Horse and Rider Connection participant Annabelle Cayer connects with a horse. Courtesy photo

WESTBROOK — The Horse and Rider Connection, a nonprofit therapeutic program in Harrison that specializes in helping teens and young adults, is hoping to find a new home in Westbrook.

The organization is kicking off a capital campaign to raise money for an as yet undetermined site in the city. It is seeking room to expand to include certified mental health practitioners who can also help with addiction recovery and to provide services for veterans.

Board member Laurel Salamone said they want to relocate to Westbrook because the city is easier to access for clients who want to join the program but can’t drive, like the majority of the teenagers Horse and Rider Connection works with.

“We want to bring more people down, host workshops, bring in clinicians to work with us and the horses. We are really looking at different ways to grow and help more people while focusing on emotional health for teens,” she said.

Debbie Little, a trainer and riding instructor, started Horse and Rider Connection 10 years ago. Salamone said Little recognized that some of her teenage students had trust issues and were stressed, along with other mental health problem areas, and “saw a way to help.”

Being a teenager is just crummy. It’s a long haul. (Little) knew as a trainer that horses have this ability to draw out what the kids are going through, what they are dealing with, as if it gave them a voice in a way,” Salamone said.

Tim Hayes, who hosts equine-assisted therapeutic sessions across the country, said horses are great tools for therapy.

“Horses have hypervigilance, because they stay alive from avoidance. Their sensory mechanism like smell, taste, touch and sight are the best of any animals,” Hayes said. “So when it comes to equine therapy, those qualities make them terrific therapists for people, they are mirrors of what we are approaching them with.”

Hayes will run the kick-off fundraising event for the Horse and Rider Connection Aug. 29 at Ashland Farm in Falmouth, where attendees may participate directly or just watch. He teaches equine therapy courses at the University of Vermont and Northern Vermont University and is the author of “Riding Home: The Power of Horses to Heal,” published by St. Martin’s Press.

Equine therapy can benefit people who have a hard time connecting with other people or who worry about being judged, Hayes said. Working with them as they work with the horses can uncover obstacles to their mental health.

“As an example, sometimes I will ask someone to just pick up the foot of a horse,” Hayes said, and they are unable to.

“I’ll chime in and ask ‘What’s going on?’ They’ll say they’ve never worked with a horse and I’ll ask why they didn’t ask for help,” Hayes said. “All of a sudden, they are talking about how they are afraid of looking stupid when asking for help, which can bring in some memories from the past, and we can work through them.

“In two minutes, I’m finding out the person has lived with this painful feeling of never asking for help because of what happened when a child, and they’ve carried it with them,” Hayes said.

The fundraising event is geared towards introducing people to the idea of equine-assisted therapy, he said.

Clare Thomas-Pino teaches Animal-Assisted Interactions and Anthrozoology at the University of Southern Maine and conducts research on human-equine interactions and equine-assisted activities and therapies.

She said “making connection with something living, a being, that is larger than you, that has a lot of power but that actually wants to interact with you to achieve goals, can be transforming.”

“Horses are very responsive beings. One of the problems with talk therapy is we are talking. A large percentage of what we do but are unaware of is body language, so the horse is responding not only to body language but pheromones,” she said.

She notes that there’s a difference between therapeutic events, like the upcoming fundraiser, and actual equine therapy. Those who want more information following the event, should visit horsesandhumans.org, she said.

The event will allow Horse and Rider Connection to gauge what services draw the most interest and help it determine where in Westbrook to look for a new site, Salamone said.

Ashland Farm is located at 75 Babbidge Road in Falmouth. Tickets for the 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday event are $250 to work with the horses or $25 for spectators.

The location is large enough to allow social distancing, Salamone said, and CDC rules will be observed, including face masks.

Tim Hayes, left, works with someone through equine therapy, which he says especially helps those who have a hard time connecting with people. Courtesy photo

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