Animal therapy: Manitoba farm lets horses do the healing

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The pandemic has pushed some people's mental health to new lows, but one Manitoba farm has found a way to bring support to people through a connection with horses. Global's Anya Nazeravich has the story – Jun 5, 2021

A few months ago, Jaymie Hladun could barely leave her house.

She was mentally at her worst, saying her anxiety was so severe she almost cancelled her first appointment at Symatree Farm for Equine-Assisted Mentoring and Psychotherapy.

Now, she calls the farm her home away from home.

“I absolutely love coming here,” said Hladun.

COVID-19 plummeted her mental health to the worst state it has ever been.

“I found myself at home, I couldn’t leave the house,” she said. “My anxiety was just overwhelmingly bad.”

Read more: Mental health services demand, wait lists steadily increasing amid third wave: Psychologist

Hladun said some people with anxiety may thrive during the pandemic because you can stay at home and don’t need to leave, but Symatree Farm gets you out of your comfort zone.

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“You feel comfortable, you feel safe to come here because it’s a space that just welcomes you,” she said.

Owner Kathy Asseiro calls herself and her staff “horse experts,” not experts on mental health — saying they leave that to the animals.

The 23 horses at the farm, located just past Oakbank, Man., are all rescues, arriving with what Asseiro calls their own trauma and anxieties.

Hladun bonded with a “midi” horse, Sterling, and said their friendship started when he put his head on her shoulder.

“That’s when I knew he was my horse,” said Hladun.

Watch: Mental health toll of COVID-19 pandemic on youth

Together, they work on their confidence. Hladun said Sterling didn’t like leaving his home either, so they started going on walks together.

“He helped me, and I helped him,” Hladun said

It’s a common theme at Symatree, according to Asseiro, who said you can see the same behaviours in the horses that you do in people.

While the staff at the farm don’t focus on what your diagnosis is, Asseiro thinks that’s what makes the environment one-of-a-kind.

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“What a lot of people need is that opportunity to just be themselves in a situation where they can shine,” the owner said.

Asseiro, who is an Advanced Equine Assisted Learning (EAL) facilitator, is joined by clinical psychologist Dr. Kelly Penner a few times a week when she brings her clients for Equine-Assisted Therapy.

However, Asseiro’s goal for the farm is to simply be a wellness centre, giving people the chance to find alternative ways to treat their mental health.

Read more: ‘They’re barely hanging on’: Teenagers reflect on mental health amid COVID-19 pandemic

Right now, Symatree Farm is offering free meet and greets on Wednesdays as a way to encourage people to safely do something for themselves during the pandemic.

Hladune said she can’t thank her partner horse enough for the friendship he’s given her, and for feeling comfortable expanding their comfort zones together.

“I’d thank him for giving me a purpose.”

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