Wallingford group offers equine therapy for veterans, first responders

WALLINGFORD — Soul Friends LLC offers a free six-session equine therapy program for veteran and first responder families to assist with communication after experiencing trauma or loss.

“What we’ve been doing is our Horses Inspire! curriculum,” said Kate Nicoll, chief executive officer of Soul Friends and a clinical social worker. “We adjusted it to work just on parent-child relationship building.”

Nicoll started Soul Friends 20 years ago after she faced a spinal injury. Due to a virus or autoimmune disease, she was diagnosed with transverse myelitis inflammation in her spinal cord near the neck in 2003. Her organization came about as a result of her seeing how animals responded to her pain.

“For 20 years, we were providing therapy dogs and small animal sessions in our office in Wallingford. Then 18 years ago, we started to do equine assisted therapy,” Nicoll said. “I grew up riding horses and my daughter rode horses. What I noticed is that since horses are prey animals and also herd animals, they give us a lot of feedback about how we are in connection, relationships, and how our bodies are responding to stress or change in the environment.”

Nicoll said her spinal cord has since been worsened as a result of the COVID vaccine leading to a long hospital stay, a stay at Gaylord and a return to rehabilitation therapy three times a week. This is called myelitis from adverse reaction of a COVID vaccine. However, she said she is very grateful to have gotten the vaccine.

About two years ago, Nicoll saw that the Latham Foundation for the Promotion of Humane Education, an organization based in California, had a $10,000 grant available to support veteran families. This program started being offered last year. Since receiving this first grant, the foundation has given Soul Friends another grant of $10,000 to pay for sessions for veteran and first responder families.

Nicoll said they are going to expand the program to assist foster and adoptive families.

“I was thinking about how horses could help improve parent-child communication and relationships for families who experienced trauma or loss, in particular for veterans and first responders who carry a lot for our country and for our community,” Nicoll said.

Soul Friends has presented this program at three international conferences and equine specialist Elisabeth Caplan said that they have seen a wide age range of children participate. Caplan works alongside a mental health specialist to help families reach goals like improved communication, relationship building and connecting with the horses.

“My role is really safety - animal safety, human safety - and helping humans to understand equine body language and how that could translate to how humans interact with each other. Horses are very transparent, they tell you exactly how they’re feeling,” Caplan said.

“If you’re feeling a certain way, let’s say you’re presenting a certain way and you’re smiling and all that, but inside you’re stressed or whatever, (horses) can absolutely feel that energy. It never fails to boggle my mind how accurate they are,” she added.

Sessions include activities like horse grooming, Caplan said. No riding takes place.

“How are you making that horse feel?” she said. “How do you feel while grooming? … It’s a very cathartic type of exercise.”

Nicoll said the horse gets to make a lot of choices during the sessions, such as whether they want to come close or stay far away.

The horses pick up on the family dynamic in the moment, Nicoll said.

“The family’s energy pings off of the horse’s as a herd’s energy versus our energy. A lot of stuff that normally isn’t talked about in office therapy gets presented to you right in the moment. It can be processed then or people leave the barn with curiosity,” she said.

Seeking grant funding

Nicoll said the organization is hoping to receive additional grants, such as American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funding from the Town of Wallingford, to help support this program.

People can also donate by going to www.soul-friends.org.

“It’s expensive, (horses) eat a lot of hay and grain, and of course (there is) their care, their consistent veterinary care and that’s if nothing arises,” Caplan said. “With any living being, things arise, so that part is very expensive. Even just maintaining the area that they are in, the barn and the fencing.”

Soul Friends works with three barns in Connecticut — Dream View Farm in Meriden, All The King’s Horses in Northford and Hillside Equestrian Meadows in Wolcott — that Nicoll said believe in the healing benefits of equine assisted therapy.

“These partnerships allow us to treat and provide services that are unique and innovative to more families in different areas,” Nicoll said.

“What we tie into (this specific program) is for families to work on their narrative of being a veteran or a first responder, what does that mean to them?” she said. “How does it affect their relationships? How does it affect boundary setting? Discipline?”

During the therapy sessions, Nicoll said Soul Friends pays for two staff members to be at each session, along with paying the barn for its use.

Soul Friends also received funding from the American Quarter Horse Association to train mental health providers and equine specialists in over five internationally recognized training programs. Nicoll said it was important for the staff to be trained in incorporating horses in clinical work.

The biggest takeaway from this program is how horses can help shift family roles, “and create an element of curiosity for families to have change,” Nicoll said. “It’s wonderful to watch.”

jsimms@record-journal.com203-317-2279Twitter: @jessica_simms99


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