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

HARRISON — 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 in Falmouth not only to raise money for a larger site, but also to add certified mental health practitioners to address mental health needs and addiction recovery and start programs for veterans.

Tim Hayes, who hosts equine-assisted therapeutic sessions across the country, will run the event Saturday, Aug. 29, at Ashland Farm in Falmouth, where attendees may participate in therapeutic sessions or just observe. Hayes 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,” by St. Martin’s Press.

Equine therapy can help those who have a hard time connecting with other people, or worry about being judged, Hayes said. Working with clients as they work with 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, but the person is unable to.

Annabelle Cayer, who participates with Horse and Rider Connection, connects with a horse. Courtesy photo

“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 event is geared toward introducing people to the idea of equine-assisted therapy, he said, with an aim to also connect with educators and those already working in equine therapy.

“Horses have hypervigilance; because they stay alive from avoidance, their sensory mechanisms 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.”

Clare Thomas-Pino, who teaches Animal Assisted Interactions and Anthrozoology at the University of Southern Maine, said, “(M)aking 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.”

Thomas-Pino, a researcher for the school on human-equine interactions and equine-assisted activities and therapies at USM, notes that an event of this type isn’t therapy, but is “therapeutic.” 

For an event to be considered therapy, the instructor needs to have specific mental health counseling certifications; the idea is for Horse and Rider Connection to raise money to gain those certifications.

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

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

Salamone said the organization wants to relocate in Westbrook because the city is easier to access for clients who want to join the program but can’t drive, which includes most of the teens 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,” Salamone said. “We are really looking at different ways to grow and help more people while focusing on emotional health for teens.”

Debbie Little, a trainer and riding instructor, started Horse and Rider Connection 10 years ago. Salamone said Little saw the program as “a way to help” some of her teenage students who had trust issues, were stressed and sometimes had other mental health problems.

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.

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 and CDC rules will be observed, including face masks. Those who are interested in more information can visit horsesandhumans.org or horseandriderconnection.org.

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