Fifty kilometres east of Regina is the small town of Qu’appelle, Sask. Tucked into this town with a population under one thousand is Double T Ranch, a far from regular horse ranch operated by Tanya and Todd McNeice.
The two are recovering addicts hoping to use their life lessons to positively impact others. “We have 24 years of clean time between the two of us. We’ve taken that bad path over the years and now we want to be able to help others who going through trauma, addiction and anything else,” said Todd McNiece.
After experiencing the healing and personal growth their own horses gave them, they decided to dedicate their ranch to Equine Assisted Learning (EAL). They travelled to Alberta to train to become EAL certified facilitators.
“It’s kind of making up for our past,” he said. “Being able to give back and being able to help others is the best feeling in the world.”
EAL is an alternative or complementary component of various types of therapy. Participants take part in objective-driven exercises with the horses to build life skills that can encourage healing and improve mental health.
Double T Ranch uses the Building Block Program, a 12-week curriculum designed after a study completed by the University of Regina, University of Saskatchewan and the University of Calgary.
The program is open to anyone, but it can be especially effective for those who have difficulty in traditional counselling atmospheres and are dealing with addiction, disease or mental health struggles.
“Everybody is emotional that comes through this program, it really gets to the heart of things. It really digs deep,” said Todd.
He added horses rely mostly on flight as a means of defense, so they have highly astute instincts and senses, and are always aware of their surroundings.
“They can feel your heartbeat from four feet away,” said Tanya. “At that point, they can actually tune that heartbeat to yours and when they do that, you will see a huge 1200 pound representation of what’s going on inside you. You can’t put on a mask with them”
Keith Olberg is a skeptic turned believer.
“I had a lot of apprehension coming in here on how a horse is going to fix my situation. I followed them on social media, but I was like is this for me? I don’t know,” he recalled.
Olberg was diagnosed with stage three colon cancer in September 2019. A month he underwent colon surgery that left him with over thirty staples in his body. Currently, he’s undergoing an 18-week chemotherapy program.
With the pressure of staying strong while caring for his young daughter, Olberg decided to step out of his comfort zone to give EAL an open-minded try.
“I came through that door, with a whole bunch of worry, resentment, anger and any other thing that I could dig up and find I carried with me,” he remembered.
All that changed once he went on a walk with his horse “Journey.” For 45 minutes, he was exactly where he needed to be in this moment of his life.
“I learnt this horse was a great secret keeper, wonderful listener. The horse knew I was there to not harm it, to protect it. And the horse just wanted to pull all of those negative things out of me.”
At one point Olberg was overcome with emotion and knelt down in the sand. “I dumped so much fear and worry in that sand. I couldn’t believe it, I looked over and that horse was on its knees too. I don’t know if it was praying like I was but it was definitely listening to whatever I was throwing down,” he said.
It was Journey’s attentive listening that reminded Olberg of the important of being a great listener.
“I think we fail at that sometimes. We fail at the watching for body language, eye contact, sincerity in the voice, pitches in the voice. This horse had it all, it knew the art of conversation.”
For once, Olberg’s mind stopped racing.
“When I left I just felt like I was going to be OK. I turned it from being bitter to making it better.”
After just one session, he’s seen changes in how he interacts with his family during his battle with cancer. “I was sheltering my kids from struggles, I don’t do that anymore. They can see me struggle but they aren’t going to see me quit,” he stated.
Double T Ranch offers both the 12-week Building Block Program and custom programs. Recently, they partnered with the Regina Sexual Centre to help those healing from sexual violence trauma.
They are currently in works of building a partnership with Ranch Erhlo and correctional institutions.