on their own unique journey, working through his/her own brokenness. Rather than brushing off the shards, Strongwater Farm brings sense – horse sense – to situations such that individuals can find themselves back in the saddle of hope.
To learn more about Strongwater Farm, please visit: https://strongwaterfarm.org/.